The Shtei Halechem of Shavuot

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

            In Parashat Emor the Torah describes the unique korban offered on Chag Shavuot known as the 'mincha chadashah' - the new mincha offering. This label reflects the fact that the korban was composed of two loaves of bread (shtei halechem) which constituted the first korban dedicated from the new crop of wheat which had recently been harvested (recall that Shavuot is the Chag Hakazir - the holiday of harvesting). This shiur will focus upon the relationship between the two loaves of bread. A different question pertains to the degree of integration between the shtei halechem and the two sheep (shnei hakevasim) - the second part of the korban. This question will not be directly addressed within the context of this shiur.


            The mishna in Menachot (27a) asserts that the two loaves are me'akeiv - namely they must be offered together if at all.  The following question arises: how pronounced an integration do these loaves exhibit?  The aforementioned mishna lists several other instances in which several components of a mitzva are me'akeiv. In some of these cases the dependent components are highly integrated: the seven sprinklings of the blood upon the parokhet (the curtain which divided the kodesh hakodoshim from the rest of the Mishkan) performed by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur are not just dependent; they actually form one integrated series of haza'ot. Similarly, the seven arms comprising the menora of the Mikdash are united within one vessel and are not merely 'halakhically' dependent upon each other. Still other cases appear to be only loosely integrated - they are separate entities which share a 'halakhic dependency' - without each element the entire whole is deficient and invalid. For example the two spoonfuls of levona (bazichei levona) which were placed upon the shulchan do not appear to be one entity but rather exist apart from one another but are associated by Halakha. Similarly the two goats of Yom Kippur (one sacrificed in the Mikdash and one sent to azazel) present themselves as separate animals which happen to be mutually dependent. Into which category do these shtei halechem fall? Physically they are TWO loaves  but how are they viewed by Halakha - as two separate loaves which are mutually dependent or as one unit?


            An interesting start would be the gemara in Menachot (94a) which describes the baking of these loaves. The mishna announces that they were kneaded and baked separately. This, in contrast to the weekly lechem hapanim breads upon the shulchan which, though kneaded separately, were baked in pairs. Should we infer from this that each loaf of the Shavuot shtei halechem retains its distinctiveness and must be prepared alone? Or is the gemara merely informing us that unlike the lechem hapanim which MUST be baked in pairs, the shtei halechem CAN be baked alone but can also be baked separately? Immediately one can question whether the baking instructions of the shtei halechem offered by the mishna are me'akeiv.


            The Keren Orah moderates the mishna even further and claims that the baking itself might have taken place together but they still had to be inserted into the oven individually. It is interesting to study his refusal to accept individual baking. The ovens of the Mikdash like other holy vessels installed its contents with kedusha (after which non-Kohanim could no longer benefit from the foodstuffs). However, these vessels only conferred kedusha to the food if they were filled to the right measurement. If more or less than the required amount of a particular item was placed in a holy vessel, no kedusha was transferred. The Keren Orah reasons that if the actual baking of these breads  took place individually at no point would the oven contain the requisite shiyur - TWO BREADS - and no kedusha would be conferred. Evidently, the Keren Orah saw these two breads as one unit and was forced to reinterpret the mishna. Indeed, the kneading of the dough and insertion within the oven were performed separately. However, they were actually baked together.


            An interesting test case about the level of integration of the two breads can be found in the mishna in Menachot (13b) and concerns the halakha of pigul. If, when sacrificing a korban, a person maintains improper thoughts - i.e. he intends to eat part of the korban in an improper place or beyond the proper time limitation - the korban becomes pigul which is forbidden to eat (the person also commits a Biblical transgression and in some cases receives karet). What would happen if, while sacrificing the two sheep of this Shavuot korban, a person intended to eat ONE of the two loaves in an improper time or place. The Chakhamim rule that both breads become pigul while Rebbi Yossi claims that only the 'intended' bread actually becomes pigul. On the surface this machloket also appears to question the degree of integration between the two breads. According to Chakhamim the two loaves are actually treated as one unit and hence any disqualification which affects one automatically affects the other. According to Rebbi Yossi however, the loaves retain their separate identities and the disqualification or status of pigul is not transferred.


