The Bread People From Egypt: Commentary on Parashat Emor 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President & Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary
I love to turn off my phone just as Shabbat approaches, and letting my computer enter “sleep mode” on the day of rest gives me calm. As I distance myself from those electric blue lights every Friday night, the natural reddish-yellowish light of the candles we have lit offer an additional layer of warmth and comfort. Moments afterwards, one of the adults in my home leads us in multiple paragraphs of Hebrew text over a cup of wine or grape juice, we drink, we wash our hands, and then a younger member of our family will lead us in the next part. Very proudly (and often loudly), one of our kids will sing the short blessing over challah:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה, אֱלֺהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ
Barukh Attah Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh Ha’olam, HaMotzi lechem min ha’aretz.
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, the One who brings forth bread from the ground.
Knowing that a new generation of Jews can take ownership in expressing gratitude for God’s place in our universe brings me great joy. On the other hand, the words of this HaMotzi (הַמּוֹצִיא, “the One who brings forth”) blessing conjure an absurd image of God removing loaves of bread from the earth. Neither does bread come out of the earth ready to be eaten, nor does God directly do the harvesting work of human farmers. The bizarre message of this blessing—formed in the mouths of our rabbinic sages some 1800 years ago in the Mishnah (Berakhot 6:1)—can be traced to a more realistic yet pietistic conception of farming, imagined by a Psalmist approximately a millennium preceding the rabbis. The composer of Psalm 114:14 praised God as
מַצְמִ֤יחַ חָצִ֨יר ׀ לַבְּהֵמָ֗ה וְ֭עֵשֶׂב לַעֲבֹדַ֣ת הָאָדָ֑ם לְה֥וֹצִיא לֶ֝֗חֶם מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
Matzmi’ach chatzir labbehemah ve’esev la’avodat ha’adam—lehotzi lechem min ha’aretz.
The One who makes crops flourish for wild animals
And [makes] grass [flourish] for the [sake of the] work of the human being—
To bring forth bread from the ground.
In the Psalmist’s imagination, God and humanity are partners on the farm, and—though there are a few steps in the process—they have to work together to make bread come out of the soil. The rabbinic blessing over bread concludes with the words HaMotzi lechem min ha’aretz (“הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ,” “the One who brings forth bread from the ground”)—almost directly quoting the ending of the bread verse in Psalm 104: lehotzi lechem min ha’aretz (“לְה֥וֹצִיא לֶ֝֗חֶם מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ,” “to bring forth bread from the ground”). The wording of the blessing bothered the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud about 1,500 years ago. However, these sages were perturbed by neither the blessing having altered a biblical quote nor the blessing having cut out any reference to human agency in breadmaking. The rabbis’ concerns turned to other granular matters.
The difference between the bread portion of Psalm 104:14 and the ending of the Mishnah’s bread blessing comes down to a single Hebrew word: lehotzi (“לְה֥וֹצִיא,” “to bring forth”) vs. HaMotzi (“הַמּוֹצִיא,” “the One who brings forth”). If the rabbis were truly concerned about being faithful to the Hebrew Bible, they would not have changed the term lehotzi into HaMotzi. The term lehotzi appears in the Bible 14 times (Exodus 6:13, 6:27, 8:14, and 14:36; II Kings 23:4; Isaiah 42:7; Ezekiel 12:12; Hosea 9:13; Amos 6:10; Psalm 104:14; Ecclesiastes 5:1; Ezra 10:3 and 10:19; and II Chronicles 29:16). Meanwhile, the term HaMotzi appears in biblical texts only 9 times (Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 22:33; Deuteronomy 8:15 and 13:6; Judges 2:12; II Samuel 5:2; Isaiah 40:26 and 43:17; and I Chronicles 11:2). In formulating something to say every time we eat bread, the sages demonstrated that they cared less about the words of the Hebrew Bible than the meaning the sages gleaned from the Bible’s text.
The Babylonian Talmud records, in Berakhot 38a, a dispute over what is the most impactful change they could make to Psalm 104:14 when blessing God for bread:
תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? — ״הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ.״ רַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה אוֹמֵר: ״מוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ.״
אָמַר רָבָא: בְּ״מוֹצִיא״ כּוּלֵּי עָלְמָא לָא פְּלִיגִי דְּאַפֵּיק מַשְׁמַע, דִּכְתִיב: ״אֵל מוֹצִיאָם מִמִּצְרָיִם״. כִּי פְּלִיגִי בְּ״הַמּוֹצִיא,״ רַבָּנַן סָבְרִי הַמּוֹצִיא דְּאַפֵּיק מַשְׁמַע, דִּכְתִיב: ״הַמּוֹצִיא לְךָ מַיִם מִצּוּר הַחַלָּמִישׁ.״ וְרַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה סָבַר הַמּוֹצִיא דְּמַפֵּיק מַשְׁמַע, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם.״
Our sages taught [near the completion of the Mishnah]: What does one say [over bread]? “HaMotzi lechem min ha’aretz.” Rabbi Nechemyah says [that we recite over bread,] “Motzi lechem min ha’aretz” (“מוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ,” “Bringing forth bread from the ground”).
