Wednesday, March 22, 2006


“Man cannot live on bread alone” - כי לא על הלחם לבדו יחיה האדם (Devarim 8:3)

While it is clear from the verse that there are more important things in life than lechem (or lehem/lekhem) לחם bread, by its placement it is also clear that lechem is of very high significance. What is the meaning of this staple word?

Well, first of all, it's not clear that it originally meant only bread. In Arabic lahm means meat, and as Ruth Almagor-Ramon points out here:
lechem meant "the main food". When flour was the basis of the main food, then lechem meant bread; for those who relied mainly on meat, then the same root took on that meaning.

Stahl explains the term similarly. He points out that Hebrew also preserves some of the non-bread meaning of lechem, as in the verse from Tzefania 1:17: וְשֻׁפַּךְ דָּמָם כֶּעָפָר, וּלְחֻמָם כַּגְּלָלִים - "their blood will be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung". Here l'chum refers to flesh, to meat.

In Hebrew, Bethlehem derives from Beit Lechem - the House of Bread. In Arabic, they call it Beit Lahm - House of Meat. (The English word bedlam derives from a London mental hospital called "Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem".)

What about two other words that share the same root with lechem - מלחמה milchama - war, and הלחמה halchama - welding? Both Stahl and Almagor explain that they are all connected. Welding brings things closer, and in war in ancient times, the combatants were very close to one another. And what about lechem? Almagor claims that man feels very close to lechem (food), whereas Stahl says that the flesh association is earlier, and explains that lechem (flesh) is very close to the bone.

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