OPEN TENT POLICY
The parsha of Vayera continued the saga of Abraham and Sarah as they strove to build the covenantal community that would bring the concept of God to the world. Part and parcel of that mission was the mitzvah of hachnosot orchim (bringing guest's into one's home). Having just three days before undergone circumcision at the age of 99, Abraham was recuperating in his tent pitched on the land of his friend and ally Mamre. Even on this exceptionally hot day, Abraham was on the lookout for travelers for whom he could accord hospitality. He even interrupted a visit from God upon espying three men in the distance. (Rambam, Abrabanel, and some other commentators asserted that the entire ensuing episode of the three visitors was actually a continuation of Abraham's prophetic vision.) After convincing the guests that "I will fetch a morsel of bread, and stay your heart (Genesis 18:5)," then "Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said: 'Quickly three se'im kemach solet, knead it, and make ugot (cakes).' And Abraham ran to the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it to the servant; and he hastened to dress it. And he took curd, and milk, and the calf that he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat (18:6-8)."
Abraham, in his charge to Sarah, stipulated "kemach solet," which is actually a very confusing term, or possibly terms. There is also some question as to exactly how much flour he requested and the nature of the ugot (cakes). To find the answers, it is necessary to go back to the beginning. (The beginning of agriculture, not Genesis.) The farming of grains originated along the Euphrates River in the late Neolithic period. Archeologists have yet to pinpoint whether einkorn (one-seed), an early form of wheat; emmer (two-seed), originally a wild species of wheat descended from einkorn; or barley was the first domesticated cereal. They could have been initially planted within decades of each other and perhaps by the same group of primordial farmers. In any case, these primitive forms of grain, although very durable, were extremely difficult to thresh as well as rather low-yielding. During the Bronze Age, emmer spontaneously hybridized with species of wild grasses, leading to newer grains that easily separated from the chaff, most notably spelt and durum. Nevertheless, during much of the Biblical period, emmer, very tolerant of environmental extremes, remained the most widely planted form of wheat in the Middle East.
At first, the primary uses of grains were roasted and boiled to make gruels ("dysah" in Hebrew). When people accidentally dropped some of the porridges into campfires, they discovered that the baked mishaps were tastier than the mush, creating the first rudimentary breads. Between 2,000 and 3,000 BCE, cooks discovered how to make leavened wheat breads from wild yeast, prompting the desire for high-gluten flour, such as durum. Meanwhile, common wheat (T. vulgare or T. aestivum), a high-gluten cross between cultivated emmer and a wild grass (Aegilops speltoides), gradually spread from its home in the Caspian plains and superseded the other grains, becoming the source of most modern flour.
The Misnah (Challah 1:1) listed five varieties of grain that are subject to taking challah and the other agricultural laws of Israel, "chittim, se'orim, kusmin, shibbolet shi'al, and shippon." Chittim is wheat, which by Talmudic times consisted of two primary species, durum and common wheat. Se'orim refers to 6- and 4-rowed barley, two of the three forms grown in ancient Israel. Kusmin, called kusemet in the Torah and associated with food for the poor (Ezekiel 4:9), is probably emmer. Shibbolet shi'al may be 2-rowed barley and, indeed, it and se'orim were considered as one species in regards to kilayim (prohibition of mixing heterogeneous plants in one field) (Mishnah Kilayim 1:1). Shippon refers to either spelt, a species of wheat, or einkorn, the granddaddy of all modern wheat. Since shippon and kusmin were considered as one species in regards to kilayim (1:1), spelt is the more likelier choice as it is a closer relative to emmer. Oats and rye, which shibbolet shi'al and shippon are commonly mistranslated, neither grew in Israel at that time nor are closely related to the various species of wheat.
