DREAM A LITTLE DREAM OF BREAD
By Gil Marks
In the parsha of Vayeshev Joseph rises from obscurity in Egypt to head the household of Potiphar, Pharaoh's captain of the guard. After repeatedly rejecting seduction ploys by his boss' wife, the virtuous Joseph suddenly finds himself accused by her of attempted rape. Potiphar, who certainly considered it a false allegation yet needed to maintain pretenses, placed Joseph in the king's prison, sort of an Egyptian minimum-security facility, yet still no day at the beach. Making the most of his circumstances, Joseph, through dint of his personality and abilities, once again begins to rise, becoming the warden's trusted assistant. Soon two imprisoned high ranking court officials come under Joseph's care, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker.
The position of cupbearer (mashkay in Hebrew, meaning "to cause to drink," similar to Nehemiah 1:11-2:1) entailed a bit more than being a basic butler or sommelier. The cupbearer not only filled the cup with wine and handed it to Pharaoh, but also tasted all drinks to ensure that they were not poisoned. Kings who were not perpetually wary of assassination attempts or threats to the social order tended not to last very long. And it is much easier to slip some toxin into a potable than solid foods. (The custom of clinking glasses together after a toast emerged from a medieval Italian practice of diners pouring a little of their wine into each others' cups to ensure that no one surreptitiously slipped in any poison.)
Thus, only a most trusted and reliable individual could serve as the royal cupbearer or, for that matter, the head baker. The latter position was no mere cook involved in actual toil in flour and heat, but rather the supervisor of the operations. Indeed, the Giza pyramid reserved a special tomb for a head baker. Obviously, a head baker also had to be trusted not to poison the food. The head cupbearer and head baker, like Potiphar, were members of the small, elite hereditary Egyptian upper class, as no commoner was permitted to serve in these capacities before Pharaoh, and had input into policy decisions as well.
The text did not relate the offenses of these two men, only that they "chawtu (sometimes translated as "offended") their lord the king of Egypt (40:1)." Interestingly, the word chawt, which means "to miss the mark," was the same term previously used by Joseph in refusing the advances of Potiphar's wife, "How can I do this great wickedness (against Potiphar), and chawtasi against God (39:9)." (Judaism does not view sin as moral violation, but rather a missing of the mark.) The Midrash expounded on what marks the two ministers missed -- a fly was found in the wine cup and a small pebble in a loaf of Pharaoh's bread. According to the Midrash, the two officials were imprisoned for a year, so their offenses probably occurred on Pharaoh's previous birthday celebration, which, since he was considered divine, was also an Egyptian religious occasion.
After an extended period of incarceration, the head cupbearer and the head baker suddenly had troubling dreams on the same night. The two officials as well as Joseph, having run Potiphar's household, were intimately acquainted with the workings and trappings of Egyptian society and, therefore, understood the seriousness of the offenses. The two disgraced ministers also knew full well that Pharaoh's birthday was three days hence and their fates would then most likely be sealed. The Rosetta stone, the artifact found in 1799 making it possible to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, confirmed this practice by way of a passage about Pharaoh releasing prisoners on a festive occasion. Not surprisingly, the two ministers' respective dreams, understandable in light of the imminent danger, reflected their occupational circumstances, grapes for one and bread for the other, as well as their subconscious assessments of both their own as well as their fellow's situations. Indeed, the Midrash asserted that they dreamed the answer to each other's dream as well. Joseph, always seeking to help people, responded to their depression, "Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me, please (40:8)."
The cupbearer must have sensed a positive outcome, perhaps because in his dream Pharaoh was the recipient of the cup, for he immediately related his vision to the charismatic prison attendee. In turn, Joseph supplied him with good news, "within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office (40:13)." Encouraged by the favorable interpretation of the cupbearer's dream, the apprehensive baker finally recounted his vision too. In it, however, "the birds did eat them (the baked goods) out of the baskets on my head (40:17)." The baker's subconscious spoke volumes, as it was the birds not Pharaoh who consumed his wares. Thus Joseph delivered the bad news, using a play on words from his previous interpretation for the cupbearer, "within three days Pharaoh shall lift up your head from off you (40:19)."
The sentence of hanging and subsequently allowing the birds to pick off his flesh was a method of execution intended to particularly dishonor the victim. What was so grossly ignominious about the head baker's transgression to warrant such a fate?
To answer this, we first need to understand bread and its place in Egyptian society. The first breads were pancake-like batters of gruel cooked in campfires. (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.") This practice remained common among Jews well into biblical times (Isaiah 44:19) as among some Bedouins today. When people began to cook their breads on griddles and skillets, at first clay and later metal (Ezekiel 4:3), they eliminated most of the impurities. Meanwhile, airborne wild yeast, perhaps from nearby date palms, occasionally found its way into a wheat batter, giving birth to leavened bread. After cooks learned how to preserve these unicellular fungi in starter doughs, yeast breads quickly became a favorite of those who could grow or afford wheat. Barley bread served as the staple of the masses, while the upper class enjoyed leavened wheat bread.
