One of my favorite Jewish customs is the placement of two hallah loaves on the Shabbat dinner table each Friday evening. Although there are a number of theories to explain the origin of this tradition, the most common explanation comes from this week’s Torah portion.
Once the Israelites found themselves safe and sound on the far side of the Red Sea, they realized that they had no means to sustain themselves, no food to eat. So, they turned to God for help. God responded by providing the mannah – angelic or heavenly food which the Israelites collected each morning.
After six days of finding the mannah and eating it during the course of the day, the Israelites were surprised when no mannah could be found on the seventh day. God said to the Israelites through Moshe: “Look, Adonai has given you the Shabbat; therefore God gives you two days’ food on the sixth day. Let everyone remain where he is: let no one leave his place on the seventh day (Exodus 16:29).”
As a result of this double portion, which our ancestors received each Friday in the wilderness, we now place two loaves of bread on Shabbat table. This practice serves to remind us that we need not bake or purchase bread on Shabbat. The second loaf reminds us of much more than that, though.
Although the Israelites were dependent upon God’s generosity to subsist in the wilderness, God provided the food in such a way that they could preserve their dignity. They could still observe Shabbat; they were still entitled to rest one day a week. This is an important lesson for us all. If we are in a position to help others, we must do so in a way that is respectful of the recipient.
Furthermore, in these difficult times, if we find ourselves on the receiving end of assistance, we should not be ashamed. This story reminds us that all of our ancestors required help to get through their difficult years. When we turn to friends or relatives for some help, we are not alone.
So, when we see the second loaf of hallah on our tables next Shabbat, let us think about the ways in which we hope to make our Shabbat special. In addition, though, let us think about how we treat our fellow human beings during difficult times.