It was taught in a baraita: One may not sift flour on the festival. Rabbi Papiyas and Rabbi Yehudah ben Beterah said: One may sift. And they all agree that if a stone or wood chip fell into the flour, one may sift it. The teacher in the baraita taught before Ravina: One may not sift flour on the festival, but if a stone or wood chip falls in, then one may pick it out by hand. Ravina said to him: That is even worse, because it involves [the forbidden activity of] picking things out.
Rava bar Rav Huna Zuteh taught at the entrance to Nehardea: One may sift flour on the festival. Rav Nachman said to his students: Go say to Rava bar Rav Huna Zuteh: Hang your good teachings on the thorn bushes. Go out and see how many sifters there are in Nehardea.
The wife of Rav Yosef used to sift her flour on the back of the sifter. He said to her: But it is good bread that I want.
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Yosef is still in the study house even though the sun is no longer high in the sky. I had thought he would come home for lunch, and that we would all eat the festive meal together. But the lentils grew cold and the bread hardened to a crust and the little ones, Yehudah and Shimon, were irritable and tired from long hours of hunger. Finally I gave up and let them eat – I remembered what happened when Rav Rechumi’s wife Chana waited for too long in her moated grange. That poor woman. She is still in her widow’s rent garments, and I have heard, from those who know her, that has developed a terrible fear of heights.
I know that Yosef will come back, and it is this conviction that drives me as I clear off the table and turn to bring the big sack of flour from the storeroom adjoining the house. Turning over in my head, again and again, are the words they used to say to us: “What you would bake, bake; and what you would boil, boil.” They are from the holy Torah, and I hum them to a melody I composed after years of overhearing Yosef chanting from the scroll. What you would bake, bake; and what you would boil, boil.
I am heaving the great sack of flour over my shoulder when I remember the conversation I overheard last week by the river, where all the women were doing laundry in preparation for the festival. These outdoor conversations are often quite lively, and I generally prefer to listen quietly from the side. This time it began with Sarah bat Beterah, who tends to be, as is well known, particularly vociferous. About her, the women often say, “For the person seven houses away from her, it is like being next door.” She is not just loud; she also speaks with the conviction that she is right, which somehow make her seem even louder. This time by the river was no exception.
“Now I know it for sure. You cannot resift flour on the festival. I remember the bread we ate in the Sukkah when I was a child. It was always thicker and denser from having undergone just one sifting.”
Leah bat Shelah would not hear of it, however. She stood up before Sarah, lifted her right foot on an overturned bucket that was beside her, and declared, “That’s nonsense. Whoever heard of baking bread without resifting the flour? If you can bake bread, then of course you can resift. It’s part and parcel of the process. What, are you going to tell me that you can cut off the head of a chicken but not kill it? If you are going to bake bread, you are going to resift the flour.”
At that point, as I recall, Sarah told Leah that she was as foolish as a headless chicken, and that she should go stuff herself with breadcrumbs. Leah went off in a huff, and the women returned to their laundering.
Standing here now in my kitchen, I think about their disagreement. Can a person resift flour on the festival? I find that these types of questions, with their yes-or-no answers, are dreadfully uninteresting. Can one do this? May one do that? OK or not OK? Yes or no? These are questions for people who dress in black and white and sleep soundly through the night. These are not questions for a woman who rises before dawn to heat water for a man who will never love her. They are not questions for a woman who buried three newborns and was told that she may not mourn them. They are not questions for any woman, perhaps.
I think of my mother in her kitchen on those festival afternoons, just a few hours before the sun set to bring in Shabbat. Yes, she would sift flour. But she would hold the sifter upside down and sift the flour on its backside. And so this is what I have always done as well, though I would not announce it in the bathhouse. With the sifter awkwardly overturned, some of the flour inevitably scatters on to the floor; and some of the unsifted flour falls into the mixing bowl too. The sifter seems heavier upside down, and I am straining my arm and back when I hear the hinge of the door creak and Yosef walks in to the house. “I bless the lazy man who does not leave his house on the foot-festival,” I mutter with half a smile as he enters before me.
Yosef begins to smile too, but then his eye falls on the sifter, and his whole body stiffens. “I want good bread to eat on the Sabbath,” he says gruffly. “Turn that thing over and start again.”