Although it is impossible to pinpoint the exact origin of yeast bread, hieroglyphics reveal both an early Egyptian and Mesopotamian mastery of the "staff of life" (not a biblical expression, but from Jonathan Swift's, Tale of a Tub). Historians disagree as to whether the world learned the secrets of starters from the Egyptians or whether a Semitic group brought this information to Egypt from wheat's birthplace in the Fertile Crescent. In any case, it was clearly in Egypt that bread-baking methods first were refined, including the improvement of starters, and many of the techniques, still in use today, originally developed.
While Mesopotamian bread in early biblical times consisted primarily of numerous variations of flat breads and filled flat breads, made by slapping pieces of dough directly on special baking bricks, Egyptian methods became much more advanced. And the Egyptians regarded their breads very seriously. Yeast bread, made from emmer and less frequently durum wheat, was the pride of the Egyptian upper class and court bakers strove to create elaborately shaped loafs, including animal figures such as birds and fish. Pyramid inscriptions show loaves of assorted shapes and sizes.
Honey, fruit juices, and spices were sometimes added to create various cakes and pastries, the first light cakes in history. Leavened breads were employed at all special occasions, including festivals and especially as temple offerings.
Analysis of 4,000-year-old bread loaves recovered from various pyramids reveal that the Egyptians possessed rather sophisticated processing techniques. Two ancient Egyptian royal bakeries have been found at Giza, each consisting of a massive open fireplace that served as the rudimentary oven, huge ceramic vats for storing flour, water, and starter, and a large trough for mixing and kneading the ingredients by foot. Beginning around 2900 BCE, Egyptians began using bedja (bell-shaped ceramic pots), made with thick, highly-porous walls to prevent burning the crust before the interior had cooked, as molds to shape the dough and serve as a sort of Dutch oven. Numerous bedja of varying sizes have been discovered at Old Kingdom sites from the Mediterranean Sea to Elephantine on the southern border. Tomb scenes depict large groups of bedja being preheated, then filled with liquidy dough and arranged side by side and stacked on top of each other in the baking pit. The bedja were then covered with heated coals and dung to bake. After cooking, the bedja were taken from the hot coals, the lids removed, and the breads allowed to cool before transferring to low counters.
As Joseph began his rise to power, "He (Potiphar) left all that he had in Joseph's hand; and having him, he knew not (did not concern himself with anything) except the bread which he ate (39:6)." Rashi stated that here bread was an euphemistic reference to Potiphar's wife, while Ramban asserted that Potiphar knew that Joseph was so trustworthy he only took the food that he ate. Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, attached this verse to a subsequent reference to bread, "And they set for him (Joseph) by himself, and bread for them by themselves (the brothers), and for the Egyptians who did eat with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians may not eat bread with the Hebrews; for it is an abomination (43:32)." Although Joseph had became second only to Potiphar and later Pharaoh, he could not eat bread with the Egyptians. We know that being a shepherd was an abomination in Egypt (46:34), but Joseph was no shepherd. Something else was obviously the source of this taboo. Herodotus, the Greek historian (c484-425 BCE), wrote, "no native of Egypt, whether man or woman, will kiss a Greek, or use the knife of a Greek, or his spit, or his cauldron, or taste the flesh of an ox, known to be pure, if it has been cut with a Greek knife (ii.41)." The exclusionary Egyptian society viewed all foreigners as inferior and unclean and, therefore, forbidden to touch their food or vice versa. And the Egyptians considered no food more significant than leavened wheat bread, showing more care and concern for their loaves than for human beings.
Which was why the cupbearer, who also erred, was reprieved, while the chief baker, who allowed a pebble to get into Pharaoh's bread, was put to death for his mistake. Wine was greatly valued by the Egyptian upper class, but it was not doted on and revered. Bread possessed a value in Egyptian society beyond food, a cultural symbol of wealth and status and religion. Indeed, the hieroglyph for worship was a loaf of bread. The head baker's mistake proved an affront to the Egyptian sense of aesthetics, the monarchy, religion, and the social order, all of which were intertwined and, therefore spelled his doom.
The Torah, in response to the corruption of Egypt, taught, "According to the deeds of the land of Egypt wherein you dwelt you shall not do … and in her statues you shall not walk (Leviticus 18:3)." Rashi explained statues as, "these are their social customs that had gained the force of laws, such as theaters and stadiums." When the Torah wanted to make a stark distinction between the newly emerged Israelite nation, one founded on justice and good deeds, and the social customs of the haughty, callous Egyptian society, it could not have chosen a better symbol than the unleavened "poor man's bread," matza. Just as matza is the opposite of chametz ("leaven"), Judaism is the antithesis of Egypt, the latter represented by its obsession with leavened bread. And it is one reason why leavened bread was almost never allowed in the Temple service, the most notable exception being on Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah, the antidote to the ills of Egyptian society.
Here are a few old-fashioned bread recipes.
