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One might think that the word “lechem” was a fairly general term. It seems to refer sometimes to animals' feed (Psalms 147:09), mannah (Ex 16:22), or sacrificial meat (Lev 03:16, Num 28:02). Rashi sometimes says that it means “food” in general: Gen 31:54, Gen 49:20, Lev 03:11, Lev 21:17, Lev 21:21, etc., sometimes citing Jeremiah 11:19, Daniel 05:01, or Ecclesiastes 10:19. See also Ramban at Ex 16:04.

And yet at Gen 18:05, Avraham offers to bring “pas lechem” to the angels. What do these words mean? By now, one might think that they mean “some food.” But here Rashi seems to think that they refer to bread; if they mean “food,” then what is the meaning of Rashi’s comment – that FOOD sustains life? Does he mean that “lechem” alone is food, while the expression “pas lechem” together refers to bread? If so, then how can Rashi cite the passage from Psalms, which does not say “pas lechem” but just “lechem”?

Does the association of this story with the moral “Say little but do much” suggest some understanding of the words “pas lechem”? I always thought that the inference was that Avraham said little (I will bring bread) but did much (brought other foods too); is it rather that Avraham said "I will bring just a little food” but instead brought a feast?

And lastly, the whole conversation seems to be about the assumption that “lechem” means bread. If that’s wrong, then where did the impression arise? Are there places later in Tanach where it does clearly mean bread? Or that just a sense the word took on in later Hebrew?

  • The word "pat" means "piece" and seems to be synonymous with "bread". But, keep in mind that even in English, "bread" doesn't necessarily mean "a food made from wheat flour, water and yeast." (or whatever ingredients might go into bread.) It can also be a general term for "food" or "sustenance". The difference is that it seems Mishanic Hebrew used the term mazon for "food" and "lechem" specifically for "bread". – DanF Jul 18 '17 at 18:24
  • @DanF But as I originally asked, if your answer is that "pat" means bread, while "lechem" alone does not, then why does Rashi cite the verse from Psalms to show that bread, not food, sustains? – Chaim Jul 18 '17 at 21:11
  • If you like an answer, please consider accepting it. Otherwise, please comment on how it can be improved. – DanF Oct 17 '17 at 21:09
  • @DanF I feel like there's some communication gap, but I don't know if I'm just missing you. It still seems to me that (as I remarked originally and again in the comment on July 18 at 21:11) Rashi at Gen 18:05 cites the passage from Psalms, which does not say “pas lechem” but just “lechem,” and this suggests that (unlike you) he is not distinguishing the two-word expression "pas lechem" from either of those words alone. Are you dealing with Rashi's understanding? (And on a side note, is it true that the English word "bread" refers to food in general?) – Chaim Oct 18 '17 at 12:00
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Partial answer for now:

It seems that in Tanac"h the word לחם is used to mean "food", "bread" or even "meat / flesh". It depends on the context.

From Balashon - The Hebrew Language Detective:

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

(It helps when I recall my own answers...)

I am excerpting part of my answer to what the term פת means, as part of it addresses that verse from Gen. 18:05. (Good choice, BTW, as I believe that is that word's 1st appearance in Tana"ch.)

The word פת means "piece". (As I don't believe in coincidence, I think the English word "piece" may have come from the Hebrew, in some way!)

See Radak on Genesis 18:5:1 (Sefaria English translation) - Hebrew & English excerpted by me:

ואקחה פת לחם, כי הנה אברהם אמר פת לחם שפירושו חתיכת לחם ולא אמר לחם כמו שאמר מעט מים כמו שפירשנו. ואקחה פת לחם

Avraham spoke about a piece of bread, whereas in fact he served a sumptuous meal. He had even understated the amount of bread he would serve by not saying ואקח לחם, but ואקחה פת לחם, a reference to less than a whole loaf.

In short, when you see the term פת לחם it means, unambiguously, "a piece of bread". Even the word פת alone refers to a piece of bread. (You see this by itself frequently in Mishna and other halachic works.)

(FWIW, I have little doubt that the modern word "pita" comes from פת . It is unambiguously a type of bread.)

  • Incidentally there seems to be something parallel about the English word "meal," which has a narrow or old-fashioned sense, milled grain, and a broader sense in which breakfast, lunch and dinner are the three meals. – Chaim Jul 20 '17 at 13:25
  • @Chaim I think I saw something about that angle on Wiki. If your comparing English to Hebrew, consider this similarity - Another Hebrew term for "food" is shever (See its usage in the story when Ya'akov's son go to Egypt.) "Shever" also means "breakage", and I think there is a term *lishbor lechem, which in English could translate to "break bread". In English it means both literally "to break up a loaf of bread" or simply "to have a meal." As stated, above, grain was the main food staple in most of the world, and bread was the main part of a meal. Perhaps, the oldest human food around. – DanF Jul 20 '17 at 14:42
  • Re-reading today, I found that I did not really understand your point about the Radak. It seems to me that the Radak uses the word Lechem several times in different phrases NOT to distinguish bread from meat (on the one hand) BUT rather to distinguish a little food from a lot of food (on the other). I'm looking for some classical version of the current colloquial words "Is this Hamotzi?" – Chaim Jul 25 '17 at 14:43
  • Yes, I see that point, now that you mentioned it. But, as I have explained, the word "pat", while meaning "piece" also refers to bread even if the word lechem is not mentioned. However, the word lechem could mean either "bread" or "food", depending on its context. I think that Rada"k confirms this. I.e., notice that Avraham says "pat lechem" which means a "piece of bread". Had he said just lechem, he would have meant "food". Balashon cites a verse where lechem means "meat". To me, this seems like a rare explanation of the word, but, it may exist in other contexts. I'm unaware of it – DanF Jul 25 '17 at 14:52
  • To answer "Is this Hamotzi?" - If someone asks for pat, then "yes". Note that throughout halacha one condition for saying the barcaha "Hamotzi" is what I would call the tzurat hapat rule. Meaning the food has to have the shape of "bread". So, you can see that even in halacha, the term "pat" means "bread" and not something else. I'm seeing a consistency of the term "pat" meaning "bread" in both Tanac"h as well as Mishna and halachic works. If there is another explanation, I'd sure like to see it. – DanF Jul 25 '17 at 14:55

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