Jewish Review of Books

Loaves in the Ark

By Matt Goldish
Summer 2011

This striking tale of mistaken but nonetheless pure faith, divine fiat, and free food in 16th-century Safed comes from a book by Rabbi Moses Hagiz entitled Mishnat Chakhamim (Wandsbeck, 1733; pp. 52). It is one of a number of versions in circulation, including some fanciful variants.

Hagiz (ca. 1671-1750) spent much of his life wandering through Europe fighting the heresy of the Sabbateans. While the Hebrew wording is slightly obscure, his apparent claim to have heard the tale from contemporaries of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) can't be true. Luria, the great kabbalist of Egypt and Safed, did, however, have contact with conversos—those descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews whose ancestors had converted to Christianity in the 14tth and 15th centuries. A tradition preserved in the late-16th-century hagiography Toledot ha-Ari reports that Luria acquired his first mystical book from a recently re-Judaized converso who could not himself read Hebrew. Portuguese priests who visited Safed at the time found homesick conversos there anxious to hear the news from their land of origin. Thus, the presence of a converso family recently returned to Judaism in Safed is not unlikely. In addition, Luria was widely believed to have had access to the deliberations and decisions of the "heavenly academy."

The Christian upbringing of the conversos plays an important role in the story. The Portuguese man's error may well relate to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, according to which the wine and wafer ingested at communion become the actual substance of the blood and body of Jesus. This man's invented ritual (enabled, it should be noted, by the labors of his wife) is a sort of mirror image of the Eucharist: God consumes the bread as a sacrifice from man. Perhaps this is why the rabbi is so quick to label this an act of anthropomorphic heresy. The original showbread, one of the regular offerings given by the ancient Hebrews in the Tabernacle and Temple, was never meant to be "eaten" by God; the priests, in fact, were entitled to eat it after it had been displayed for a week.

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