Eating the Showbread

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

25 Sivan: R. Moshe Feinstein on Eating the Showbread

[Click here for the audio version].

My Bar-Ilan CD-Rom includes in Iggerot Moshe, the responsa of R. Moshe Feinstein, two parts of a Chelek Kodashim ve-Taharot, explanations of the service in the Temple, its sacrifices and laws of ritual purity. In part 1, responsum 11, dated 25 Sivan 5718 (1958), R. Feinstein addresses a comment of Rabbenu Yonah’s to Avot 5;5, and gives us a rare opportunity to consider matters connected to the Beit HaMikdash —rare since most responsa address practical halachic issues, and we do not yet inhabit a world where kodashim ve-taharot present those kinds of questions.

The Mishnah lists ten miracles which occurred regularly in the Beit HaMikdash. One such miracle was there never having been a pesul, an invalidating quality, found in the lechem hapanim, the Showbread placed on the Shulchan, the Table in the sanctuary.  

The bread would come off th Table warm as the day it was placed, Rabbenu Yonah tells us, and was never invalidated by reason of yotzei or lina, a priest taking some of the bread out of the Azarah, the courtyard of the Temple, or (lina) leaving it beyond the time within which it was to be eaten. Rabbenu Yonah gives the time period for eating the lechem hapanim as a week. To leave it more than a week beyond the Shabbat on which it was taken off the Table would invalidate it, which is what the Mishnah tells us never happened.

Day and Night for Eating the Show-Bread

R. Feinstein was certain Rabbenu Yonah cannot have meant a whole week, because Rambam mentions only the day of Shabbat as the time to eat this bread, in his commentary to mMenachot 2;2. R. Feinstein is sure he meant the following night as well, because Chullin 83a tells us night follows the day for sacrifices. So “day of Shabbat” means the following night as well.

[His confidence repeatedly catches my attention. I do not question his reading of Rambam, but his certainty of his correctness is a characteristic I’ve seen before. He confronts a problem, finds or comes to a reading to solve it, and is then sure that’s the way to read it. We’ll see that again in this responsum, when he ventures an answer for why Rabbenu Yonah phrased himself as he did.

Here, I mention it because I was pausing anyway to highlight the idea of night following day in the Beit HaMikdash. In ordinary halachah, such as for Shabbat and holidays, we start the day the evening before. In Temple service, the day follows ordinary human experience, starting with the morning service and carries through the night, Rabbinically by midnight.]

R. Feinstein offers further proof night follows day in the case of lechem hapanim, I think because he worried the Gemara in Chullin he had quoted did not clinch the issue, either because Chullin says it sort of by the way or because it refers to kodashim, which might mean only animal sacrifices. He points us to Rashin to mMenachot100b; the Mishnah says the lechem hapanim is never eaten more than eleven days after it’s placed on the Table.

To explain how we get to eleven days, Rashi gives the case of a Rosh Hashanah on Wednesday night, where Yom Kippur will be a Shabbat, and the bread will only be eaten that night. Since that’s the twelfth day after it was placed there, R. Feinstein thinks Rashi was operating with the idea here, the night follows the day, and Motza’ei Yom Kippur counts as still the eleventh day.

[He knows of a comment of Bartenura’s that seems to say otherwise, but he rejects it both because Tosafot Yom Tov objects on our exact grounds and because another comment of Bartenura’s adopts this view. So I’m skipping that back and forth].

The Simpler Way to Have Read the Miracle

Beyond the problem with his mention of a week to eat the bread, Rabbenu Yonah also makes it sound like the week starts after the Shabbat on which it came off the Table. The opposite is the case—the day of Shabbat is the essential proper time to eat the bread, and the kohanim may continue to eat it into the night after only for the reasons we’ve just said, that the “day and night” for offerings results from the Temple rule that night follows day.

To set the stage for his answer, he wonders why Rabbenu Yonah did not point to tum’ah, ritual impurity, as the pesul, the invalidating occurrence, that never occurred with this bread, which seems a more likely possibility. In addition, Rabbenu Yonah’s explanation seems at odds with Rashi to Avot (and Yoma), who said the miracle was needed because there was no replacing the showbread (or Omer, or Shtei HaLechem, the two breads offered on Shavu’ot, as it happens) were it to become invalid. Rabbenu Yonah’s version of the pesul which never happened focus on the bread after it has been removed from the Table, when its service is done.

