Priests, Men, and Women

Emor, Leviticus 21:1−24:23

D'Var Torah By: Dalia Marx

How have men and women today inherited the roles and activities of the ancient priests? We can find some interesting theories about this in Parashat Emor, in Talmud and Mishnah, and in later commentaries and prayers. Between the sections of the Torah dealing with special laws relating to priests, the list of the Festivals, and the acts of the blasphemer, the Torah commands the preparation of the loaves for the Tabernacle:

"You shall take choice flour and bake of it twelve loaves, two-tenths of a measure for each loaf. Place them on the pure table before the Eternal in two rows, six to a row. With each row you shall place pure frankincense, which is to be a token offering for the bread, as an offering by fire to the Eternal. He shall arrange them before the Eternal regularly every sabbath day-it is a commitment for all time on the part of the Israelites. They shall belong to Aaron and his sons, who shall eat them in the sacred precinct; for they are his as most holy things from the Eternal's offering by fire, a due for all time" (Leviticus 24:5-9).

The Torah provides baking instructions for the loaves and their arrangement on the special designated table. Each of the loaves contained two tenths of a measure of fine semolina flour and the loaves were arranged in two groups, "two rows, six to a row." In his liturgical hymn Azameir Bish'vachin, the medieval kabbalist Isaac Luria (Ha-Ari) expresses hope that the Shechinah will be adorned by six loaves on each side [of the table], next to one another. The twelve loaves symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel and the placement of the entire people in a holy site. According to Josephus, who describes the structure of the sanctuary as a model of the universe, they represent the zodiac and the months of the year (Wars 5, 5 217). Thus, the loaves have both a national and a cosmic import.

The showbread, as it is known elsewhere in the Bible, was on display on the golden table in the Temple (see Exodus 25:23).1 The table of showbread was one of the main holy vessels in the Temple, especially during the Second Temple period (when the Ark was no longer there) and it is one of the main themes described in ancient Jewish art. The Talmud relates that the table and showbread are sacred objects with which the Festival pilgrims ( olei R'galim) came into contact: "It is taught that they would elevate it [the table] and display the showbread, and say to them: See His love for you, they (the loaves) are removed and are as fresh as they were when set down" (Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 26b). That is, in order to allow the Israelites to approach holiness and experience being near the Temple, they would take the table of showbread from the inner sanctuary to the outer court and expose its magnificence to them.2

According to this tradition, the priests used the showbread as a sign of God's affection for Israel, "since its removal was as its placement." As it is said, "One of the miracles that occurred in the Temple was that they placed the loaves while still warm and seven days later, removed warm loaves. As is written 'to put hot bread in its place on the day it was taken away' " (I Samuel 21:7; Jerusalem Talmud, Sh'kalim 26, 3, 6b). That is, a miracle had occurred; not only did the loaves remain fresh but they were also warm when removed. They were baked before Saturday and removed the next Saturday night-in the same state that they were at the time of their arrangement.

Who prepared the showbread? According to the explanation of the Torah, it seems that the command was for the priests: "You shall take choice flour and bake . . . Place them . . ." (Leviticus 24:5-6). But elsewhere it is written: "And let all among you who are skilled come and make all that the Eternal has commanded . . . and the showbread"(Exodus 35:10-13). From this passage it would appear that "all among you who are skilled" can serve as the baker of the loaves. In Rabbinic literature we read of the Garmo family whose sons alone were authorized to bake the showbread. They were among the craftsmen who were paid from the Temple treasury (Mishnah Sh'kalim 5:1; Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 38b).

Priests, the "House," and the Home

Even if the priests themselves did not bake the bread, they were the ones who presented it to be displayed on a golden table in the Temple. The Temple is a house, "the House par excellence," and also, "our House." The priests worked in this magnificent and holy house. They guarded, prepared, cooked, and cleaned-they functioned as diligent housewives.

When their mishmar, "guard duty," ended (each guard served for a week, twice a year), the priests returned home where they would apparently function as normal men, but in the Temple they were a "gender unto themselves." Their function, however, in several aspects, was similar to the traditional function of a woman.

Besides dealing with the sacrifices, cooking the offerings, and presenting the loaves, we read in Parashat Emor that Aaron the High Priest was responsible for the Tabernacle and for the ceremonial lighting of the lamps: "Aaron shall set them [the eternal light] up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Pact [to burn] from evening to morning before the Eternal regularly; it is a law for all time throughout the ages. He shall set up the lamps on the pure lampstand before the Eternal [to burn] regularly"(Leviticus 24:3-4).

The mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles, which tradition has delegated to women, is symbolically related to the commandments of lighting of the lamps in the Tabernacle and the Temple. Theseparation of challah, and the lighting of candles, mentioned here, are two of the positive time-bound commandments designated for women. The third category of time-bound commandments for women, called laws of nidah, concern purity. The Mishnah states, threateningly, "On three accounts do women die in childbirth . . . by not being scrupulous of the laws of nidah, the laws of challah, and the laws of the lighting of the candles" (Mishnah Shabbat 2:6). In our Torah portion, we find a symbolic representation of each of these commandments for priests in the context of the Temple: the priests are instructed to maintain their own purity and holiness, to prepare and present twelve loaves every week, and to kindle the lamps in the Tent of Meeting. To some extent, the priests are commanded in the Temple to observe the commandments that women were later to observe in their homes. Maybe the threat of death expressed in the Mishnah is mentioned precisely because of their proximity to the "holiness" as expressed in these commandments and their counterparts in the Temple.

