In biblical times, bread (“lechem”) was such an important element of the diet that sometimes the word was synonymous with food in general.* Indeed, the prophet Ezekiel imagines God’s meting out punishment by breaking the “staff of bread.”* Its importance helps explain why special grain offerings featuring cakes (unleavened) were offered as sacrifices in the Temple. Remnants of bread’s importance survive in that the blessing for bread retains its primacy in the hierarchy of food blessings and that full grace after meals (birkat ha-mazon) is not required unless bread has been eaten.
When baking large amounts of bread, Jewish law requires that a small portion be set aside – and later burned or buried – in remembrance of gifts to the Temple described in the Bible.
“When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set some aside as a gift to the Lord. As the first yield of your baking you shall set aside a loaf as a gift; you shall set it aside as a gift like the gift from the threshing floor. You shall make a gift to the Lord from the first yield of your baking, throughout the ages.”
All boxes of kosher matzah bear the expression “challah is taken” to provide assurance that this law has been properly followed. (In this context challah refers the portion of dough set aside, rather than the bread with the same name that accompanies the Sabbath meal mentioned below.)
It is customary to accompany the Sabbath meal with two loaves of braided bread – challah, said to commemorate the double portion of manna the Israelites collected prior to the Sabbath.
The festival of Passover mandates eating matzah – unleavened bread, as well as scrupulously avoiding any foods that might contain leavening agents.* The Bible gives two reasons for eating matzah. Exodus notes that it reminds us that when the Israelites left Egypt, they left in a hurry and their bread didn’t have time to rise. Deuteronomy equates matzah with the “bread of affliction” or possibly the bread eaten by those who are poor.*
Bread is vital to Christians. It symbolizes the living presence of Jesus, reminds us of our need for divine and human nourishment, and reminds us of our obligation to alleviate the world’s hungers.
All four gospels contain accounts in which Jesus feeds multitudes with a few loaves of bread and fish. In the Gospel of John, however, the feeding of the crowds serves as a prelude for a more extended reflection by Jesus just as the time for Passover draws near; the discourse and use of Jewish festivals are a typical literary convention John employs throughout his gospel. After feeding them, Jesus instructs the crowd to work not for the “food that perishes,” but rather for the “food that endures for eternal life.” The crowd remembers that God had fed their ancestors in the desert with manna. Jesus reminds them that it was God, not Moses, from whom the manna came. Then he tells them: ”I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
We see at least four dimensions of John’s theology in this intricately layered account: 1) the connection of manna, the unleavened bread of Passover and the “bread of life”; 2) the responsiveness of Jesus to physical hunger; 3) his admonition that while people need to eat, they should seek to fulfill other hungers, symbolized by the complex term “eternal life”; and 4) the identification with Jesus, the bread of life, with God, the giver of manna.
Christians down the ages have remembered Jesus not only as their bread of life, but also as a teacher of prayer, most notably, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This petition appears in the so-called “Lord’s Prayer” or “Our Father,” found in slightly variant versions in Matthew (6:9-13) and Luke (11:2-4). Perhaps the “daily” alludes to the manna, which God provided on that basis—it could not be hoarded. So in asking God for daily bread, we who are well fed pray that we do not pile up possessions even as we remember the needs of those who lack sufficient bread.
“In the Mass,” Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “we have Jesus in the appearance of bread, while in the slums we see Christ and touch him in the broken bodies and in the abandoned children.*
God in the Qur’an is the provider from whom every creature receives provisions of life (11: 6). It is God only who determines who will receive what and how much. The Qur’an says: “Verily my Lord enlarges and restricts the Sustenance to such of his servants as He pleases: and nothing do ye spend in the least [in His cause] but He replaces it: for He is the Best of those who grant Sustenance (34:39). The Qur’an speaks of Mary in terms of how God provided her with fresh and delicious food from heaven that made prophet Zakariya to wonder, and asked Mary: “O Mary! Whence [comes] this to you?” She said: “From Allah, for Allah Provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure” (3:37). When the children of Israel were suffering from hunger and thirst, Moses prayed to God and God answered his prayers with food from heaven. The Qur’an says: “And We caused the clouds to comfort you with their shade, and sent down unto you manna and quails. [saying,]’Partake of the good things which We have provided for you as sustenance’” (2:57).
Bread in Islam refers to food in general. It is a gift of God from the Creator to creation; therefore it shall be taken care of, protected, nurtured and used appropriately. Wasting food, destroying places that produce food, including the oceans and farmland, is strictly prohibited in Islam. Food is sacred in Islam because it sustains life and protection of life is sacred. Destroying food resources is actually destroying life. Eating moderately is the principle of Islam. Eating excessively is unhealthy and discouraged in Islam. It is considered un-Islamic to fill the plate and then leave some food to be wasted. The Prophet (peace be upon him) himself ate very little and advised his followers to do so. The Muslim custom is if bread is dropped on the floor, eat it if clean or give it to the birds. But throwing food into the trash is unethical in Islam.