Durum (from the Latin word for hard) is a very high-gluten grain, the firmest of all wheat species. In the ancient Middle East, durum kernels were boiled and dried (bulgur), roasted (frikeh in Arabic), or ground (meal). Unlike other wheat species, the hard endosperm of durum breaks down into a granular product, called semolina, rather than a powder. Sometimes the entire granular durum meal was kneaded into bread dough, resulting in heavy loaves, while in other circumstances the ground hard inner part was often reserved for cooking into a dysah (gruel) and the lighter exterior (solet) was used separately for making breads. During the Biblical period, solet was the most desirable of all the forms of grain in Israel, its high gluten content capable of producing relatively light loaves, unlike low-gluten emmer, which proved better to make porridges than leavened bread. As the most valued flour, solet -- three parts combined with one part pure olive oil and a little levonah (frankincense) -- was an important element of the Temple service, serving as a daily mincha (meal offering) as well as concomitant to various animal sacrifices (Leviticus 2:1-14). Today, semolina is primarily used to make pasta.
Now that we know the meaning and import of solet, what about the rest of Abraham's request? In the Torah the word "kemach" is used as a generic term for flour or even sustenance, "where there is no kemach, there is no Torah (Avot 3:21)," while usually referring specifically to first flour (coarse flour also called meal and farina). The word can be used in conjunction with any grain to designate any coarse flour, such as "kemach se'orim" (barley flour) (Numbers 5:15). We find the combo of solet and kemach in proximity elsewhere in the Torah, "And Solomon's provision for one day was thirty kor of solet and sixty kor of kemach (1 Kings 5:2-3)," obviously two separate items. By Abraham, however, the two terms were adjoined, kemach solet. Although the usual way to translate the term is "fine meal," since solet means fine durum flour, the term becomes redundant, reading "flour fine flour."
Some sages, in the vein of Beresith Rabbah (48:13), taught that when Abraham said kemach and solet, he meant two separate items: three measures of meal (from emmer) in addition to three measures of fine flour (durum). This opinion generates an even larger amount of bread for only three people and, as we saw, the meal produces poor-quality bread. Rashi offered a more practical variation of this, explaining, "The fine flour (solet) is used for cakes, the ordinary flour (kemach) is for the dough used by cooks to cover the pot to absorb the scum (i.e. for cooking the tongues from the calves)." Rashi's interpretation, which indicates a more reasonable amount of bread than the first one, aligns with the Bronze Age culinary merits of durum and emmer, the former preferred for making breads, the latter best for porridges or making a coarse dough to seal the tops of stew pots. (By the way, the once common practice of sealing stew pots with dough eventually led to the development of rudimentary kugels, but that's another story.)
On the other side of the spectrum, some commentators, such as Ramban, postulated that there were three se'im of durum meal (the kemach), which was then ground and sifted to make fine flour, a much smaller amount than the other views. This interpretation corresponds with the nature of durum wheat, sifting and excluding the hard endosperm to produce a higher-quality bread flour. It also coincides with the Minchat Shtei ha'Lechem (the twin bread offering of Shavuot), "From your dwelling places you shall bring a wave-offering of bread, two loaves made from two isronim; solet they shall be (Leviticus 23:17)." (A single issaron is the same measure as an omer, both equaling one-tenth of an ephah, each about 2.2 liters or 4 dry pints.) The Sefer Ha'Chinuch explained that to make the Shtei ha'Lechem three se'im (about 24 liters) of durum wheat from the first of the new crop was rubbed and beaten, then the kernels ground, and the flour sifted twelve times, the resulting fine durum flour measuring two isronim. Thus according to Ramban, the sifted kemach yielded about 5 liters or 4 quarts, equaling about 5 pounds of flour, the smallest amount of all the commentaries.
The Aggadah provided a fourth explanation for kemach solet, "Abraham knew that women tend to treat guests stingily, so he clarified his intent, 'Quickly, three measures of meal, fine flour.'" A less chauvinistic variation of the Aggadah was that the sentence was not a single statement by Abraham, but rather a discussion between him and Sarah -- Abraham said, "kemach," and Sarah replied, "solet." According to the sages who posit this version, Abraham was not being cheap, but requested emmer meal because it could be moistened with fruit juice, unlike solet, and would, therefore, not be susceptible to ritual impurity.
