We are getting newly involved in Judaism, thanks to our little one being enrolled in a Jewish early childhood program. Each Friday she proudly brings home a freshly baked challah. She is so thrilled that I’m thinking I should hop on board and start baking challah with her — and maybe even try out having Friday night dinner as well. I am ready to give it a shot, but there must be something more to making challah than simple bread making. Where should I begin?
Challah is a Jewish food like no other. It is infused with ritual and meaning from about as far back as we go. It is a compelling teacher; instructing us with three essential Jewish ideas around eating, sustenance and Jewish women’s spiritual life. All this from an unassuming — though stately — loaf of bread.
Strictly speaking, challah refers to the rich braided egg bread eaten on Shabbat and holidays. The word challah appears only once in the entire Torah, in the Book of Bamidbar:
When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set some aside as a gift to the Lord as the first yield of your baking, challah, you shall set aside a loaf as a gift…
Challah is the name of the portion that is separated and then given to the Kohen from each and every batch of dough kneaded in ancient times. The idea of the commandment is that bread, as the staff of life, the essential element of our sustenance, should always have as a part of its routine production an element of charitable giving, tzedakah. We should never take its blessing for granted, and we must share our gifts of the land with the priests who have no portion of their own. The first yield is given, not unlike the bikkurim, the first fruits offered yearly from the first produce of the land.
This giving of the first is powerful. The temptation to pluck that first grape, pomegranate, fig or date off the tree and pop right into our hungry mouth is quite human, but to offered the first as a gift is a discipline that teaches gratitude and humility.
Though there is no Temple, a remnant of this practice continues. After preparing the dough, we recite a blessing and simply separate a small piece — about walnut-sized — make a blessing, burn it, and then dispose of it respectfully. How the word challah became the name of our weekly Sabbath bread, I do not know. But how poignant is it that Jewish bread took on the identity of the mitzvah associated with it? Lesson number one? There is no eating without giving.
Next lesson: Challah comes in twos, teaching us to trust that the Lord will indeed provide. manna, bread from above, is the quintessential object lesson for faith. It fell from heaven in the desert and sustained the people Israel for 40 years. To inscribe this core experience into our collective memory, generation after generation, we place a double portion of bread, two challahs, under a cover every Shabbat. Throughout our 40 years in the desert, not only were we dependent upon God’s daily delivery of “groceries,” but even more — a double portion of dew-covered manna was delivered every Friday so the Shabbat would not be desecrated by gathering of manna.
Right there, on our weekly Shabbat table, the challah becomes our teacher. The cover is an enchanting reminder of the layer of dew that sheltered the newly fallen manna, while the two challahs represent the double portion that fell miraculously from heaven. Our weekly challah may not have fallen from heaven, but it surely appears no less, by the grace of God.
Onto lesson three: There’s history baked in that challah! Jewish women’s stories are braided into those crusty loaves.
Women, traditionally the bread makers, came to express themselves creatively through two challah-related practices. The first is the very shaping and creation of challah. My grandmother, not unlike many a bubbie from the alter heim, the old country, would fashion various challah shapes for the each of the different holidays; a ladder challah for Shavuot, a hand challah for Hoshanah Rabbah, a bird challah for Rosh Hashanah (along with the more traditional sweet raisin-crown Challah). As our children and I would bake together, we allowed our creativity to come to shape in the form of loaves fashioned to resemble menorahs, Jonah in the whale — the sky’s the limit!
The second venue for creativity was the writing of prayers, t’chines, for the taking of the challah ritual. T’chine is the Yiddish name for the women’s devotional prayers created by and for women among Ashkenazic communities. According to Chavah Weissler, in her work, Voices of the Matriarchs many t’chines, evolved around mitzvot and rituals unique to women, among them, of course, challah baking. Here is a sampling of this most lovely of prayer genres:
May my challah be accepted as the sacrifice on the altar was accepted. May my mitzvah be accepted just as if I had performed it properly…May God grant that I and my husband and my children be able to nourish ourselves….
Lord of all worlds, in your hands is all blessing. I come now to honor your holiness, and I pray you to give your blessing on what I bake. Send an angel to guard the baking, so that everything will be well baked, will rise nicely, and will not burn, to honor your holy Sabbath and over which one recites the holy blessing — as you blessed the dough of Sarah and Rebecca, our mothers…
Challah teaches by telling the story of long, but not lost, traditions embedded delicately in women’s everyday customs. The women of Yemen offered a prayer at the time of the grinding of the flour, while the Marrano women of Portugal prayed secretly that their tithing would replicate the tithing practiced in the ancient holy land. Treasured are these precious expressions from long ago — they reflect the deep connections and meanings that women created around their baking of challah.
As you ponder taking up this magnificent of Jewish practices, the baking of challah, you will need a recipe — that’s for sure — and some patience with technique. But you will assume your place among all those that came before you. You will be actualizing the perpetuity of profound Jewish ideas of humility, appreciation as you draw out from yourself creativity, and satisfaction of passing on to your child the warm deliciousness of love, home and Shabbat — what could be better?