Be-Chukkotai

When I break your staff of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven; they shall dole out your bread only by weight, and though you eat, you shall not be satisfied. – Leviticus 26:26

In her address to delegates attending the 1893 Jewish Women’s Congress, Mary M. Cohen rejected the prevalent view of many of her American contemporaries:

“Those who have spoken of Judaism as a “kitchen religion” lose sight of the fact that spirit and body are equally in need of nourishment, and that to closely associate the material and the religious is to dignify the one without injuring the other” (quoted in Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality, p. 137).

The Torah offers ample support of her position. For example, the word lechem(“bread”) appears dozens of times used in multiple ways: to refer to baked, leavened loaves made from flour; as a general term for food; and as a gloss for all life sustaining activities. Bread features prominently in cultic ritual. God provides lechem in the form of manna which sustains the Israelites throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. This verse (Lev. 26:26) conveys the threat of famine should the Israelites fail to faithfully obey God’s commandments once they enter the Land. Rashi comments that the scarcity of firewood and rotting of the grain crops will make any bread that the women produce poor in quality and sickening to the stomach, as well.

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary observes that ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven is a variation on a common ancient Near Eastern curse formula. Other instances include: “May a hundred women bake bread in an oven and not fill it” from the Assyrian-Aramaic Tell Fekhiriyeh inscription (9th century BCE) and “And may his seven daughters bake bread in an oven but not fill it” in the 8th century BCE Aramaic Sefire inscription. Here, though, it is God’s human vessels rather than humans’ clay ones that will not be filled should the curse come to pass.

Today, we are women and men in the kitchen. May our baking always be for a blessing; never for a curse.

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