Warm Pita, Wrapped Supermarket Bread, and Spiral Halah

From PresenTense Magazine

Mel Alexenberg

I moved with my family from New York to a cottage set in an orange grove in Israel in 1969.  Our neighbors were Yemenite Jews who had ascended to Israel from the tip of the Arabian Peninsula a decade earlier.  Having returned to their biblical homeland, they continued to bake flat round bread in a wood-burning, underground oven in their back yard as they had done in Yemen.  Their daughter, Zahava, came to welcome us with two large pita-like breads, one in each hand.  They were still warm and surrounded by the welcoming aroma of fresh-baked bread. 

Compare these whole, two-dimensional, circular breads that Zahava brought us, to the supermarket bread of the industrialized world.  Supermarket bread is a three-dimensional, rectilinear, cold, white loaf fragmented into slices and kept at a distance from the consumer by a sealed plastic wrapper that cuts off olfactory and tactile contact.  The space-time morphologies of mythological cultures are two-dimensional, circular, and cyclical as symbolized by pita-like breads.  Supermarket white bread symbolizes the three-dimensional rectilinear space and linear time of logical culture.

The two spiral loaves used for celebrating the Jewish Sabbath symbolize the space-time morphologies of the integral structure of consciousness that gives rise to ecological perspective.  The spiral form is an open-ended growth form unlike the closed circle of the pita or rectangular slices of supermarket white bread framed by its crust.  In Jewish consciousness, the circle symbolizes idolatry and the rectangle slavery.  Both are closed forms.  The Hebrew word for “brickyard,” where the Israelites had been enslaved, is also the word for “rectangle.”  The Hebrew word for “calf” in the story of the Golden Calf can also be read as “circle;” both are spelled with the same letters.  Only weeks away from slavery, the Israelites certainly knew Ra, the supreme deity of Egypt, the sun god represented by a Golden Circle that we can see in ancient Egyptian art. 

The Sabbath bread is either shaped like a spiral snail or braided like the DNA helix.  It represents living systems open to growth rather than the closed circle of pita or the rectangular slices of supermarket bread.  The bread baked in haste on leaving Egypt is commemorated on Passover by eating flat round hand-made mythological matzah or rectangular machine-made logical matzah called “bread of affliction.”  Leavened bread called halah symbolizes the showbread baked in freedom for the Tabernacle ritual in the Sinai desert (Leviticus 24:5).  Paralleling the postmodern concept of double-coding, matzah can also viewed as bread of humility as opposed to the puffed-up pretension of halah.  The multiple perspectives of Jewish consciousness validate simultaneous seeing from contrary viewpoints.

Tuna sandwiches on supermarket white bread or hummus scooped up with pita are usually eaten without seeking, acknowledging, or honoring the complex web of interrelationships linked to the spiritual significance of our lunch.  However, with halot (plural for halah) we cook up a postmodern meal that links the act of eating with celebrating the connections of bread to its spiritual place in a global ecosystem, to the Creator of the universe, to freedom from slavery and idolatry, to open-ended growth systems, to rewards for righteousness and compassion, and to the partnership between humanity and God in the continuing story of creation

On the Sabbath, two whole, unsliced halot rest on the table hidden beneath a beautifully embroidered covering.  We place two loaves side by side to recall the double portion of manna that rained down every Friday so that the Israelites could celebrate the Sabbath day without having to work to collect their food (Exodus 16:5).  The two halot are covered to hide them from insult by not allowing them to see us saying the blessing over wine before we say the blessing over them.  The bread and wine are illuminated by flaming wicks in olive oil or candles to acknowledge the divine blessing promised for living a life of righteousness and lovingkindness.  “I shall provide rain for your Land in its proper time, the early and the late rains, that you may gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil” (Deuteronomy 11:14).  Before touching the halot, everyone washes hands with a two-handled cup in a ritual fashion reciting a blessing on the uplifting of our hands.  Then, the halot are uncovered and held together while saying a blessing linking these breads to the Creator of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.  Only after acknowledging the spiritual place of the bread in our planet’s ecosystem, can the bread be broken for everyone to have a piece to eat as the beginning of the Sabbath meal.  In his book The Jewish Sabbath, Pinchas Peli offers an additional reason for celebrating with wine and halot that relates to the creative work of the artist:

Wine and bread clearly demonstrate the partnership of humanity and God in the act of creation.  Neither wine not bread grow on trees.  It is God who created the vine and we who extract wine from it; God who makes corn or wheat and we who make bread of them.  Does not the last word in the story of creation which introduces us to the Sabbath – la-asot – state that God created the universe for humanity to continue making it?  What better way is there to celebrate creation that to partake of products which are the combined result of the creation of God and the handiwork of human beings?

While promoting and celebrating integral associations, multiple meanings, and deep significance of wine and halah, wine remains a tasty drink to relax us at the Sabbath meal and halah remains bread not unlike a supermarket loaf or pita.  Spiritual and material aspects of wine and halah are experienced simultaneously.  They never attain magical or mystical dimensions.  Spirituality emerges from the quality of our perception of the material world.  Judaism and postmodernism share the goals of exploring multiple viewpoints, reading alternative codes, deconstructing and reconstructing meanings, and creating new narratives.

From Mel Alexenberg, The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press)