Another common misconception lies with the word ugah (cake), which, despite contemporary usage, was not referring to a babka or some sweet or ethereal concoction. In those days, ugah (from the Hebrew for circle) was a round thick flatbread made from lean dough. Indeed, bread in Canaan during the time of Abraham and Sarah generally consisted of flatbreads of varying shapes and thickness that were cooked directly on the coals of a fire (thus the meaning of Proverbs 20:17 "Bread obtained by deceit is sweet to a man, but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel") or on heated stones. This practice remained common among Jews well into Biblical times (Isaiah 44:19 and 1 Kings 19:6) as well as among some Bedouins today.
The time frame of the incident also points to a less light loaf. Remember, Sarah could not stop by a local supermarket and pick up a two-isronim bag of flour and a package of yeast. The ancient bread baking process usually began the day before by freshly grinding the kernels and, for solet, sifting it. The flour was then mixed with water and a piece of starter dough, kneaded for an extended period, then set aside overnight to rise. To provide fresh bread without adequate notification and preparation, the guests would have long since starved. Therefore, the ugot that Abraham wanted Sarah to prepare for their guests would most probably be round unrisen breads similar to the thick, semisoft Yemenite matza. (The crisp thin style of matza actually developed relatively late in history.) Interestingly, according to Sherira Gaon, the reason for using three matzot at the Passover Seder is an illusion to the three se'im of flour that Abraham ordered, as the incident occurred on Passover (Rashi 18:10), another reason for Sarah to make unleavened bread.
Although Abraham was unable to entertain his guests with egg challah or French bread, neither of which existed then, he was definitely no cheapskate when it came to hospitality, as evidenced by the obvious discrepancy between the "morsel of bread" that he offered and the "three se'im" of kemach solet that he delivered. Although the various commentators posit widely disparate amounts of flour, even the smallest is still quite sizeable. A single se'ah (1/3 of an ephah) is equivalent to 7 quarts or 7.3 liters, which roughly comes out to 7½ pounds of flour or about 3.4 kilograms. Thus three se'im measure out to about 22½ pounds of flour, which is enough to produce a dozen large challahs or fifteen 15-inch long French breads. This "morsel" was certainly more than enough to accommodate three guests, no matter how ravenous, especially in conjunction with the "butter, milk and the calf" that Abraham also served.
Abraham exemplifies the principle "Emor me'at v'asay harbeh" (say little and do much). In this vein, the Gemorah (Bava Metzia 87) taught, "The righteous minimize their words and maximize their actions. From where do we learn this? From Abraham. Evil people promise a great deal and don’t even do a little of what they say. From where do we learn this? From Efron (Genesis 23:10-16)." Abraham not only delivered much more than promised, he did so with his own hands, helping to prepare and serve the food. Many heads of households are content to sit at the table and let others perform all of the work in preparing a meal. I once heard a young husband proudly announce, "I don’t have to help in the kitchen, I learn in yeshiva." He obviously did not learn the lesson that Vayera intended to teach. The Berdichever Rav, Levi Yitzchak, had the custom of personally serving his guests. One day his father-in-law suggested, "For a little money, we could hire a servant to do the menial work." The Rav incredulously replied, "Give away my mitzvot and pay him too!" The Berdichever was emulating the mindset of Abraham.
Interestingly, just before the Torah listed the solet and kemach provisions of Solomon's table (1 Kings 5:2), it noted, "Judah and Israel were many, as the sands by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking and making merry (1 Kings 4:20)." This was the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham after Akedat Yitzhak (binding of Isaac) (Genesis 22:17). Interconnected to the success of the covenantal community was the perpetuation of the Jews sharing their table, as personified by Abraham.
Here are a few recipes to give you a taste of the old ways.
