Never Grow Stale

     I imagine you know that it is a tradition on Friday nights to have not just one, but two loaves of hallah out on the Shabbat dinner table.  The explanation for this harks back to the story in the Torah about the manna – the miracle food that God made for the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness.  And the Torah tells us that on יום שישי – Friday when they went to gather the manna they found a double portion, so that they would not have to go out to collect food on Shabbat.  So the tradition grew over time to represent that story and to remember God’s kindness by having two loaves of hallah at Friday night dinner.

     Now some families eat a lot of hallah, other families not so much.  When our kids are home – as they all happen to be right now – we can easily go through two loaves of hallah between Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch.  But when Becky and I are the only ones home, we have trouble getting through one loaf of hallah on Shabbat, let alone two.  But you are still supposed to have two loaves on Friday night!  What to do?

     The most creative way that I ever saw that problem solved was a family I knew that kept a loaf of hallah – shellacked – in their freezer, that they used as loaf number 2 – what we call in the tradition לחם משנה – and they used that shellacked loaf of hallah for years – 10 or more!  Each Friday night, just as dinner was about to begin, they would take it out of the freezer, put it on the table next to the actual hallah, say the blessings, and then shortly afterward put it back, where it would sit until the following Friday night.  

     That story – which is true! – they are probably still using that thing! – but the story reflects a famous Talmudic comment about a passage in this morning’s Torah portion, called Emor.  Towards the end of the portion there are a couple of details about ritual obligations that the priests had in terms of the Tabernacle, the site of worship the Israelites has when they wandered in the wilderness.  The first detail the portion gives us has to do with the lighting of the Ner Tamid.  But the second set of instructions has to do with what is often called the show-bread – twelve loaves of bread that were kept across from the Eternal Light on a special table.  The loaves of bread in the Torah are actually called חלות – as the Torah instructs:  “You shall take choice flour and bake of it twelve loaves of Challot – two tenths of a measure for each Challah.”

     And the Talmud comments that there was a miracle that was performed in the Tabernacle that had to do with these loaves of bread, which was that the Hallot in the Tabernacle never grew stale.  Like the extra Hallah in my friend’s family with the shellack – the 12 loaves of the Tabernacle, the show bread loaves, never grew stale.  And SR Hirsch, the great German rabbi from the late 1800s, talking abut that Talmudic comment, says the following:  the Talmud is not meant to be taken literally here.  Instead, it is using the loaves of Hallah that the Torah describes as a metaphor.  And when the Talmud says the loaves never went stale, what that really means is that worship that was conducted in the Tabernacle never felt stale.  The religious rituals that were conducted, the prayers that were recited, the holy days that were observed – it always felt fresh, and meaningful, and moving to the participants, and that that, in and of itself, is a miracle.  

     And I’ve been thinking, in my 21 plus year career in the rabbinate, I’ve probably officiated at about 4 services a week – week in and week out.  With shiva minyanim, Friday night and Saturday morning services, and many Saturday evening services as well – probably about 4 services a week.  If you do the math, that comes to 4,368 services.!  And although I do my best, and I work as hard as I can, I am sure that at least a few of those almost 3,400 services didn’t feel – at least for some people – fresh, or exciting, or meaningful, or moving.  That somewhere in there there were people who came to services I was conducting, and they left, and they were sort of  – meh.  

     And that is a constant struggle in synagogue life.  How do we make it feel meaningful, fresh, exciting, interesting?  How do we make so that when someone comes to one of our services, when they leave, they say that was worth my time?  After all, the services don’t really change.  Same prayers, time after time, same Shema, same amidah, even the Torah, it changes week to week, but year in and year out, the same stories, never changes.  And knowing what I know about synagogue life, if in that ancient Tabernacle, there was some way that the services never felt stale, I would say it really was a miracle!

     Now we are living in a strange time.  The strangest time I can ever remember in my life, and I suspect many of you would say the same.  This time of social distancing, this time of not being able to gather together.  And it has forced the synagogue to do things that we never would have done before.  This is one of those things!  A zoom Shabbat morning service being broadcast on FB live.  We’ve had zoom classes, zoom bar and bar mitzvahs, baby namings, shiva minyans, happy hours!  We’ve had to rethink our programming, come up with new ideas, reimagine old ones.  We’ve had concerts on FB live, we’ve handed prayer books out in our parking lot all while social distancing.  It is unprecedented what we are doing – things we’ve never done before – things that have never been done in Jewish life before.  Ever!  

     Is this ideal?  No!  Would I rather be sitting with all of you in the Gorn Chapel this morning?  Of course!  But you know what?  This is fresh.  It is new, it is exciting, it is interesting.  This is not the same old shellacked Challah coming out of the freezer every Friday night, to be used over and over again.  And when things get back to normal – whenever that happens – it will happen!  And when it does, one thing we know for sure is that some of these ideas, some of these technologies, some of these programs, we will continue to use them.  Because they’ve brought a new sense of energy and excitement and evening meaning to our congregation, to our prayers, to our learning, to the way we live our Judaism every day.  

     And in the never ending quest in synagogue life to stay fresh and relevant and meaningful, our experience of this strange time will only help us in the long run, making us stronger, more creative, more accessible, more available, and I hope more meaningful and more sacred.

     Do you remember the other detail the Torah portion gives us about the priestly duties?  I mentioned it briefly – the lighting of the Eternal Light.  We can hope that what we are learning during this difficult time, about the possibilities of living Jewishly in so many new ways, ways we never could have imagined even a few months ago – we can hope that what we are learning and what we are living will – like the Eternal Light itself – make our Judaism and Jewish life brighter and more beautiful for many years to come.

Author: Steve Schwartz

Husband, father of three, Deadhead, and rabbi. I am now in my 22nd year of serving a large congregation in the Baltimore area.

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