(Menachot 45b, 62, 68b, 94a, 96a; Berachot 54b; and Sotah 14a)
If the survival of Judaism is dependent on the next generation, there is no doubt that the most important person in the synagogue is the Candy Man.
Some kids approach him gingerly, stretch out their hands, close their little fingers around the prize, and take off without so much as looking up at the Candy Man. They worry, perhaps, that if they looked into the Candy Man’s eyes and said thank you, he might change his mind and take the candy back.
Other kids gaze in wonder at the Candy Man. They cannot take their eyes off this apparition of kindness. As they stretch out their hand, they smile and thank him. And the Candy Man smiles back, so happy that he wants to unload his whole tallit bag full of candy on the children who do so.
Then there is a third type of child – the one who is accompanied by a parent who does not allow the child to leave before expressing thanks.
We too have the opportunity to offer our own personal “thank you” to God for all the goodness He constantly showers on us. During the Temple era, this could be done at any time by bringing a personal peace offering, shelamim, or a thanksgiving offering, korban todah. But because we may be too preoccupied with ourselves to do so spontaneously and voluntarily, the Torah prescribes times when we must, as a community, thank Him for keeping us alive.
Such a time is Shavuot. The Torah commands us to bring a korban shelamim in the form of two lambs together with a korban minchah in the form of two loaves of leavened bread made of wheat, referred to in the Torah as shtei halechem.
The korban shtei halechem brought on Shavuot marks the end of the harvest season just as the korban omer, brought 50 days before on Pesach, marked its beginning. Now that the late blooming wheat harvest has been brought in, and the dangers and threats of destructive winds and rain have been averted, we as a community must offer thanks.
The korban shtei halechem brought with the korban shelamim in the form of two lambs, was unique in several ways. First, as already mentioned, it was the only korban shelamim that was obligatory and communal. All other shelamim sacrifices were voluntary and personal. Second, all other shelamim sacrifices belonged to the less holy category of kodashim kalim, whereas the shtei halechem belonged to the holiest category of kodshei kodashim with all the restrictions this implied. Third, unlike all other minchah offerings, which were not allowed to contain any leavened bread but had to be made up only of unleavened bread, the korban shtei halechem was expressly required to consist of leavened bread.
There was an additional reason why the korban shtei halechem was classified as a communal sacrifice. This is because the offering in the Temple of any korban made from chadash – that is, barley, wheat, oats, and rye or spelt crops that h had been planted or had taken root since the previous Pesach – was prohibited until the korban shtei halechem was brought on Shavuot of that year. The korban shtei halechem itself, however, had to be made from chadash, and this chadash grain had to be grown in Israel.
The shtei halechem are made in the following way. A quantity of three sa’in (between 384 and 504 ounces) of new chadash wheat is crushed, beaten and ground into wheat flour and filtered through twelve sieves leaving a quantity of 1 issaron, (between 86.4 and 172.8 fluid ounces) for each of the two shtei halechem. Each of the shtei halechem is kneaded separately outside the Temple. Yeast is then added to make the flour rise and the bread leaven. Each of the loaves is then baked separately inside the Temple.
The shtei halechem were square in shape, seven handbreadths long and four handbreadths wide and rose to the height of four fingers. Unlike other menachot, such as the minchat chavitin, which could be baked on Shabbat, the preparation and baking of the shtei halechem was prohibited on Shabbat and Yom Tov.
Although the shtei halechem were brought on Shavuot together with 24 animal sacrifices – 3 bulls, 3 rams, 14 lambs (7 as an olah offering and 7 as a mussaf offering), two goats and two additional lambs (as a shelamim offering) – the shtei halechem was integrally tied to the two shelamim lamb offerings.
The shtei halechem were not burned on the altar. This was not possible due to the prohibition against burning anything on the altar containing chametz. Instead, they underwent the tenufah ceremony in which they were first waved by the kohen together with the two live shelamim lambs and then waved again together with the right thigh and the breast of the slaughtered lambs. Once the eimurim (the sacrificial parts) of the lambs were burned on the altar, the shtei halechem were eligible to be eaten, one by the kohen gadol and the other by the attending kohanim.
It seems that Pesach and Shavuot symbolize two different modes of Jewish life that have followed us in cyclical fashion throughout our national existence. Pesach and the korban omer of barley reflect the basic food the Jews take out on the run when there is no time or peace for fine cuisine. Shavuot and the shtei halechem of fine wheat symbolize periods of prosperity and tranquility. And on the spiritual level, the omer sacrifice of barley, fit for animal consumption, reflects the depths to which the Jewish slaves had sunk as they left Egypt. The shtei halechem of fine wheat symbolizes the refined heights they achieved by the time of Shavuot and Revelation.
About the Author: Raphael Grunfeld’s book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Jewish bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly.
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