(3 large, 2 medium, or 4 small loaves)
Today, semolina, the milled endosperm of durum wheat, is primary used to make pasta, but the amber colored, slightly grainy flour is also added to some Mediterranean breads. Since Americans rarely use it for the latter purpose, American semolina flour tends to be coarser than the type from Italy. The closest equivalent to the European type is durum flour, a silky, golden powder milled from outer portion of durum wheat. The resulting loaves have a pale yellow crumb and wholesome flavor.
1 (¼-ounce /7 grams) package (2¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast or 1 (0.6-ounce) cake fresh yeast
3 cups (25 ounces/700 grams) warm water (105 to 115 degrees for dry yeast; 80 to 85 degrees for fresh yeast)
2 cups (10 ounces/290 grams) high-gluten or unbleached all-purpose flour, measured by dip-and-sweep
1. To make the sponge: Dissolve the yeast in ¼ cup water in a nonmetallic bowl. Add the remaining water. Using a wooden or plastic spoon, stir in the flour, ½ cup at a time, until smooth (traditionally 100 strokes). Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature until the dough is light and foamy (at least 1 hour and up to 12 hours).
2. To make the dough: Stir down the sponge. Stir in the sugar and salt. Add the durum flour and let stand for 20 minutes. (This allows the slightly coarse semolina to hydrate and became a part of the dough.) Gradually add enough white flour to make a soft dough.
3. On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Place in a greased bowl, turning to coat. Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk (about 1½ hours).
4. Punch down the dough and divide in half, thirds, or quarters. Shape into oblong loaves (about 18 inches long for thirds) or rounds and place on parchment paper-lined or greased baking sheets. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a towel and let rise in a warm place until nearly doubled in bulk (about 35 minutes).
5. Position a rack in the lower third of oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (190 C).
6. Slash three or four ¼-inch deep diagonal slashes (hold the razor at about a 30-degree angle, not straight up) in the top of the loaves. (This causes the slashes to swell and the crust to thicken around the lips during baking. For longer loaves, increase the number of slashes up to ten.) Bake until the bread is golden brown and hollow-sounding when tapped on the bottom (35 to 45 minutes). Remove from the pans and let cool on a rack.
Sponge Loaves: Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces and reduce the baking
time to about 30 minutes.
Olive Sponge Bread: Add 2 cups
brine-cured olives, pitted and chopped.
(6 to 8 servings)
The Midrash extended the three from the measuring of the flour to the calf in the subsequent sentence, stating, "Abraham slaughtered three calves so that he might be able to set a tongue with mustard before each guest."
1. Cover the tongue with cold water, bring to a boil, and drain.
2. Cover the tongue with fresh water and add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until fork tender (about 50 minutes per pound; 2 to 3½ hours). (When tender, the tip of the tongue will feel tender when pressed and tiny bones in the root will come out easily. A calf's tongue takes about 1¼ hours to cook.)
Before the tongue cools, peel off the skin (taste buds).
Strain the cooking liquid and let the tongue cool in the broth.
Store in the broth until ready to use.
Cut into ¼-inch thick slices. (Thinner
slices tend to fall apart when reheating.)
If desired, serve with mustard.
(6 to 8 servings)
1. Cover the tongue with cold water, bring to a boil, and drain.
2. Cover the tongue with about 2 quarts fresh water. Add the onion, carrot, vinegar, and salt. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until fork tender (about 30 minutes per pound).
3. Before the tongue cools, peel off the skin. Strain the cooking liquid and let the tongue cool in the broth. Store in the broth until ready to use. Since the tongue
4. Simmer the cooking liquid, garlic, bay leaves, oil, turmeric, salt, and pepper for 5 minutes. Add the tongue and simmer 5 minutes. Add the capers and simmer until heated through (about 10 minutes).
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and the recently released The World of Jewish Desserts. If you have a special request for a future recipe, forward them to firstname.lastname@example.org