There is only one Hebrew letter like this one. It is intangible as a breath, yet encompasses the breadth of human thought, speech, and action. This letter is insubstantial, and yet it is the source of creation. When taken together with other letters, it represents the divine name. When it stands alone, this letter represents the very nature of G!d. It represents compassion and unity, brokenness and disparity. Giving and receiving.
Unlike the others of the Aleph-Bet, this one is inviolable.
It is the letter Hei.
So teaches Rabbi Akiva in his commentary to the Hebrew Letters. 1.
I have spent today contemplating the Hei, the Hay, the Hey. What makes this letter differ from all other letters? How does it relate to our weekly sedra, Shelach?
Spying & Eating
Shelach tells the story of the twelve spies sent by Moses to scout out the Promised Land. Each spy was a respected leader of one of the twelve tribes. However, though the land they scouted was fertile and bounteous, though they came back to camp with arms heavy with the fruits of the Promised Land, they brought back an evil report that spread through the Jewish people like a virus.
The resulting loss of faith in their leaders, driven by the loss of faith in themselves, exacted tragic consequences. Because of the Jewish people’s lack of confidence, courage, and strength, because they gave in to their deepest fears, the generation of freed slaves who had escaped servitude in Egypt (those same people who had witnessed divine miracles in the desert) lost their privilege to enter the Land of Israel.
What stands out to me in this sedra is the overwhelming fixation on one thing in particular: Food.
If you read closely, each narrative in TaNaKh (the Hebrew Bible) has one or more leading words whose key themes drive the story. These words are to Torah what leitmotifs are to music. Two motifs that jumped out to me in Shelach were “eat” and “bread”.
Food has proven problematic in several narrative cycles of the Torah.
Last week, we read complaint after nauseating complaint by the nation of Israel about food. Not only do we know that they craved, we know the complete menu of what exactly they craved:
וְהָֽאסַפְסֻף֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּקִרְבּ֔וֹ הִתְאַוּ֖וּ תַּאֲוָ֑ה וַיָּשֻׁ֣בוּ וַיִּבְכּ֗וּ גַּ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ מִ֥י יַאֲכִלֵ֖נוּ בָּשָֽׂר׃ זָכַ֙רְנוּ֙ אֶת־הַדָּגָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־נֹאכַ֥ל בְּמִצְרַ֖יִם חִנָּ֑ם אֵ֣ת הַקִּשֻּׁאִ֗ים וְאֵת֙ הָֽאֲבַטִּחִ֔ים וְאֶת־הֶחָצִ֥יר וְאֶת־הַבְּצָלִ֖ים וְאֶת־הַשּׁוּמִֽים׃ וְעַתָּ֛ה נַפְשֵׁ֥נוּ יְבֵשָׁ֖ה אֵ֣ין כֹּ֑ל בִּלְתִּ֖י אֶל־הַמָּ֥ן עֵינֵֽינוּ׃
“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look forward to!”” (Bamidbar 11:4-6).
This craving, the gluttony of a people who dreamt of vegetables, meat, and fish, made G!d incredibly angry. When they were finally provided a literal windfall of meat, they ate inappropriately. The Israelites fell upon the flocks of grounded quail and consumed the flesh until the meat stuck in their teeth and “came out their nostrils”. This did not go over well. Moses’ anger, and later G!d’s anger, were all-consuming and fierce.
That was last week.
This week, we’re told that the twelve princes of Israel cut gigantic clusters of grapes, pomegranates, and figs from the land. They reported how the land “flowed with milk and honey”. This should have brought the perpetually hungry multitude great joy, but all the positives about the land and its bounty were nullified in a single word:
“This is what they told him: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But — the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the giants there.”” (Bamidbar 13:27-28).
Nullifying the goodness of the land was not enough, though. The spies went even further than that by making their enemies into unconquerable giants. Then, they went so far as to slander the very land itself:
וַיּוֹצִ֜יאוּ דִּבַּ֤ת הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תָּר֣וּ אֹתָ֔הּ אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר הָאָ֡רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֩ עָבַ֨רְנוּ בָ֜הּ לָת֣וּר אֹתָ֗הּ אֶ֣רֶץ אֹכֶ֤לֶת יוֹשְׁבֶ֙יהָ֙ הִ֔וא וְכָל־הָעָ֛ם אֲשֶׁר־רָאִ֥ינוּ בְתוֹכָ֖הּ אַנְשֵׁ֥י מִדּֽוֹת׃
“Thus they brought forth to the Children of Israel a defamatory report about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country through which we have passed, to scout out, is a land that devours its inhabitants! All the people that we saw in it were huge!” (Bamidbar 13:32).
