Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Loaf and the Pebble

As we are approaching Pesach, I thought it would be nice to focus upon a beautiful Jewish tradition we possess: namely, of the few defeating the many, and the small defeating the great. Nowhere is this more poetically described than within the context of Tanakh, and specifically, I believe, within the context of the loaf and the pebble motif.

In Esther Rabbah 10: 4, we read of Haman's conversation with the students of Mordechai regarding the Omer:
    The Midrash tells us about an encounter between Mordechai and Haman when Mordechai was teaching his students. Haman inquired as to what they were learning and they responded that they were learning about the Omer. “What is this Omer made of?” he asked. “Is it made of gold? Or silver?” “No," they answered, “not of gold nor silver, not even wheat, but of barley and it costs merely ten small silver coins.” Upon hearing that, Haman replied, “In Hashem’s eyes your ten small silver coins have overpowered the 10,000 kikar of silver which I gave Achashveirosh for the right to destroy you.” (Source)
In Leviticus Rabbah 28:6, we continue to read of the various incidents and occasions upon which the Jews were saved by the Omer offering. One of these mentions Gideon, Judge of Israel.
    יג וַיָּבֹא גִדְעוֹן--וְהִנֵּה-
    אִישׁ, מְסַפֵּר לְרֵעֵהוּ חֲלוֹם; וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה חֲלוֹם חָלַמְתִּי, וְהִנֵּה צְלִיל לֶחֶם שְׂעֹרִים מִתְהַפֵּךְ בְּמַחֲנֵה מִדְיָן, וַיָּבֹא עַד-הָאֹהֶל וַיַּכֵּהוּ וַיִּפֹּל וַיַּהַפְכֵהוּ לְמַעְלָה, וְנָפַל הָאֹהֶל. 13
    And when Gideon was come, behold, there was a man telling a dream unto his follow, and saying: 'Behold, I dreamed a dream, and, lo, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian, and came unto the tent, and smote it that it fell, and turned it upside down, that the tent lay flat.'

    יד וַיַּעַן רֵעֵהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר, אֵין זֹאת, בִּלְתִּי אִם-חֶרֶב גִּדְעוֹן בֶּן-יוֹאָשׁ, אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל: נָתַן הָאֱלֹהִים בְּיָדוֹ, אֶת-מִדְיָן וְאֶת-כָּל-הַמַּחֲנֶה. {פ} 14 And his fellow answered and said: '
    This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel: into his hand God hath delivered Midian, and all the host.' {P}

    ~Judges 7:13-14
A similar incident utilizing similar language occurs by David, except that he uses a pebble instead of barley bread:
    מט וַיִּשְׁלַח דָּוִד אֶת-יָדוֹ אֶל-הַכֶּלִי, וַיִּקַּח מִשָּׁם אֶבֶן וַיְקַלַּע, וַיַּךְ אֶת-הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי, אֶל-מִצְחוֹ; וַתִּטְבַּע הָאֶבֶן בְּמִצְחוֹ, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-פָּנָיו אָרְצָה

    And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slung it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead; and the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell upon his face to the earth.

    נ וַיֶּחֱזַק דָּוִד מִן-הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי בַּקֶּלַע וּבָאֶבֶן, וַיַּךְ אֶת-הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי וַיְמִתֵהוּ; וְחֶרֶב, אֵין בְּיַד-דָּוִד. 50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.

    נא וַיָּרָץ דָּוִד וַיַּעֲמֹד אֶל-הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי וַיִּקַּח אֶת-חַרְבּוֹ וַיִּשְׁלְפָהּ מִתַּעְרָהּ, וַיְמֹתְתֵהוּ, וַיִּכְרָת-בָּהּ, אֶת-רֹאשׁוֹ; וַיִּרְאוּ הַפְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי-מֵת גִּבּוֹרָם, וַיָּנֻסוּ. 51

    And David ran, and stood over the Philistine, and took his sword, and drew it out of the sheath thereof, and slew him, and cut off his head therewith. And when the Philistines saw that their mighty man was dead, they fled.

    ~I Samuel 17: 49-51
The image reappears in yet another dream, although this time it is not that of a Midianite man, but rather that of Nebuchadnezzar. It is interpreted by Daniel to mean his downfall; the stone which destroys the statue representing the various monarchs represents Israel:
    מד וּבְיוֹמֵיהוֹן דִּי מַלְכַיָּא אִנּוּן, יְקִים אֱלָהּ שְׁמַיָּא מַלְכוּ דִּי לְעָלְמִין לָא תִתְחַבַּל, וּמַלְכוּתָה, לְעַם אָחֳרָן לָא תִשְׁתְּבִק; תַּדִּק וְתָסֵיף כָּל-אִלֵּין מַלְכְוָתָא, וְהִיא תְּקוּם לְעָלְמַיָּא. 44
    And in the days of those kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed; nor shall the kingdom be left to another people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, but it shall stand for ever.

    מה כָּל-קֳבֵל דִּי-חֲזַיְתָ דִּי מִטּוּרָא אִתְגְּזֶרֶת אֶבֶן דִּי-לָא בִידַיִן, וְהַדֵּקֶת פַּרְזְלָא נְחָשָׁא חַסְפָּא כַּסְפָּא וְדַהֲבָא--אֱלָהּ רַב הוֹדַע לְמַלְכָּא, מָה דִּי לֶהֱוֵא אַחֲרֵי דְנָה; וְיַצִּיב חֶלְמָא, וּמְהֵימַן פִּשְׁרֵהּ. {פ} 45

    Forasmuch as thou sawest that a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God hath made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter; and the dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof sure.' {P}

    ~Daniel 2:44-45
In these latter three incidents, the same format is consistently used. A stone or loaf of bread smites something much larger than it: a tent, a giant of a man, or a large statue made of variant metals- and yet it triumphs over it; the Jews succeed in utterly destroying their enemies.

