Round or Braidedby Rabbi Ben Leinow, Congregation B’nei Tikvah August 27, 2018
When I was growing up, challah used to be the simple treat people called egg bread that we children stuffed into our mouths until we looked like chipmunks. At home, a little jam or cream cheese, and we were content. In today’s generation we have improved challah. Now we who eat challah have more questions to answer when making or buying challah for Shabbat or holidays. We are confronted by: round or braided, with raisins, or with chocolate chips or with many other additional tasty ingredients that makes challah have a different taste. We must also decide should challah be homemade or bought?
What is the story of challah? First off, it was never a simple loaf of bread. In Jewish tradition there are three important meals on the Shabbat. The meals are Friday night, which is the welcoming of the Shabbat, Saturday lunch, which comes after the morning Shabbat service and late Saturday afternoon as we are readying ourselves for the end of the Shabbat and a return to the regular days of the week. Each meal begins with two loaves of bread. The double loaves remind us of the manna that fell to the earth each day when the Israelites wandered in the desert. According to the Torah, the manna did not fall on Shabbat or on holidays. To help the Jews live through the Shabbat, a double portion dropped from the heavens on the day before the Shabbat, and enough was gathered to live through the seventh day of the week. To remember and honor the double portion that was gathered for Shabbat, most Jewish homes bless and eat two loaves rather than just one.
It is typical to eat challah with salt. In some homes the challot (challot is plural for challah) are dipped into salt before saying the blessing over bread. Other families cut and tear the challah, and then hand dip each person’s challah into the salt. It is not an insult to ask for salt if it is not on the table. It is also OK to sprinkle salt on individual pieces of challah. In Israel, because of the Red Sea, there is an unending supply of salt. Salt has been a basic part of our rituals because salt never spoils or decays, which symbolizes a bond with G-d and the Jewish people now and forever.
As a result of the destruction of the Holy Temple in the year 70 CE, Jews were scattered throughout the world. Challah and salt on the dinner table reminds us that all Jews, no matter where they may be, are part of G-d’s eternal plan.
Scholars suggest that the word challah comes from a root word to mean round or circle. It also could mean ‘to let go’ because the bread was given to the priests at the holy temple. Eventually challah was bread made by non-Jewish bakers in various countries. The challah was baked in Poland and Russia and called ‘chalka’ or ‘kchala. Challah became so popular throughout the world that most countries had their own name for this tasty bread.
Most Ashkenazi Jews in the United States have only tasted Challah made with many eggs, and so it would be considered an egg bread challah. Sephardic Jews often prefer a challah that is not made with eggs and would be considered a ‘water challah.’
When challah is baking in the oven there is an overwhelming fragrance, giving the home a sense of good will and joy. My wife (ztl) loved to bake, and when she was unable to bake challah she often came home and put the Challah in the oven at a low temperature, which would allow the fragrance of Shabbat to fill the house.
As we start the High Holiday period, it should be noted that a Rosh Hashanah challah could be round and was often referred to as ‘turban challah.’ The Rosh Hashanah round challah reminds us that the year is a cycle and often we go in circles as we try to find our way through the year.
Challah symbolizes the love we have for family, friends, the Jewish people and our desire to make the world a better place. We should let it be known and declare that if only everyone in the world ate a piece of Challah on Friday night and Saturday, then the Messiah would come and there would be an end to all wars. Challah, to the modern Jew, represents the goodness of life. The taste of challah truly starts the Shabbat or the Holiday with excitement and joy. Young children can hardly wait for a piece of Challah and adults feel like children as they taste the Challah on Shabbat and holidays. By the way, of course sliced apples and honey should not be left out of the New Year.