There is now a separate obligation upon the kohanim to eat it, but that shouldn’t justify a miracle.

It Couldn’t Have Been Yotzei Anyway

R. Feinstein then shows Tosafot and Rashi’s version of yotzei, both of which made it unlikely verging on impossible to happen with the bread. Tosafot thought yotzei only became a factor once the bread finished its role on the Table (once the incense was offered); Rashi thought it came earlier, but still only once it was on the Table, and why would it be considered a miracle that no one ever took it off the Table and out of the courtyard? Both of them had to think the miracle was there never having been a kohen who became ritually impure without realizing it and came into contact with the lechem hapanim, the Showbread.

That was a miracle because it did happen with other sacrifices [not our topic here, but an assumption worth noting. In the Beit HaMikdash, where people most directly experience and serve Gd, where this Mishnah names ten regularly occurring miracles, it was also accepted that matters could go wrong. The august place, its service and attendants. was not fully protected from the vagaries of life.

When Hashem Cares Enough to Give Us the Very Best

R. Feinstein thinks Rabbenu Yonah would have dismissed avoiding tum’ah as the candidate for the miracle the Mishnah intended, because tum’ah hutrah be-tzibbur, the Jewish people are permitted to perform certain services if the whole (or majority) of the community is ritually impure. Ritual impurity could not have imperiled the lechem hapanim because we would have used the rule to allow placing it on the Table anyway.

The example of Chanukkah would have supported Rashi and Tosafot’s view, since we see Hashem make a miracle even though there, too, tum’ah hutrah be-tzibbur would have allowed use of ritually impure oil. R. Feinstein thinks Rabbenu Yonah would have said Chanukkah was an exception, an unnecessary miracle as reward for the Jews’ efforts in expelling the Syrian-Greeks and repurifying the Temple, to demonstrate Divine love and approbation.

For the regularly offered show-bread, Rabbenu Yonah would have thought the miracle was to ensure it was eaten, not just offered. The invalidations he says never happened, linah and yotzei, in fact get in the way only of the kohanim eating the Showbread.

Hashem wanted the Omer and Shtei HaLechem to be eaten because those are offerings that inaugurate the new year of grain use in the Temple. For the lechem hapanim, the miracle of its staying fresh and hot made it important to allow the kohanim to eat the warm bread and enjoy the full experience.

Fitting It Into the Words

None of the discussion so far directly answers the original question, why Rabbenu Yonah speaks of a whole week to eat the lechem hapanim. Rabbenu Yonah was telling us the miracle mattered mostly in years when Rosh HaShanah started Wednesday night. In other years, the bread was eaten as soon as it came off the Table, so its avoiding any pesul is less impressive.

But in the years when the bread came off the Table on Yom Kippur, it could not be eaten until the night, which was (from the ordinary human perspective) the beginning of the next week. To make us realize which year he means the miracle was most noticeable, Rabbenu Yonah spoke of having a week to eat it (R. Feinstein has just deftly assumed Rabbenu Yonah never meant the bread could be eaten for a week, despite his having used those exact words. He mentioned a week only to draw our attention to where the kohanim would not start eating the bread until a time we would classify as the next week, in ordinary human time).

His idea rejuvenates the question of why Rabbenu Yonah did not speak about ritual impurity, since tum’ah hutrah be-tzibbur, the community’s ritual impurity, allows offering a sacrifice, not eating it.

R. Feinstein says Rabbenu Yonah worried we’d misunderstand any reference to tum’ah, would have understood him to mean it exactly as Rashi did, not about the eating of the bread. So he focused on other aspects, to be sure we knew he read the miracles as ensuring the eating of the bread, despite that being a lesser aspect of its service.

He thinks he has thus answered a difficulty in this comment of Rabbenu Yonah’s, he tells his correspondent, a perhaps implicit admission he has not fully resolved it, either in the words or the ideas. But he has given us a chance to think about a Mishnah in Avot we might glide over for its lack of specific moral or ethical insights, and of parts of the Temple service we hope to see again soon, speedily in our days.

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