In the opening chapter of the book of Isaiah (1:19-20), the prophet informs his listeners about the reward that will follow if they choose to follow God and the consequences should they fail to do so:
If, then, you agree and give heed,
You will eat the good things of the earth;
But if you refuse and disobey,
You will be devoured by the sword.
Translated this way, the verse suggests that the reward will take the form of a bountiful harvest and the punishment by military conquest. While this is one possible understanding of the verse, there is another, as the final phrase does not actually include the preposition “by” in the original Hebrew and can be read “you shall devour the sword” — an odd pairing of verb and direct object.
On today’s daf, Rava suggests an interpretation that seeks to make sense of this reading of the verse:
“You shall devour the sword” — you shall eat food that harms the body like a sword: coarse grains of salt, hard barley bread and onions. As the Master said: Dried bakery bread eaten with salt and onions harms the body like swords.
Just as the reward comes in the form of food, says Rava, so too does the punishment. And it comes in the form of having to consume coarse salt, hard bread and onions — a painful culinary combination.
We’ve already explored the talmudic treatment of onions, but what about bread and salt?
Bread was a staple of the talmudic diet, so much so that eating food was synonymous with consuming bread (e.g. the blessing for a meal, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, who brings forth bread from the earth,” focuses on bread, the central element of the meal).
Like today, there were a variety of breads in talmudic times and the bread one ate was a reflection of one’s socio-economic class, as we saw on Moed Katan 28:
In the house of Rav Hisda there was bread from the finest flour even for the dogs, and it was not asked after, as there was so much food. In the house of Rabba, on the other hand, there was coarse barley bread even for people, and it was not found in sufficient quantities.
Bread made from barley was not only deemed inferior, it was believed to cause internal damage to those who ate it, so much so that Mishnah Sanhedrin 9:5 suggests using barley bread as a punishment for repeat offenders who are jailed:
The court places them into the vaulted chamber and feeds them barley bread until their belly ruptures.
The rabbis knew that salt brings out the flavor of a dish and believed (see Berakhot 40) that a diet without salt could have negative consequences. Berakhot 2 suggest that the poor subsisted on bread dipped in salt. And Avot 6:4 suggests that this is all anyone really needs to live a life of Torah and earn one’s place in the world to come:
Such is the way of a life of Torah: you shall eat bread with salt, and rationed water shall you drink; you shall sleep on the ground, your life will be one of privation, and in Torah shall you labor. If you do this, “Happy shall you be and it shall be good for you” (Psalms 128:2): “Happy shall you be” — in this world, “and it shall be good for you” — in the World to Come.
Bread and salt were staples in the ancient world. While softer breads and finer salts were the preferred option, the majority of people likely had to settle for hard and coarse. Avot 6:4 embraces this reality and suggests turning to Torah for true sustenance. Rava, on the other hand, yearns for a better diet, one that will come as a reward for following in God’s ways.
As for Isaiah’s intended audience, they failed to heed the words of the prophet and met with death, destruction and exile at the point of an actual sword, not a metaphorical or dietary one. A harsh reality of life in the kingdom of Israel in the days of the prophets, one not shared by their descendents, living a bit more comfortably a millenia later in Babylonia.