A well-known passage from Pirke Avot, 3:16, signifies the importance and interrelatedness of both spiritual and physical sustenance in our tradition: “Im ein kemach, ein Torah; im ein Torah, ein kemach” (“without bread [literally, ‘flour’], there is no Torah; without Torah, there is no bread”). The phrase is commonly understood to mean that without physical nourishment, it is impossible to engage in edifying study, and without the guidance of Torah, our physical wellbeing is purposeless. The passage also affirms the significance and connectedness of both physical labor and spiritual pursuits.
Our synagogue is home to Slice of Heaven Breads, a nonprofit, cooperative, volunteer, charitable bakery that teaches the craft of bread making while utilizing local and organic ingredients.
In a highly scheduled, busy life, time becomes precious. In response to a consumer culture that makes it easier for us to pay others to make bread — obtaining and preparing the ingredients as well as cleaning up — one of our goals is to demonstrate that making challah is a valuable use of time. It has the potential to bring families together, to create community, to promote the practice of mitzvot, and to connect us with the earth.
Each Friday morning, the bakery crew gathers — visitors and regulars, Jews and non-Jews, preschoolers and grandparents, people with special challenges referred by local agencies — to make and braid loaves of challah. The loaves will be sold to raise funds for hunger relief, or donated to charitable organizations, or given to residents of nursing homes and hospitals. A wedding couple or bar/bat mitzvah student may attend with their family to bake the special “celebration” challah for their simchah.
When making bread, it is a mitzvah and a traditional practice to take a small piece from the dough (called the challah), to say a blessing for “the mitzvah of separating the challah,” and then to burn the piece. This is a reflection of the biblical practice (Numbers 15:18-21) of setting aside a portion of the dough as an offering. This act serves to remind us that what sustains us is a gift and that working to provide food for ourselves and others has a divine purpose.
In the bakery, when the time comes to perform this mitzvah, we think about how this small piece of dough came into our hands; we mention each ingredient as an indispensable part of the baking process: the wheat, the sugar cane or maple syrup, the plant oil, the flax seed or eggs, the yeast, the water, the salt. Who planted and harvested these ingredients? What do those workers have to eat? Under what conditions do they labor? And then we bless our holy work: the marvelous ingredients and their provenance, the bakers’ skill, the kavannot (intentions) of the workers, the sense of community, the awareness of blessing, and the open-hearted, charitable purpose of our labor.
Bread nourishes the body; learning (Torah) sustains the spirit. Our bakery is part of a larger “slow food” trend that affirms the importance of knowing what we consume, home baking and cooking, farmers’ markets, and Community Supported Agriculture. These domestic practices enable people to rediscover and reclaim the satisfaction that comes from working with one’s hands, from preparing items “from scratch,” from knowing how to use sustainable materials that do not harm the earth, and from joining a community to produce something with and for others. We recognize that it is not the quantity but the quality of our bounty, and our capacity for sharing it, that ultimately sustain us.