About four 5-inch breads
Lahuhua is a spongy, bubbly pancake, reminiscent of the first rudimentary breads, poured onto fires and hot rocks. Some versions of lahuhua were made with sorghum (durah) instead of wheat. The wheat batter was originally left at room temperature for several days to be fermented by wild airborne yeast, then baked on hot rocks or a griddle. This recipe has been updated by incorporating baking powder and seltzer. Lahuhua, along with the pita-like salufe, constituted the Teimanim's daily loaves, served with soups, stews, and spicy condiments. Yemenite Jews do not have a special Sabbath and holiday bread for making the blessing, but use their salufe or another simple flat bread.
1. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the seltzer until smooth. Let stand for 15 minutes.
2 large flat breads
Nan is the Farsi word for bread. Centuries of Persian control of Central Asia and India left its imprint on the cuisine of those areas and most have variations of Persian breads. This thin, crispy loaf is a popular Sabbath and holiday bread in Iranian households. Until recently, they baked simple breads on a flat clay pan over an open fire or on the sides of a round clay oven called a tanor, a major advancement from the fireplace. The oven, located outside of the house, was also the place to leave the various Sabbath dishes overnight to serve warm after synagogue.
1. Dissolve the yeast in ¼ cup water. Stir in 1 teaspoon sugar and let stand until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the remaining water, remaining sugar, oil, salt, and whole-wheat flour. Gradually add enough of the white flour until the mixture just holds together.
2 large loaves
Until the popularization of the potato in the mid-eighteenth century, black bread, accompanied by herring and a few vegetables, constituted the primary component of the Central and Eastern European diet. As Shlolom Aleichem's Teyve the milkman complained, "on a pot of thin gruel and a loaf of dark bread." Indeed, from the sixteenth until the eighteenth century, rye was the most commonly grown crop in Russia. Although as milling techniques improved, pletzels (flatbreads) and other lighter loaves gained increase popularity, for the vast majority of eastern Europeans, black bread and bagels served as everyday fare.
Rye is one of the few grains besides wheat that contains any appreciable amount of gluten. The quantity, however, is rather low. To further complicate matters, the gluten is surrounded by a pentosane, a saplike substance that inhibits its development. Although rigorous kneading will help build up the rye's gluten and produce a somewhat lighter loaf, it is necessary to add some wheat flour to avoid a hard, flat bread. Too much wheat, however, hides rye's tangy flavor and chewy texture. For the best taste and texture, use about 4½ parts wheat to 3½ parts rye flour.
There are four basic grades of rye flour -- light, medium, dark, and pumpernickel. Light rye contains no bran and is, therefore, very pale in color. Dark rye contains all of the bran and has a more intense flavor and color. Medium rye is a mixture of light and dark ryes. Pumpernickel is a dark rye with added bran. The amount of bran in the flour and how finely it's ground differs from one brand to another. The bran cuts the gluten strands. So the more bran in the flour, the heavier the loaf. Store rye flour in the refrigerator or freezer and return to room temperature just before using.
Rye flour produces a tangy-flavored, chewy, robust loaf. Most mass-produced ryes rely on caramel color to mask the high wheat content and, therefore, lack a genuine rye taste or texture. Homemade rye bread can replicate the old fashioned flavor through a slow rise and rye starter. The slow rise of the sponge increases the flavor and produces a chewier texture. Molasses is added to darken the color, although the traditional European way to darken the bread was to add soaked pieces of stale rye bread. Caraway seeds are commonly added to impart a bit of spice. Do not, however, use so many seeds that they overpower the rye.
2 medium loaves
Sephardim historically served unembellished pita-like bread as their Sabbath loaves, sometimes adding anise. (In biblical times, it was already a common practice to flavor bread with fennel and cumin.) Others make round loaves -- symbolizing a coin -- or intricate shapes, ranging from spirals to flowers. Moroccan Sabbath loaves tend to be fancier - flavored with anise, round, raised, and frequently with a fluted outer edge. For Rosh Hashanah, they prepare pain petri, raised loaves laden with anise, eggs, and sweetener and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Many Sephardic authorities, however, questioned whether Hamotzi (the blessing over bread) could properly be recited over enriched loaves since adding large amounts of eggs and sweetener transforms the finished product into a cake.
Nevertheless, sweeter breads are now commonly served on holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, and to break the fast of Yom Kippur. This Iberian anise bread, called pain à l'anis in the Maghreb, takes its name from its ball-like shape. After the Expulsion in 1492, Sephardic Jews introduced bollo to various locations around the Mediterranean where several other communities adopted it. Italians serve this bread, called maritucci, on the Sabbath and holidays, especially during Sukkot, where it is also made into bagel shapes called ciambelle di sukkot.
1. Dissolve the yeast in ¼ cup water. Stir in 1 teaspoon sugar and let stand until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the remaining water, remaining sugar, eggs, oil, anise, salt, and 2 cups flour. Gradually add enough of the remaining flour until the mixture holds together.
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and The World of Jewish Desserts. Send comments and requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.