Rava said, “With regards to the word motzi (‘מוֹצִיא,’ ‘bringing forth’)—nobody in the world disagrees that the implication is that of ‘having brought forth’ [in the past], for it is written [in Numbers 23:22 that God is] ‘God, motzi’am (“מוֹצִיאָם,” “who has brought forth those [Israelites]”) from Egypt.’ Indeed, those [sages] disagree over [the meaning of the term] HaMotzi. Our rabbis understood that the implication of HaMotzi is that of ‘having brought forth’ [in the past], for it is written [in Deuteronomy 8:15 that God is] ‘HaMotzi (“הַמּוֹצִיא,” “the One has brought forth”) for you water from a rock of flint [in the wilderness].’ But Rabbi Nechemyah understood that the implication of HaMotzi is ‘bringing forth’ [in the present], for it is said [in Exodus 6:7 that God should be recognized as] ‘HaMotzi (“the one bringing forth”] you [Israelites] from beneath [the burden of] the suffering of Egypt.’”
The talmudic sages debated the proper tense of the blessing over bread. Should a blessing over bread be about a divine action in the past or in the present? Did God take the bread out of the ground already, or does God take bread out of the ground now? The Talmud has, by the way, immediately leaped past their discomfort with the fact that Psalms recognized God as one whose involvement is encapsulated in an infinitive, lehotzi (“to bring forth”). The idea of the infinitive—a verb-form that does not necessarily take place in the past, present, or future (when will God be able “to bring forth?”)—caused tremendous anxiety for our sages. In contemporary Jewish practice, all blessings that reference an act in the infinitive bless God for actions that humans must undertake: lehadlik ner (לְהַדְלִיק נֵר, “to light a candle”), leyshev bassukkah (לֵישֵׁב בַּסֻּכָּה, “to sit in the sukkah”), or lehani’ach tefillin (“לְהָנִיחַ תְּפִלִּין,” “to lay tefillin [on the arm]”). We might take the time we need to perform actions—without time limits, almost ad infinitum. But God, infinite as God may be, needs us to testify about a God who did things, who does things, and who will do things—a God who exists in time and makes a difference through time.
It takes a turn of the page before the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud have settled on the notion that HaMotzi is the preferred term for the sake of the bread blessing. HaMotzi evidently can refer both to the present of “bringing forth” as well as the past of “having brought forth.” HaMotzi understands God as an entity who both exists in time and transcends any single moment—a master of the past, present, and future.
Still, the fact that the Babylonian Talmud excluded Psalm 104:14 from any debate about the blessing over bread raises a different question: Is HaMotzi even a blessing about bread? The blessing barely even relates to the reality of how bread comes into existence. The prooftexts that the rabbis chose in the Talmud though reveal to us that the rabbis do not want us to praise God for making bread. Why else would the rabbis talk about the God who has brought forth water from rocks in the wilderness or brought forth Israelites out of the hardships of bondage in Egypt?
The answer lies in two linguistic facts. First, though the common Hebrew term for bread is לֶחֶם (lechem), the rabbis of the Talmud often refer to bread by another Hebrew term—פַּת (pat)—or an Aramaic word—רִיפְתָא (rif’ta). Second, the word לֶחֶם has multiple meanings and resonates with the Arabic term لحم (lahm, “flesh” or “meat”). HaMotzi is not a blessing about bread; it is a blessing recited around bread, but it praises a God who removes the flesh of humans from encounters with earthly troubles. Emerging from the joint efforts of the God of nature and the handiwork of humanity—bread is a food that takes time; we can only make bread if God grants us the freedom to eat a dish finer than something we pick off of a tree or pluck from the ground. HaMotzi is about the miracle of a the lahm—the Israelite flesh saved by God—enjoying the privilege of lechem—the grain that was planted, harvested, winnowed, crushed, moisturized, softened, baked, and served. HaMotzi is about a God who removed us from inhumane sorrows so we could enjoy the luxury of human civilization.
The words of HaMotzi call to mind our sacred connection to God. In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, God commands in Leviticus 22:32–33:
וְלֹ֤א תְחַלְּלוּ֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קׇדְשִׁ֔י וְנִ֨קְדַּשְׁתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם׃ הַמּוֹצִ֤יא אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִ֑ים אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה׃
Do not profane the name of My sacredness. I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel. I am Adonai, who makes you holy—HaMotzi (“הַמּוֹצִ֤יא,” “who brings forth”) you from the land of Egypt so that [I may] be for you a God. I am Adonai.
There is a reason we can eat bread. God took us out of servitude, gave us freedom, and gave us a warm meal. That is a miracle, and that is a blessing.
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