Parshat Emor: Process and Produce: Making Meaning from Grain
Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld (Midreshet Lindenbaum 1997-98) is the Chief Learning Officer at Sefaria, an online database and interface for Jewish texts.
One of the most profound stories about pedagogy in the Talmud appears in Bava Metzia (85b), in the form of an argument between Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Chiya about who is the greater teacher of Torah. “Were Torah to be forgotten from all of Israel, Rabbi Chanina says, “I would be able to reconstruct it through my own intellectual acumen.” Rabbi Chiya responds with a piercing rejoinder: “I am ensuring that Torah will never be forgotten from Israel.” The Gemara describes his methodology: Step by painstaking step, Rabbi Chiya plants seeds that grow into plants that provide fiber for nets. With the nets, he captures deer, whose hides may be used for creating parchment. This allows him to distribute the books, teach them to children, and empower them to pass that knowledge on to others. R. Chanina holds the finished product entirely in his mind, while Rabbi Chiya creates an engaging experience that ensures that the Torah is continuously disseminated.
This relationship between the value of the finished product and the effort involved in processing raw materials is an important thread in Parashat Emor. The Netziv uses the dialogue between Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Chanina as an analogy to explain the verse that introduces the instructions for the lechem hapanim (showbread). These twelve loaves, which are to be laid out weekly in the Mishkan, were first introduced in the book of Exodus, in Parashat Teruma, but are only fully described here in Vayikra. The verse begins by instructing: “You shall take choice flour and bake of it twelve loaves (Leviticus 24:5).” Netziv responds to an implicit question: Why begin with the flour? He answers that although the essence of the mitzvah is in creating and presenting the loaves, the process is also important. “This is the rule with matters of holiness,” explains Netziv. The more steps in the process, the more holiness ultimately imbues the finished product. The story of Rabbi Chiya is an example. In that case, the finished product is the Torah, whose unbounded holiness is enhanced by the work invested in it at every step in the creative process.
In the case of the lechem hapanim, the finished product is the twelve loaves, which the priests eat every Shabbat. According to Rabbinic tradition, it was a very impressive product; though the exact shape of it is debated in the Gemara, the Mishnah (Menachot 11:4) says that it was called lechem hapanim because it had so many “faces,” or sides. In addition, the Gemara (Menachot 29a) lists this bread as one of the miracles of the Temple, because it stayed fresh from one Shabbat to the next, despite being left out on the table all that time. Netziv explains that a mere olive’s worth (k’zayit) of this special food was as filling as a complete meal, and that the loaves represented a blessing to all of Israel that lasted an entire week (Netziv on Leviticus 24:8).
This trajectory from ingredients to finished product echoes the parsha’s broader theme of the transformation from grain to bread. Chapter 23 opens with information about Shabbat and the holidays. In verse 10, we are introduced to the idea of the korban haomer, the barley offering that is incumbent upon the Jewish people after entering the Land of Israel. Until that barley is harvested from the first of the crop, all of the grain crop is off-limits for consumption. This offering is to be brought on the second day of Passover, after which we are instructed to count fifty days, and then bring “mincha chadashah” – an offering of new grain. Although this sacrifice begins with grain, the offering itself is of two loaves of leavened bread, which function as “bikkurim,” or first-fruits, given to God. This is presented as part of a description of the holiday we call Shavuot.
Before continuing the list of holidays and their observances, the Torah then reminds us of the mitzvah of peah, which entails leaving the corners of our fields unharvested so that the poor may come and take what they need (Leviticus 23:22). This mitzvah was already presented just a few chapters ago, in Parashat Kedoshim. Netziv, like many of the commentators, picks up on this brief interruption in the descriptions of holidays. He explains that the theme of this section is mitzvot that bring about “abundant blessings.” In other words, process matters. The grains that are processed and allowed to rise, to be offered on Shavuot, must begin as sheaves in a field that is part of an ethical system of harvesting. Care for others is literally baked into the process, culminating in this offering, just as the holiness of the showbread begins with selecting the finest flour.
When read through the lens of process, Parashat Emor tells a story about the sanctity that is achieved when we deeply invest in the labors that lead to a finished product. Rabbi Chiya proved that even a book as meaningful as the Torah becomes more powerful when learners are involved in every step along the way. Our own process right now is to count the omer, one day at a time, until we reach Shavuot, the celebration of receiving the Torah. By naming each day and pausing to consider the steps on the journey to revelation, we ensure that the Torah that is ultimately received is that much more a part of our selves.