In Essays

Parsha Tzav | Sourdough Starter and Sacrifice

sourdough bread
Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer on Unsplash

Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Tzav, Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36. Click here to read last week’s, Parsha Vayikra.

We’re on week two of Leviticus and it’s more instructions on ritual slaughter for praising the Lord at the temple. It can feel as removed from 21st-century life as last week’s Parsha Vayikra and I suspect this will be a theme throughout the book.

The practices sound pagan or like God was trying to wean His followers off of paganism by allowing them to dabble with their former religion. It’s the religious equivalent of a little hair of the dog to kill a hangover. In ancient Judaism, you could still sacrifice an animal but only for one God.

Sourdough Leviticus

This week, the line that stuck out was in the middle of Leviticus 6:5: “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, no to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offers of well-being.”

The part I’ve emboldened is what grabbed my attention. Less than 24 hours ago, I started my first sourdough starter. The coronavirus pandemic has left Germany without dry active yeast, meaning if I want to continue my Friday challah tradition next week, I’ll need something to replace the dry active yeast. I’m out of dry active yeast and they’re impossible to find in the stores. Bakeries, including my local favorite Fine Bagels, have already turned to using sourdough starter to make their bread.

And so shall I.

I knew nothing about sourdough starter 24 hours ago. But what I’ve quickly learned is that growing it requires feeding it daily––ideally twice a day. That’s why that text stuck out. I’m no priest, but I’ll be feeding my sourdough starter every morning throughout this week of Parsha Tzav.

The text continues in the following verse: “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”

And I suppose that’s my goal here. Chancellor Merkel already made it clear that current restrictions will last until April 20th. I’m not likely to find dry active yeast any time soon, and so like many other bread lovers in Germany, I’ve had to convert my kitchen into an altar of constant creation with a perpetually fed sourdough starter.

Sacrifice in the Corona Times

Religious folks are (in)famous for being able to twist and turn ancient texts to reflect their modern lives. I’ve read interpretations of Parshas that make my eyes roll so hard, I lose my balance. But the text of this seemingly irrelevant Parsha continued to surprise me with its occasional relevance to my current baking predicament.

A few verses later, “choice flour” is described as the “regular meal offering,” half of it to be given in the morning and half of it in the evening. As I learned yesterday in my sourdough starter deep dive, you ideally feed your starter in the morning and night by removing about half and replacing it with more flour. Granted the ancient Israelites were doing it all to leave yet another “pleasing odor” for the Lord. My motives are a tad different. But still, seeing my weekly ritual and current reality reflected in such a seemingly obvious way in the ancient text of my ancestors takes me aback. It grabs my snarky tongue––the one that was so prolific when I first cracked open Genesis––and renders it mute.

Many have interpreted these retellings of ancient rituals in Leviticus as a reminder of the importance of sacrificing something from your life for the greater good. I think of the baking my friend Katie Quinn has done to help feed her neighbors in London. More generally, most of us are already making sacrifices by staying inside. People have lost their jobs, financial security, or even their lives. Is that the modern equivalent of slaughtering a bull on an altar? I don’t know. But the way certain individuals have risen to the occasion is certainly an admirable sacrifice.

Onward with Parsha Shemini.

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