Since this is so, one might wonder: what precisely do the Loaf & Pebble symbolize?

Any child knows that the Torah is synonymous with bread. This comes from the verse in Proverbs 9:5 where Wisdom declares, "ה לְכוּ, לַחֲמוּ בְלַחֲמִי; וּשְׁתוּ, בְּיַיִן מָסָכְתִּי 'Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled." Thus, while the loaf is specifically the Omer offering in this scenario, it can also be understood as symbolically referring to the Torah.

God, of course, is synonymous with stone. See 2 Samuel 22: 2-3:
    ב וַיֹּאמַר: יְהוָה
    סַלְעִי וּמְצֻדָתִי, {ר} וּמְפַלְטִי-לִי. 2

    and he said: The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer;

    ג אֱלֹהֵי צוּרִי, אֶחֱסֶה-בּוֹ; {ס} מָגִנִּי וְקֶרֶן יִשְׁעִי, {ר} מִשְׂגַּבִּי וּמְנוּסִי, {ס} מֹשִׁעִי, מֵחָמָס תֹּשִׁעֵנִי. {ר} 3

    The God who is my rock, in Him I take refuge; my shield, and my horn of salvation, my high tower, and my refuge; my saviour, Thou savest me from violence.
Thus, while the Jewish nation and its people are symbolized by the loaf and the pebble, in truth these very symbols refer to the weapons the Jews have at their disposal: God and the Torah.

Now we can understand why it was that the Head Baker had to die when it came to Pharaoh, the Butler, the Baker and interpreting dreams. In Bereishis Rabbah 88, it states that a fly was found in the cup of wine that the butler served Pharaoh, whereas a pebble was found in the loaf of bread that the baker served him. Despite the fact that both of these officials had sinned, it was only the baker who was put to death. Why?

On the more superficial level, the fact is that the pebble in the bread could have actually harmed Pharaoh (he could have choked to death), whereas the fly was merely an annoyance and disrespectful to the king. However, on an exegetical level, this may be the first place that our motif of the loaf and the pebble occurs! When Pharaoh is served, as it were, the Jewish symbols of existence- the loaf and the pebble- he becomes upset and dismayed. He puts to death the man who dared to offer this meal to him. I am not suggesting that he knew what this meal symbolized. Indeed, the fact that he praises and later appoints Joseph demonstrates he did not. Ironically, however, he ends up appointing a Jew who gives out bread (the loaves we spoke of.) When all of Egypt is starving to death, Pharaoh orders them to go to Joseph who will disseminate bread.

This occurrence with the butler foreshadows the Pharaoh we know so well from the Passover story, the one who declares, "Who is Hashem? I know no Hashem." (Of course, I am making the assumption that it is the same Pharaoh, and that he did not actually die.) There is something deliciously ironic about God hardening Pharaoh's heart- like the stone that upset him so much and that symbolizes the Jewish people- if one understands the text this way.

Pharaoh thinks that he can destroy the Jews, those people who are symbolized by the loaf and the pebble, as symbolized by his destruction of the butler who dared to serve him this meal. That simple hanging foreshadows everything that he will eventually do to the Jews. However, God ensures that Pharaoh then appoints a Hebrew to give bread to the nations and eventually hardens Pharaoh's heart like stone. Pharaoh too must fall before the Jews, even as the other nations invariably do.


Dune said...

Beautiful. What's interesting is that in all these examples by the laws of nature ( Al Pi Teva ) none of these things should have happened - The fall of an incredible warrior like Goliat by a teenager, the crumbling of the huge statue, or the overcoming of The great empire by a collection of disorganized slave laborers. So what this beautiful dvar torah seems to illustrate is the fact that so long as Am Yisrael Clings to Hashem and Torah (pebble and bread) it is beyond the rules of Al Pi Teva. And when it does not, it is left to the laws of nature in a world with Goliats and Par'os. Of course, the dream of Nevuchadnezar as interpreted by Daniel, shows that eventually Am Yisrael will reach it's Zenith and this will be an everlasting blessing on the world since all nations will come to pray at the Beit Hamikdash (as per Shlomo Hamelechs inaugural prayer, and since the knowledge of God ( not just the faith but the "knowledge of Hahsem) will be in all the world (bimhera beyameynu). Thank you for the beautiful dvar Torah.

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Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

very nice, i don't think i'll ever look at bread and pebbles the same way again

Dana said...

from a pshat lover... this is INCREDIBLE!

Noam the Preacher said...

Is that where the custom of decorating challot with black(poppy) or white (sesame) pebbles?

Unknown said...

Very interesting and insightful. However, the Pharaoh who enslaves the Jews is definitely not the one who makes Joseph viceroy. This is clear in Exodus 1:8: "A new king arose in Egypt, who did not know Joseph."

Chana said...

Jonathan 8:04,

See the Midrash (or Rashi) for the point of view which suggests that it was indeed the same Pharaoh.

Unknown said...


I realize now that I should not have stated my opinion in absolute terms. As you pointed out, it is not certain that there was a second pharaoh who succeeded the first one. In particular, I erred in overlooking the fact that the Torah does not say that the first pharaoh ever died.

I still believe that the pshat is that a new pharaoh came to power. However, I realize that this reading is not perforce true, and that there are certainly other possibilities. I reached my conclusion in haste, and for that I apologize.