When you invite a god to be with you, you want to be a good host. Being a good host for human guests always includes offering them food and drink. So the ancient peoples of the Middle East offered their gods bread and cake.
In his book Leviticus, 20th-century scholar Jacob Milgrom noted: “In Egypt the offerings are placed on the outer altar, but only the fresh bread and cakes are brought into the sanctuary and laid on mats (together with incense) before the god’s table … Ritual bread laying was an early custom in Mesopotamia, appearing in a Sumerian inscription of Urukagina of Lagash (c. 2340 BCE). Babylonians laid sweet unleavened bread before various deities, in twelves or multiples of twelve.”
The book of Exodus/Shemot describes the three holy containers in the inner sanctum of the Israelites’ sanctuary: the gold lampstand (menorah) for making light, the gold incense altar for making fragrant smoke, and the small gold-plated table for displaying bread. The display itself is only described in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, in this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“say”). It begins:
You shall take fine flour, and you shall bake it into twelve challot; a challah shall be two tenths [of an eyfah in size]. And you shall put them in two rows, six in each row, upon the ritually-pure table in front of God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 24:5-6)
challah (חַלָּה), plural challot = loaf or cake made of finely-ground wheat flour, leavened or unleavened, probably pierced with one or more holes (from the root verb chalal (חָלַל) = pierced through).
Half of the 14 references to challah in the Hebrew Bible specify that the challah shall be unleavened (matzah); in these cases, part of the challah is destined to be burned up on the altar, where leavening is banned. However, when the challah is destined to be eaten by people, it can be sourdough. (A thanksgiving offering, according to Leviticus 7:13, requires both unleavened challah to burn on the altar and leavened challah for people to eat.)
Other cultures in the ancient Middle East laid out bread in front of statues of their gods, and replaced the bread every day. The Israelites are forbidden to make a statue of their god, but the bread table stands in front of the innermost room of the tent, where God’s presence manifests over the ark. The bread is replaced only once a week. The twelve loaves are strictly symbolic; nobody pretends that God eats them. In fact, the Torah orders the priests to eat the week-old challot after the fresh loaves are laid out.
And you shall place as an addition to each row clear frankincense, and it shall become a memorial-portion for the bread, a fire-offering to God. Sabbath day after sabbath day it shall be arranged in rows in front of God, perpetually, as a covenant from the children of Israel forever. And it shall be for Aaron and for his sons; and he shall eat it in a holy place, because it is most holy for him, out of the fire-offerings of God; [this is] a decree forever. (Leviticus 24:7-9)
Unlike the unleavened challot people bring as offerings, the challot on the display table are never burned on the altar. Every seven days the priests set out fresh-baked challot and two new bowls of frankincense. They burn the previous week’s frankincense, so God can enjoy the fragrance (see my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy). Then the priests eat the stale bread.
This week’s Torah portion is the only place in the Hebrew Bible that calls the bread on the sanctuary table challah. Elsewhere it is simply “bread in rows” or “the bread of panim”, the bread that faces God. (See my post Terumah: Bread of Faces.) The twelve challot represent the twelve tribes of Israel, all lined up in front of God.
One might imagine each challah as a fluffy braided loaf, since that is what the challah that Jews eat on Shabbat today looks like. But the root of the word challah is challal, which means “pierced through”. The Torah uses the verb challal most often for fatal wounds, but the word also applies to window-openings in walls and to certain loaves or cakes. Thus the challot in the Israelite sanctuary and temples might have looked like large bagels.
(Talmudic rabbis, considering the small size of the table—2 cubits by 1 cubit, about 4 square feet—speculated that each challah must have been shaped like a lidless rectangular box, so that one row would stack neatly on top of the other with no gaps. But since we do not know how much flour is in two-tenths of an eyfah, nor how dense the bread was, the table might just as well have held two rows of six bagel-shaped challot, one in front of the other.)
Does the shape matter? I think so. Bread begins as grain that grows as a gift from God or nature. But then humans add a lot of labor to transform that grain into bread. When we display our own creative work to God, are we showing off or expressing gratitude? A continuous loaf with no holes is full of itself; it leaves no empty spaces for God to fill. But a loaf with a hole in the middle says: “The center of my life is for You to fill with Your inspiration. I am building my life around that holy hole.”
That is what I want to say to the divine presence inside me.