Just as the priests in the Temple function somewhat as "housewives," women's homemaking activities can be compared to the functioning of the priests in the Temple in several respects. This similarity is expressly stated in several prayers recited by women. For example, the following t'khine, a women's prayer written in Yiddish, was printed in Amsterdam in 1648 and is presented here in translation:

Lord of the world, I have finished all my work in the six days and now will rest as You commanded and will light two candles, as ordained in our holy Torah, and as interpreted by our sages to honor You and the holy Sabbath [...] And may these lights in Your eyes, be like the lights kindled by the priest in the Temple, and do not let our light become extinguished and may Your light shine upon us. 3

In her t'khine, the woman kindling the candles asks that the candles she is lighting will be considered as holy and as pure as those the priest is lighting in the Temple. But actions that link us to the Temple experience today are not limited to women. Indeed, in the absence of the ancient Temple, our home has become a mikdash m'at, a "lesser temple," serving as a focal point of holiness and spirituality for all who dwell in it.

1. See also Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Beit Habechirah 3:12-15; Hilchot Tamidim U'Musafim 5:1-15

2.See Israel Knohl, "Sectarian Controversy during the Period of the Second Temple and the Priestly School in the Torah: The Participation of the Folk in the Temple Service during Festivals," Tarbiz 60, 2 (5751), pp.139-146, re: "Its removal was like its arrangement"

3. Chava Weissler, "A Woman as a High Priest: A Kabalistic Prayer in Yiddish for Lighting Sabbath Candles," Jewish History, 5:1 (1991), p. 19

Rabbi Dalia Marx is an associate professor of liturgy and Midrash at the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR. Her new book is Tractates Tamid, Middot and Qinnim: A Feminist Commentary, published by Mohr Siebeck.

Baking Holiness

Daver Acher By: Samuel M. Cohon

Each week my wife, a professor of British literature and Women's Studies, bakes challah. She began fulfilling this paradigmatic "woman's mitzvah," as Professor Marx explains so beautifully, last fall when our congregation-and our family-tired of the Trader Joe's challah we had been serving and finally refused to eat it. Using the recipe of an outstanding challah baker from our community who had moved to Japan, Wendy immediately began creating lovely loaves that we share with our Temple weekly.

Frankly, it is the best bread in the history of the world, a delicacy appropriate for a deity.

Although she has expressed doubt about whether this baking project damages her strong feminist credentials, she continues to elaborate on her challot, moving from four strands to five and even six-two loaves of six strands symbolizing the twelve tribes-creating a heart-shaped challah, even adding chocolate chips. The challot are so tasty that when I hand out pieces in the Oneg Shabbat line it is quickly gone. And as this wonderful bread is fresh-baked, somehow, unlike store-bought or even bakery bread, it remains moist for days.

As my congregation eats this challah, I think of the passage from D'varim: lo al halechem l'vado yichyeh ha-adam, "a human being does not live on bread alone" (Deuteronomy 8:3). Watching my congregants you would not actually believe this to be true. In the Talmud, the formula for a basic meal is pitu b'melach, bread and salt, and from the joy this bread brings we see that simple things are indeed the best (Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 2b). Smelling fresh challah makes us feel better about ourselves and our world.

But everyone knows the purpose of bread is to eat it. Thus the showbread described in our Torah portion Emor is, frankly, a strange part of the ritual of the Tabernacle and Temple. The twelve tribes are symbolized in other ways in the ritual of connecting to God, including the priest's breastplate. Why include symbolic bread that sits around for a week on beautiful display, not being eaten?

I love the Talmudic Midrash (Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 26b) that says the miraculous showbread, unlike every other loaf of bread ever baked, does not go stale sitting out. For people accustomed to bread that actually goes stale or moldy, in an era long before preservatives, this would indeed be a miracle, a physical manifestation of the presence of the Divine. Perhaps it was not the more dramatic aspects of the rituals of the Tabernacle and Temple that impressed the people of Israel most: perhaps it was the simple, human miracle of ever-fresh bread that made it clear to them that God cared.

The gender-reversal that Professor Marx highlights-male priests setting out the challah, lighting the lamps, and cleaning house-only goes so far. These same priests were also instructed to perform sh'chitah, ritual slaughter of sacrificial animals, and to spray and splash the blood everywhere. Mostly, their roles were more stereotypically masculine in nature.

But in the nurturing presence of the showbread, symbolized today by the challah we display and eat on Shabbat eve, we can see the warm, comforting miracle of God's love for us. For who else but a caring God could inspire us to create such magnificent bread?

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson, Arizona and the host of the "Too Jewish" radio show (podcast at

Reference Materials

Emor, Leviticus 21:1–24:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 912–938; Revised Edition, pp. 817–845; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 723–746

Originally published: