Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Not By Bread Alone

Posted on: October 15, 2011

Shabbat chol ha moed Sukkot

15 October 2011

 Deuteronomy 8:1-18

 In this chapter, as in nearly all of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the Israelites, who have traversed the  wilderness for forty years, and are now on the brink of entering the Promised Land.

Moses doesn’t name the land across the Jordan as Canaan, or as Israel, but as ‘the land which the Lord swore to your fathers’. The name Canaan is much used in Genesis when the Patriarchs lived in the land but did not rule it. The term Eretz Israel does not occur until the time of King Saul, and then just  once. It is Ezekiel, in exile, who consistently refers to Eretz Israel.

 Moses goes on to remind the Israelites of the many afflictions they endured during their forty years in the wilderness, as well as the benefits of God’s protection. Even the manna, which we might think of as a blessing, is described here as an affliction, whose purpose, says Moses, is ‘to make you know that one does not live on bread alone, but on every utterance which proceeds out of the mouth of God’.’[1]He contrasts the privations of the wilderness years with the wonderful prosperity which they will enjoy, just across the riverJordan, where he, Moses, will not be permitted to accompany them.

From this chapter come the familiar words You will eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you[2]  which, as it happens, is the only blessing explicitly commanded in the Torah. The blessings we say before and after the Torah readings, for example, are not from a biblical source. Many of them come from a minor tractate called Massekhet, from the time of the Talmud and it has been suggested that the authors had in mind the template of this verse in Deuteronomy, which includes the words asher natan lach when they prescribed the phrase asher natan lanu in the Torah blessings.


When Moses teaches ‘Man shall not live on bread alone’, he foreshadows the tradition of the prophets, who called on the people to pursue righteousness and reject materialism.

The connection between bread and Torah is made by Isaiah too when he says ‘Why do you spend money for what is not bread, Your earnings for what does not satisfy?’

 Following the examples of Moses and Isaiah, the rabbinic sages sometimes compared bread with Torah or spoke of bread as a metaphor for Torah. The progressive liturgist Jakob Petuchowski pointed out that the expression bread from the earth – lechem min ha-aretz – has the same grammatical structure as the traditional name for Revelation – Torah min ha shamayim, literally: Torah from heaven.  In Sayings of the Fathers, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘Without bread there is no Torah, without Torah there is no bread,’and this aphorism is often explained with reference to the verse ‘Not by bread alone shall you live’.

As this shabbat is Chol ha Moed Sukkot, the tradition is to read the book of Ecclesiastes. We read the opening chapter so did not get as far as Chapter 11, where Kohelet, the speaker in Ecclesiastes says: ‘Cast your bread upon the waters and after many days you will find it’.

 Is Kohelet really speaking about bread? Or is it, as Moses Mendelssohn thought, a metaphor about long-term market trends and the advantages of risk taking? Or is the bread symbolic of good deeds, mitzvot, undertaken without thought of personal gain. This was the view of Rashi who interpreted the verse as meaning that you should do acts of kindness, even for a person you think you will never see again. The good deeds flow away like bread on the water, but their positive effects come back with the ripples of the tide.

In Exodus, the manna is called bread from heaven, lechem min ha shamayim.

On one hand, it’s something less than normal bread, because the people grow tired of it and complain; on the other hand it’s much more than bread because it comes miraculously from heaven,  enabling the Israelites to survive in the wilderness. At the shabbat table, we have two loaves of challah, symbolizing the double portion of manna which the children of Israel used to gather on the eve of shabbat, but, because one doesn’t live by bread alone, the two challot can be seen also as representing the two tablets of the law, the other gift from heaven which the children of Israel received in the wilderness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • James Casserly: Unfortunately there seems to be no middle ground, no nuance and even less humanity on Twitter. Like you, there are people I have no time for, some I a
  • keithmarr: G < div dir="ltr">Twitter is such a cesspit you can more or less guarantee any opini
  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: You're Nathan Hull, aren't you, an abusive troll who uses the alias Gerard O'Neill?
%d bloggers like this: