Facing the Challah: Commentary on Parashat Mishpatim 5783

By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary


For many years, I tried not to roll my eyes whenever I encountered the following question-and-answer combination:


QUESTION: At our Shabbat meal, why do we cover the challah when we recite Kiddush over the grape juice or wine?

ANSWER: Because we don’t want to embarrass the challah.


If we truly did not want to offend the challah, we probably wouldn’t eat it. When we share the joy of Judaism with young learners, we tend to anthropomorphize our ritual objects; we ascribe human traits to Jewish foods, candles (e.g., the ‘helper’ candles on Chanukkah), books (e.g., the prayerbooks we kiss if we drop them), and more. But there must be some reason why some Jewish educator at some point started this rumor that the challah was so sensitive.

In fact, we may be able to trace the origins of our feelings about challah to two basic ideas—the first of which first surfaces in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Mishpatim (פָּרָשַׁת מִשְׁפָּטִים). The story of the touchy challah goes back to God commanding the Israelites to embark on three pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem each year—once on Passover, once on Shavu’ot, and once on Sukkot. In Exodus 23:17, amidst describing these visits to the Israelites, God presents a caveat:


וְלֹא־יֵרָא֥וּ פָנַ֖י רֵיקָֽם

But My face shall not be seen while empty[-handed].


The idea that God’s face was visible during these pilgrimages often gets lost in translation—literally. In many translations of the Hebrew Bible, this phrase is rendered something more akin to “and none shall appear before Me empty-handed.” Scholars disagree on the meaning of “יֵרָא֥וּ פָנַ֖י” (yera’u fanai), which literally means “My face shall [not] be seen.” Would we get to see God though if we bring a gift? Many theologians have preferred the implication instead that nobody should “appear” in God’s presence empty-handed; this avoids the question of whether or not God is visible. However, the notion of an unseeable God is challenged by another frequently mistranslated verse, Exodus 34:23, here translated with one slight emendation:


שָׁלֹ֥שׁ פְּעָמִ֖ים בַּשָּׁנָ֑ה יֵרָאֶה֙ כׇּל־זְכ֣וּרְךָ֔ אֶת־פְּנֵ֛י הָֽאָדֹ֥ן ׀ יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

Three times each year, all of your male population shall see the face of the Lord Adonai, the God of Israel.


To be fully honest though, an accurate translation of the Hebrew “יֵרָאֶה֙ כׇּל־זְכ֣וּרְךָ֔ אֶת־פְּנֵ֛י הָֽאָדֹ֥ן” (yera’eh kol zekhurekha et peney ha’adon) does not actually make sense: “all of your male population shall be seen the face of the Lord.” As Dr. Rafael Rachel Neis demonstrates in their book The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Ways of Seeing in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: 2013), religious authorities censored this verse and the near-replication of it in Deuteronomy 16:16. The Hebrew word יראה can be vocalized either as יֵרָאֶה (yera’eh), meaning “shall be seen,” or יִרְאֶה (yir’eh), meaning “shall see.” When deciding whether they would prefer that the word make sense grammatically or align with the belief that we cannot see God, the overwhelming majority of our sages threw grammar to the side.

As Dr. Benjamin D. Sommer illustrates in The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge, 2009), our spiritual forebears accepted the idea of God having a body. When we built the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem, we created a home for a God whose feet were fitted for a footstool (e.g., Psalm 99:5), whose outstretched arm and powerful hand took us out Egypt (e.g., Deuteronomy 5:14), whose nose flares up when enraged (e.g. Numbers 12:9), and whose eyes skim over the earth (Zachariah 4:10). Though our ancestors were devoted to a very corporeal god, over time, the concept of an airier, more invisible, more abstract God grew popular. God’s intangibility became so prevalent a doctrine that it was not long before the Torah became a document censored by the Jewish people themselves.

Our ancestors missed the old image of God. They longed for God’s face, and, when they received God’s instructions for building God’s home, the Israelites understood God as commanding to ensure that there would be “עַֽל־הַשֻּׁלְחָ֛ן לֶ֥חֶם פָּנִ֖ים לְפָנַ֥י תָּמִֽיד” (al hashulchan lechem panim lefanai tamid), “face bread always on the table before Me” (Exodus 35:30). Many translations refer to this “לֶ֥חֶם פָּנִ֖ים” (lechem panim) not as “face bread” but as “show bread” or “shewbread”—but the intention of the bread might not always have been getting shown or being seen. The term פָּנִ֖ים (panim) means “face,” and the point of this bread appears to be its placement so close to where God resided most deeply, in the Holy of Holies, where God’s face was hidden. The holy loaves by the Holy of Holies were a symbol—if not an extension—of God’s face.

To the priests whose religion permeated the Book of Leviticus, the face bread was far more than some piece of bread; the face bread had become an assembly of twelve whole loaves (Leviticus 24:5–6)—paralleling the twelve tribes of Israel. Whereas the Book of Exodus may have painted a picture of the face bread as bread depicting God’s face, it seems that the face bread in Leviticus comes to represent us and our closeness to God. Taken together, the ingredients of Exodus and Leviticus bake a challah that houses the nexus where God and the Jewish people come to meet one another.

So, why do we cover the challah at a Shabbat meal when we are reciting Kiddush? Is it because the challah’s face will turn red from embarrassment when we recite Kiddush? No, but the challah does carry the weight of many faces—God’s and ours. When the challah is covered, we cannot understand what it means to encounter the Divine face-to-face. Divinity is covered, and our humanity is covered.

We might not be shocked to find out what is underneath the challah cover when we remove that cloth after Kiddush. (It’s bread!) However, we do well to remind ourselves that kneaded deep in and beyond the dough is the memory—or the foreknowledge—of a moment when communing with the Divine can surprise and inspire us.




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