The essence of bread (Daf Yomi Pesachim 37)

Embed from Getty Images

“Bread is nothing other than that which is baked in an oven.”

Today’s Daf Yomi considers the essence of bread. What is bread really? What defines it? What are the established boundaries that define its “leaven-ness”? The text discusses matza that is a handbreadth thick and belies everything I have known about the thin cracker-like unleavened bread. Can you imagine eating such a thick brick of matza? It would stick in one’s throat and stifle one’s voice. Reading the Talmud is not for the faint-of-heart or impatient, because even what should be the simplest answer to a question as basic as “what is bread” is complicated.

We are told that thick unleavened bread prepared by the priests is trusted to be legitimate because they would have taken care to properly knead it and well, because they are priests. For the average person, however, there are additional safeguards that must be in place in case someone wants to prepare a brick-like slab of matza. They must prepare the concoction in an oven powered by dry wood and bring it to the Temple “during the dry summer months, as the heat generated from this type of wood would cause the bread to cook quickly before it leavened.” We are also told that the bread should be prepared in batches that are not too large so that the kneading is done properly and certainly, it cannot be prepared on the holiday.

We are presented with an interesting question: can matza be matza if it is in the shape of a figure? Perhaps the figure is a goat or a lamb or a cat with its tail curled underneath its hind legs. We are told this is prohibited because “a woman will tarry over it as she prepares the bread, so that she can form the figure before it is baked, and she will thereby cause it to become leavened.” The priests can be trusted to do whatever they do, but a woman cannot be trusted with a bowl of dough. And yet, the men would go hungry without their wives toiling away in the kitchens sorting all this out.

We are presented with a logical remedy for the creative woman who would like to do more with the matza dough than stamp out a flat slab of dry bread. She can use a mold which will hasten the baking process and prevent the accidental leavening of the dough. Unfortunately, the sages who should have trusted their wives and mothers and sisters more, reject the use of a mold and fall back on the old “appearance of transgression” argument and say that “people would fail to understand the distinction.” As a result, cute matza molds of cats never became part of how we observe the Passover holiday.

In a true pot-boiler, we are told through the words of Reish Lakish that sponge, spiced and honey cakes, and boiled and pan-fried bread is a “pot-boiled stew” and not bread. He based his logic on a belief that bread must be baked in an oven and not a pot. (I never heard of such a thing, but a google search produced a lot of recipes for making bread in a pot.) At issue is if the halla – the portion given to a priest – is required if these are not classified officially as bread. Rabbi Yohanan makes an additional distinction: if the pot and pan breads and cakes are baked by the sun, they are not considered bread and the halla is not required. We are told that fire is required to classify something officially as bread.

While everyone agrees that fire is required for defining bread as bread, baking in an oven may be required or not in order to define something legitimately as bread. Such is the challenge of the Talmud. You follow circular arguments for pages with the hope that one wise Rabbi will rise above the others and issue a pronouncement. But there is often no simple answer or agreement and often we are left without a resolution. This is true even of something as benign as the answer to what constitutes bread.

When one swims in the deep waters of the Talmud, attention is required, and nothing can be taken for granted, not even an unadorned slice of bread.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
Related Topics
Related Posts