Wednesday, 08 Aug 2012

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

‘Not By Bread Alone’

Two years ago, I saw in North Finchley an extraordinary play entitled “Not By Bread Alone.” The eleven actors, from an Israeli Company called Nalaga’at (meaning “please touch”), were all deaf and blind. As the audience entered, they were sitting at a long table on the stage, each one kneading dough that would be baked during the course of the performance. At the end, the audience was invited to come to the stage to taste the bread. But the main purpose was not for us to eat the delicious warm bread, but to communicate on some level, by touch, with the actors who could not hear our applause or see our smiles.   

Deuteronomy 8:3, a long and rather complex verse near the beginning of our parashah, contains one of the most familiar phrases of the Bible, Lo al ha-lekhem le-vado yikhyeh ha-adam.

These six simple Hebrew words would be familiar even to a beginner in Hebrew. The common translation is, ‘Man does not live by bread alone.’ Yet the meaning and message of these words is considerably more complicated than we might have thought.

Some might react first to the problem of the gender-specific language in the common translation. Clearly the word ha-adam in this verse is not intended to exclude women. But is it better to keep the familiar language (‘Man does not live’) for reasons of literary style, or to modify it to make the gender inclusiveness explicit: ‘Human beings do not live by bread alone,’ or ‘people do not live…’?

There is another problem of translation. I once heard a Chinese professor of religion comment that those who translate the Bible into Chinese have to make a fundamental decision about whether to render the familiar verses by the Chinese equivalent of ‘Man does not live by bread alone,’ and ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ or whether to render them ‘Man does not live by rice alone’, and ‘Give us this day our daily rice.’ To use the Chinese word for ‘bread’—which as we all know is non-existent in the Chinese diet—would immediately suggest that the biblical text comes from an alien culture, something that the Chinese will think of as applying to others, but not directly addressed to them. Substituting the word for ‘rice’ conveys the meaning of the phrase in a manner that feels much more inclusive, yet it loses the historical setting of the passage. This is a significant issue in translation: Do you keep the cultural markers of the original text, or do you render its meaning in terms familiar to the culture of the new reading community?

Let’s take the familiar translation, and probe the question of meaning. Most of us would probably agree about on the underlying meaning of this simple phrase is that the provision of basic physical needs, the satiation of hunger represented by bread, is not all there is to life; there is a spiritual dimension that makes human beings what they are. The continuation of the verse, as rendered in the old Jewish Publication Society translation, based on the King James Version, is ‘…but by everything that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.’  Here is how Rabbi Joseph Hertz put it in his classic commentary on the ‘Pentateuch and Haftorahs’: ‘Physical food is not the only thing that ensures man’s existence. Apart from the normal sustenance there are Divine forces which sustain man in his progress through life.’

Yet here is the verse in context – the entire verse with part of the preceding verse, according to the newer JPS translation: ‘He (God) tested you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts; whether you would keep His commandments or not. He subjected you to the hardship of hunger, and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees.’

This translation makes it clear that in its original context, the verse is not talking about the physical versus the spiritual. In the original context, it is about the wilderness experience as a test of trust and obedience. God allows the people to become hungry, then sends a strange, unfamiliar food down from the heaven, as a substitute for the familiar, reassuring bread that was no longer available to the people once the matzah taken out of Egypt had been consumed. The purpose of the test was to see whether the people would follow God’s instructions by eating the strange food from the sky, and thereby learn that they could satisfy their hunger and survive in a novel manner. That’s the meaning of the verse in context: you don’t need bread, you can survive physically on something else. Very different from what we assume it to mean.

But let us return to the more familiar meaning: the need for the spiritual dimension in life. Here too there is an important issue of context: not the context of its setting in the Bible, but the context of the contemporary audience. I recall a distinguished elder colleague named Krister Stendhal, of blessed memory, formerly Professor of New Testament and Dean of Harvard Divinity School, once saying at a faculty colloquium, ‘This verse means something quite different when you quote it to a group of people who are wealthy, than it does when you quote it to a group of people who are hungry.’

That was a powerful insight for me. To the wealthy, who may have inherited fortunes that would allow them to enjoy a lifetime of leisure without ever working, or who expect annual bonuses amounting to considerably more than most of the population will earn in an entire career of productive work, the message is: ‘Don’t think that your gastronomic pleasures, your fine foods and expensive wines, your conspicuous consumption of consumer goods, are what is ultimately important. There is much more to life than this.’ That is a message which most of us would think is appropriate.

Quoting the same verse to a group of the countless millions of people on this earth who go to bed hungry each night, who do not know where their next meal will come from, the meaning is quite different: ‘Don’t complain that you haven’t enough food; it’s not the body but the spirit that is most important–you will eventually get your reward in the spiritual realm for your suffering here on earth.’ We would never say to a family of Syrian refugees from Aleppo who had lost their homes, and all their possessions, and have no money to buy clothing or food, ‘Remember: man does not live by bread alone.’ Quoting the verse in that context conveys a very different message that is insensitive and repugnant.
Context is indeed important in determining meaning: both the context in the original source, and the context in the audience being addressed. For those of us who are fortunate to have our basic needs fulfilled, the message is that the food on which our lives depend comes from many sources, that we should appreciate having this food at a reasonable cost, that we should recognise the labour of others who have produced the food, and that we should express gratitude to the Power that brings forth from the earth the substance from which other human beings—including even human beings unable to see or to hear—may make bread. This is the message expressed in the verse that comes just shortly after ‘not by bread alone’, the verse that is the basis for our Birkat ha-Mazon: Ve-akhalta ve-savata u-veirakhta et Adonai elohekha al ha-arets ha-tovah asher natan lakh.

 ‘When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land—or the good earth, or we might add: the good health–which He has given you’ (Deut. 8:10).

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
August 2012

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.