What's in a Word?

For the week ending 23 June 2018 / 10 Tammuz 5778

Let Them Eat Bread

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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When the Jews complained about the Manna, they called that Heavenly food lechem ha’klokel, “the insubstantial bread” (Num. 21:5). Throughout the Bible and Rabbinic literature, a plethora of words exists, all of which refer to bread: lechem, kikar, challah, pat/pita, rifta, and nahamah. In this essay we will explore the etymologies of these different words and try to hone in on their exact meanings. Ultimately, we will realize that these terms are not all synonyms for the same thing, and slightly differ from one another.

We begin with the word lechem, which appears in the Bible over 300 times! That lechem means “bread” may not be a literal usage, but simply a colloquialism. I heard from Rabbi Dr. Guy Matalon that the word lechem literally denotes “staple food,” and, depending on one’s society, may assume different meanings. Amongst the Jewish People, bread is the staple the food, so lechem refers to “bread”. In Arabic culture the staple food is meat, so Arabic uses the word lahm to refer to “meat”. In light of this, it’s no wonder that historians are unable to decipher the original meaning of the town Bethlehem (which could be read as “House of Bread,” “House of Meat,” or “House of (your favorite food — maybe pancakes?)”.

The Hebrew verb which denotes the act of waging war is lochem, while war itself is a milchama. The root of these words is the same as lechem: LAMED-CHET-MEM. The connection between war and bread is fairly obvious. Wars are all-too-often fought over economic issues. In ancient times, people literary fought to put food on the table, and going to war over “bread” was de rigueur. The root LAMED-CHET-MEM also refers to soldering or pressing things together. This concept is similar to both war and bread because bread is a food whose components are soldered together via baking, and, in war, enemy combatants join up to meet on the battlefield to fight.

While the word kikar appears quite frequently in the Mishnah to mean “bread,” in the Bible it usually bears a different meaning. Kikar most commonly appears in the Bible as a measurement of gold and silver — a “talent” — and its secondary meaning is a valley surrounded by mountains. It seems that the word kikar literally means “circle”. So, besides referring to round coins and round valleys, it came to refer to loaves of bread, which were also commonly round in shape. From this comes the Biblical phrase kikar-lechem (“a loaf of bread”), which appears in Ex. 29:23, Judges 8:5, I Sam. 10:3, Jer. 37:21, Prov. 6:26, and I Chon. 16:3. The Mishnah later abbreviated that phrase to just kikar.

The word challah in the Bible also refers to a loaf of baked flour. Jastrow translates challah as specifically a rolled/rounded meal-cake. If one looks closely, almost all instances of the word challah in the Bible refer to a sort of meal-cake brought as a ritual sacrifice. The only exception to this is the commandment (Num. 15:20) to separate a special tithe for the kohen, to be taken from every dough destined for meal-cake (challah). In fact, throughout the Mishnah (and especially in the Tractate named Challah), the word challah generally refers to that tithe. Of course, in the vernacular, challah is what we call any loaf of bread.

The word pat in Hebrew, or pita in Aramaic, literally refers to a broken piece or morsel (see Radak to I Sam. 2:36). In Lev. 2:6, pat appears in the imperative form patot meaning, “break into pieces”. Of the fourteen times that the word pat appears in the Bible, eleven of those instances are in the phrase pat-lechem (“a piece of bread”). In practice, the word pat simply became another synonym for bread in general, and that is how it is commonly used in the Mishnah and Talmud. Even the Targum sometimes translates kikar as pat (e.g., see Onkelos to Ex. 29:23).

Nahamah is another common Aramaic word for bread, and it appears multiple times in the Talmud and Zohar. Some linguists claim that it is probably borrowed from the Persian word nan, which means “bread”.

Another Aramaic word for bread that appears in the Talmud is rifta. This word is apparently related to the Arabic raghif, which is a flat loaf of bread. In the Bible, rifot are pounded or softened grain (see II Sam. 17:19, Pr. 27:22). Linguists claim that rifta was originally written with a TZADDIK, associating its root with retzeph/ritzpah, which is a floor (that is also flat). In Aramaic that TZADDIK morphed into the vowel AYIN, which was subsequently dropped from the word, to become rifta. Rabbi Nosson of Rome (1035-1106) explains rifta in Sefer HaAruch that it refers to a meal of two identical loaves of bread. These breads probably had some other foodstuff in the middle, and were an ancient form of what we call a sandwich. [Sandwiches, by the way, were supposedly invented by the English statesman John Montagu (1718-1792), who was the fourth Earl of Sandwich.]

  • L'iluy Nishmat my mother Bracha bat R' Dovid and my grandmother Shprintza bat R' Meir

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