            In truth, one might have claimed that even Chakhamim divide the two loaves into separate entities - and yet disqualify both loaves. The issur of pigul and the process by which the korban becomes disqualified does not merely entail improper thoughts or intentions. These thoughts must be held during one of the stages of the actual sacrifice. Thinking alone about eating a korban in an improper place does not establish pigul. Having those thoughts during shechita (the actual sacrificing of the animal) or zerika - (sprinkling its blood) invalidates the korban. This invalidation is established in part because the inappropriate thoughts affect the 'act' in question which in turn confers a status of pigul upon the korban. It is not merely the 'pigul thoughts' which ruin a korban but the action performed within the framework of these improper thoughts. In our situation even if Chakhamim maintain a lack of integration between the two breads - each of them SEPARATELY might be  affected by the shechitat hakesavim (the sacrifice of the two sheep) which was a pigul shechita. Though the actual sacrificing is physically performed only upon the sheep it relates to and addresses the loaves as well - and each of them separately. The gemara repeatedly informs us that the kedusha of the shtei halechem is conferred by the shechita of the sheep.  The shechita does not just define and confer kedusha to the sheep but also installs the lechem with their kedusha. The act of shechita relates to the lechem as well. Hence this pigul shechita can define EACH bread as 'pigul bread' even if the two loaves are not classified as one unit. Chakhamim, by casting each bread as pigul, might be conceding their distinctiveness but maintaining that the act of shechita upon the sheep clouded by the thoughts of pigul define each bread separately as pigul.


            The gemara itself (Menachot 14b) relates to the degree of integration of the two loaves. Interestingly enough this discussion takes place within the aforementioned stance of Chakhamim regarding pigul. The gemara notes the dual nature of these two breads: on the one hand by making them mutually dependent (me'akeiv), the Torah treats them as one. On the other hand by instructing that they be baked separately (see above) the Torah divides them. Hence according to Chakhamim these breads exhibit some flexibility with regard to the degree of their integration and if a person treats the loaves as separate (by thinking improper thoughts about only one of them) the other loaf is not affected. Seemingly this very gemara addresses the fundamental question discussed in this article and does note some degree of flexibility (depending upon the intent of the person).


            Possibly a more indicative machloket would be found in the mishna in Menachot 14b. What happens if the one of the loaves becomes impure? Can the pure loaf be eaten? Or do we claim that the impurity which disqualified one loaf affects its twin as well. This question forms a machloket between Rebbi Yehuda, who invalidates the second loaf and the Chakhamim who argue. The rationale provided by the mishna for Rebbi Yehuda's position is that a korban tzibbur cannot be split. The entire korban must be treated equally. Even though only one loaf was actually affected by the Tum'a (unlike the previous case of pigul in which theoretically each loaf might have been affected) both are disqualified. To be sure the gemara views Rebbi Yehuda's position about these shtei halechem as reflective of his overall stance that communal korbanot cannot be divided and their components must be treated equally. What line of reasoning did the Chakhamim adopt in arguing with Rebbi Yehuda? Do they reject his premise and allow for the splitting of a korban tzibbur (see Rashi Menachot (15a) who explains in this manner)? Or do they accept Rebbi Yehuda's premise but maintain that the two breads are NOT one unit and the disqualification of one is isolated and has no effect upon the second distinct loaf. Rebbi Yehuda's position might have been predicated upon an assumption about the integration of these two breads - an assumption the Chakhamim refused to accept.






1. As we have witnessed on several occasions whenever two or more items are necessary and dependent, or two or more actions required to produce the desired halakhic result the degree of integration between the two must be inspected.




The presence of  two loaves in this mitzva has inspired both the world of minhag as well as the world of machshava. The source for eating dairy on Shavuot according to some is linked to the shtei halechem. The minhag began as a custom to eat two dishes - first a dairy one and then a meat one - corresponding to the two lechem. Ultimately this minhag 'morphed' into a practice of only eating dairy. The S'fat Emet in his writings on Shavuot sees within the shtei halechem a notion of duality which characterizes the chag. For example it reflects the attempt of Am Yisrael to draw closer to God and God's 'being closer' to us. It also reflects the dichotomy between a miracle-based existence and a natural one. Only upon entering Eretz Yisrael did the nation begin to integrate the miracles of God with the daily natural existence. Therefore only in Israel were the shtei halechem offered.


Chag Same'ach

Moshe Taragin