At first, the Israelites and the mixed multitude of people who left Egypt with them, were afraid of not having enough food to eat. Now, they are afraid of being eaten, themselves!
The silver lining of “safer at home” means that I have more time throughout the day to observe and enjoy the kaleidoscope of wild Monarch butterflies who have chosen to nest in my garden. At first, I found a few dozen eggs on my milkweed plant. They hatched into tiny caterpillars, and as they ate I realized I would need a second plant. They grew and ate, ate and grew, and more Monarch mamas came to lay on the plants.
The caterpillars ate with a voraciousness that was nearly incomprehensible: One creature could consume all the leaves on a single young plant in less than a day! Multiply that by over two hundred caterpillars, and you’ll get a sense of just how many times I’ve rushed to the native nurseries within the last two months to keep this flock fed. One plant has become one hundred and fifty.2
The little black and yellow banded caterpillars are quite beautiful, quite sensitive, and quite hungry. One day, when checking on the garden, I observed that they had finished eating the leaves off a large plant, though I also saw that there were healthy plants just a few feet away.
From the caterpillars perspective, though, they were out of food, and they had become incredibly aggressive. They bit and attacked each other, fighting over the last food that clung to the bare branches.
I moved a group of caterpillars over to the new plants, and when they realized there was a surplus of food, they quieted and began to behave themselves.
(Why have I worked so hard to help a bunch of butterfly caterpillars? Because only 1% of the population of the millions of Monarchs that used to grace North America in the 1980s are alive today, according to the Xerxes Society. Conservationists are pressing legislation to declare them endangered. If we don’t do something quickly, these butterflies could disappear forever. The good news is that, to date, over 110 healthy adult Monarchs have flown out of my garden in the past two weeks.)
Back to the parsha.
The Yiddish word for caterpillar, Upfresser, reveals their true nature.
Fress means “to eat”. (As opposed to the English word “frass” which means caterpillar poop!). An upfresser is defined by its outrageous appetite to eat everything up in its path.
A fresser is a person who is a true glutton, a voracious eater, one who eats and eats and is not satisfied.
The narrative of the land, the food, the spies, and the resulting fallout of a negative report is suddenly interrupted by an unusual commandment: that of taking challah.
יְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם בְּבֹֽאֲכֶם֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֛י מֵבִ֥יא אֶתְכֶ֖ם שָֽׁמָּה׃
וְהָיָ֕ה בַּאֲכָלְכֶ֖ם מִלֶּ֣חֶם הָאָ֑רֶץ תָּרִ֥ימוּ תְרוּמָ֖ה לַה’׃
רֵאשִׁית֙ עֲרִסֹ֣תֵכֶ֔ם חַלָּ֖ה תָּרִ֣ימוּ תְרוּמָ֑ה כִּתְרוּמַ֣ת גֹּ֔רֶן כֵּ֖ן תָּרִ֥ימוּ אֹתָֽהּ׃
מֵרֵאשִׁית֙ עֲרִסֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם תִּתְּנ֥וּ לה’ תְּרוּמָ֑ה לְדֹרֹ֖תֵיכֶֽם׃
“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set aside a portion for HaShem. The first of your dough–a loaf–you shall set aside as a donation, like a portion [of grain] of the threshing floor. From the first of your dough you shall give a portion to HaShem, for your generations.”
This section of the Mitzvah of ‘Challah’ is even offset by spacing within the Torah scroll itself, further separating it from the surrounding text.
What is it doing here?
So much of this week’s narrative orbits around leadership (or the lack thereof), perception, strength, and weakness of character. Influence. Land. War. Fear, freedom, and rebellion.
Why suddenly pivot to a random Mitzvah concerning taking a portion of dough from the loaf a Jew is about to bake? And, at that, why include here a Mitzvah that won’t even become relevant until 40 years in the future, when the next generation of Israelis finally enters the land?
The Crowned Hei
Look again at the verse introducing the Mitzvah of Challah:
רֵאשִׁית֙ עֲרִסֹ֣תֵכֶ֔ם חַלָּ֖ה תָּרִ֣ימוּ תְרוּמָ֑ה…׃
The first of your dough — a loaf — you shall set aside as a portion…
There is something special about the letter Hei in general. Here, in the word Challah, the Hei is granted something even more special according to the Masoretic tradition: extra crowns.
Writes the Baal HaTurim:
“The Hei of Challah is written with [extra] tagin. They allude both to the five grains from which challah must be taken, and to the minimum size from which challah must be taken, five reva’im” (Bamidbar 15:20).3
The five grains of the Hei are: Wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. All these grains are what constitute bread in our tradition (as opposed to corn bread, acorn bread, banana bread, etc), that deserve a certain status, and a special blessing. All loaves made of these five grains, if the amount of flour surpasses a given amount, must have a portion of Challah taken from them.
The term Challah in modern parlance means those gorgeous, enriched, fluffy, golden-brown braided loaves that we have the pleasure to indulge in every Shabbat.
The term Challah means ‘loaf’ or ‘cake’, and refers to the portion of each batch of dough that must be set aside as sanctified and given to a Kohen. 4
But what is the true meaning of the word “Challah”? What is the root etymology?
Challah literally means “to pierce”, or “hollow”, or “space” (related to the word chalal).5
At first, when I looked this definition up in the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew dictionary, this perplexed me.
But then I found a delicious explanation by John Cooper in his book “Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food”.
“The etymology of the word hallah has been traced to the Hebrew root for hollow and pierce, indicating how the portion of hallah was torn from the freshly kneaded dough. Because the portion of dough from the baking of bread can no longer be given to a priest, it is cast into a fire by Jewish bakers and by orthodox women when they bake their own bread.” 6
Bread was “the staff of life” in ancient Israel, and in biblical times in general. It was seldom absent from a meal.
The Ramban writes that the commandment of challah was given specifically to console the Jewish people after the intense shock and disappointment of losing their opportunity to enter the land.
Yes, they complained repeatedly about hunger, cravings, and thirst. Yes, ten out of twelve leaders of men showed themselves to be unfortunately spineless in the face of moving forward into conquering the land G!d had already promised them.
Said the people, “The land will eat us up – We cannot do it.” Said Caleb and Joshua, “It is a very good land – We surely can!”
אַל־תִּמְרֹדוּ֒ וְאַתֶּ֗ם אַל־תִּֽירְאוּ֙ אֶת־עַ֣ם הָאָ֔רֶץ כִּ֥י לַחְמֵ֖נוּ הֵ֑ם
Caleb desperately tries to flip the perspective of the populace with this powerful phrase: “Do not fear the people of the land, for they are our bread!”
In other words, it is our enemies who will fall like chaff before us, not the other way around. But his entreaties fell upon deaf ears.
But we must beware not to judge our ancestors too harshly. We know only too well the scars that starvation leaves on the psyche of the starved. Those Holocaust survivors who came from the camps, who were forced by the Nazis, yimach shemam, to subsist on less than half the daily calories necessary to sustain a healthy human being, often had entirely altered relationships with food after the war.
A family friend used to tell me how her mother, an Auschwitz survivor, would stash rolls of bread around their home, wrapped carefully in napkins. Even after her mother passed on, our friend would still find surprise stockpiles of food in unexpected places. That was the trauma of one generational experience: the Israelites were enslaved for several.
Can we blame a generation who verbalizes their pain in the desert, their fear of lack, when they have been habituated over centuries to be starved, beaten, and humiliated, and mistreated by their evil slave drivers?
This is the wisdom of Challah. Rather than continuing to punish the Jewish people for their unhealthy fixation on bread, G!d tries a different angle. A compassionate angle. Anger, flames, punishment: that was in the past. The new approach was to give a loving commandment to teach trust, compassion, and gift-giving.
The Ramban writes, “Perhaps this section was told to them now in order to console them and give them an assurance that they would indeed take possession of the Land, for they began to give up hope, saying: “Who knows what will happen in such a long time– after forty years — for maybe our children will also transgress?” Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, saw fit to comfort them, for by commanding them precepts which are applicable only in the Land, He thereby was assuring them that it is clearly destined by Him that they will come into and inherit the Land” (Ramban on Bamidbar 15:2).
It occurs to me that piercing and pulling a piece off of that perfect dough, over which you have slaved for hours or days (even months if you consider how our ancestors had to grow their own grain, grind their own flour, knead their own dough, and bake their own bread), is akin to another practice.
If a Jew buys a sculpture to decorate his or her home, it is our custom to scratch or chip it a little (the base or the back). This is so as to prevent ourselves and others from mistaking the artwork for an idol.
If the nation of Israel was idolizing bread, food, the stuff of sustenance in the desert to such an extent that it was replacing even G!d, the cure for this psychological sickness was the Mitzvah of Challah.
Be like the Hei, says HaShem: I’m placing an unusual number of crowns on this particular letter in this particular word: Challah.
“Make your dough, but make it imperfect. Bake for yourselves and your family, but break a piece off for the Kohanim among you; break a piece off for Me.” This is the Mitzvah of Challah.
Just as we are commanded to separate a piece of the bread dough from the larger whole, so too does the letter Hei have a piece pulled off and separated from the whole.
In extreme circumstances, such as the time we are currently living through, there are shortages of food, of bread. Each human being has a choice about how to act. We are not caterpillars that have no choice but to eat, survive, and become butterflies, yet we experience the same intense drive to sustain ourselves as they do, especially when we perceive resources to be few.
Ideally, we should not become aggressive towards each other when we perceive there to be a lack of food; neither should we hoard during a shortage. Rather, we must remember that we are a part of a community of human beings, and that we are all responsible for each other. We are asked by our tradition, by G!d, by the letter Hei, to rise above our own inherent, animalistic, extreme pressures of self-preservation, and share food, even when it seems impossible.
Even in the camps, there were those who shared their limited food with others. Luba Tryszynska-Frederick, The Angel of Bergen-Belsen, was one such person. A prisoner herself, she came upon fifty four Jewish children who had been stolen from their parents, then abandoned by the Nazis one winter night in the frigid woods. Luba convinced the other women in her barracks to take them in and hide them. How she managed to find extra food for the next year and a half until liberation in April 1945 is a miracle. Luba is a hero, but she never considered herself one – she just asked the question “what if these were our children?” She mastered, and surpassed, the Mitzvah of Challah in the darkest period of human history.7
Year over year, we relive the Pesach seder, intoning the phrase: Ha Lachma Anya, “This is the Bread of Affliction”, and then: “All who are hungry, come and eat”.
What is the purpose of offering such simple bread to others? It teaches us to sublimate our desire to eat, and satisfy our own hunger, to the urge of helpings others eat with us.
Challah transforms the “perfect” loaf into something “imperfect”, but in taking Challah we transform selfishness into sharing. We learn, each and every time we bake that most elemental human food, to think beyond our own needs and remember The Other.
Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh teaches that G!d used the letter Hei to create the world ex nihilo. The letter Hei, in its shape and essence, “reveals the process of giving of oneself to another. The gift, represented by the foot, the unattached segment of the Hei, when fully integrated in the received, becomes his own power of action and giving of himself to others. Even more, he fully realizes that the ultimate effect and potency of his deeds are in truth the act of Divine Providence” 8.
So be like the Hei: give a little, gain a lot, and put that imperfect loaf in its proper place – on the Shabbat Table.
- See The Aleph Bet of R. Akiva. Version referenced for this article: Gottlieb, Hillel. The Aleph Bet of Rebbi Akiva, translated by Yaacov Dovid Shulman. Scranton: Yeshiva Beth Moshe, 2018.
- I could not have created this butterfly garden without the help of all the donors to my Wild Monarch Rescue project! Thank you.
- See The Davis Edition of The Baal HaTurim, p. 1537, including notes 76, 76a, 77, 78, and 79.
- R. Avi Gold, note 77 to the Baal HaTurim, p. 1536-7. The laws of challah as they apply today may be found in Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 322-330
- With thanks to Rabbi Lieberman for the “chalal” definition. Interestingly, one meaning of chalal is also ‘pierced’.
- Cooper, John. Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food. Jason Aronson, Inc.: 1994. pp. 8-9. See also note 16.
- Associated Press, “The Children of Bergen-Belsen Honor Their Protector”. Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1995. Accessed June 18, 2020.
- Ginsburgh, R. Yitzchak. The Hebrew Letters, Gal Einai Publications: Jerusalem, 1990. p. 81