11 Challah Facts Every Jewish Woman Should Know
By Yvette Miller
Challah is the rich braided bread that adorns Shabbat tables in Jewish homes the world over.
Here are 11 interesting tidbits you might not know about this essential, delicious traditional bread:
1. Biblical Origins
The word challah in the Torah first occurs when G‑d describes to the Jewish people what life will be like for them in the Land of Israel:
When you come to the Land to which I bring you, it shall be that when you will eat of the bread of the Land, you shall set aside a challah (portion) for G‑d. (Numbers 15: 18-19)
Challah is used to describe the portion that is set aside. Doughs made of any of the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, rye or oats) should have a portion separated out, which was later given to the priests who worked in the Temple and their families to eat.
Further reading: About Challah
2. Challah in the Temple
When the ancient Temple stood in Jerusalem, 12 special unleavened wheat loaves, called challah, were displayed on a gleaming golden table, opposite the golden menorah. These delicious fresh loaves were changed weekly and represented each of the 12 tribes of Israel who together formed one whole: the Jewish people.
The holiness of the Temple might be denied to us at the moment, but the holiness that resided in it did not disappear. Each of our homes can be a Mikdash Me’at, a miniature Temple. We do not have the magnificent golden menorah of the Temple, but we each can cherish the more modest lights of our Shabbat and holiday candles in our homes. Although we no longer have the 12 show breads on the golden table of the Temple, we still place two loaves of luscious challah on our Shabbat and holiday tables.
Further reading: The Showbread
3. Why Two Loaves?
It’s traditional to place two loaves of bread on Shabbat and holiday tables. This represents the double portion of manna with which G‑d fed the Jewish people as they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years after leaving Egypt. (Shabbos 117b)
As slaves, the Jews had been subjected to very harsh work. They learned in the desert how to pause in their labor by observing Shabbat, when no work was done. Since the only work the Jews had to do in the desert was gather their daily portion of manna (all other needs, such as shelter and clothing, were taken care of directly by G‑d), they were instructed not to gather it on the weekly holiday of Shabbat. Instead, G‑d sent a double portion of manna each Friday; it’s this double portion we recall through our double challah loaves on Shabbat.
Further reading: The Two Shabbat Loaves
4. Remembering the Temple Today
Play VideoDo-It-Yourself Taking Challah 16
Although our Temple is destroyed and we no longer have priests whose lineage we can verify beyond any doubt, we still observe the mitzvah of separating challah today.
Jewish bakers, both home cooks and commercial bakeries, separate a portion of dough, equal in size to a small egg, from each batch of bread they bake. After kneading the dough, cooks say a special blessing:
Baruch Atah Ado-noy, Elo-hei-nu Melech Ha-Olam, Asher Kid-e-sha-nu B’mitz-vo-tav V’tzi-vanu L’Haf-Rish Challah.
In English, this means: “Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to separate challah.”
Separate an egg-sized portion of dough and set it aside to be burned to a crisp later, either on the stove or in an oven. (Note: No other bread may be baked in the oven while this portion is being burned.)
After separating the challah portion, hold the egg-sized piece that is to be burned and declare:
Ha-rei zu challah. (“Behold, this is challah.”)
Note: only batches of bread dough made with three or more pounds of flour (of any of the five grains: wheat, oats, spelt, barley or rye) are separated with a blessing. Batches of dough made with between two and three pounds of flour are separated without a blessing, and doughs made with less than two pounds of flour are not separated at all. It’s become the custom of many Jewish woman to purposely bake bread with larger amounts of flour, to give themselves the opportunity of performing the mitzvah of separating challah dough.
5. Flat Challah
Many modern Jews think of challah as a delicious loaf of braided egg bread. But during the centuries, the definition of just what type of bread this refers to has evolved.
Flatter loaves of bread are still used in some Sephardic communities. Some Moroccan Jews serve round loaves of bread, sometimes sprinkled with spices and olive oil before baking, on Shabbat. Jews of Yemen traditionally served a flat bread called lachoch, fried in a pan, on Shabbat. Some Persian Jewish households place beautiful loaves of barbari, a flat glazed bread, on their Shabbat tables.
6. Inventing the Braided Loaf
Play VideoSoft and Fluffy Challah for Shabbat 5
Today, many people associate Shabbat challah with braided golden bread infused with eggs, and sometimes studded with sweet raisins.
According to some, Jews began baking these types of braided challahs in the 1400s in southern Germany and Austria. Most Jews at the time ate dark rye bread during the week; to distinguish Shabbat bread, cooks started baking with fine white wheat flour. Additions like eggs and raisins enhanced these special loaves even more. Braiding made them look even more festive.
It’s possible that these long-ago Jewish bakers inspired their non-Jewish neighbors because egg-rich, braided loaves became traditional in the region, sometimes called berchisbrod or perchisbrod, and are still eaten today.
Further reading: Why Is Challah Braided?
7. Salting Our Challah
After saying the blessing on the challah (or all other bread), it’s customary to slice it and dip it into salt. This recalls the salt that the priests in the ancient Temple used to sprinkle on the sacrifices they offered to G‑d and links us directly to the worship of our ancient ancestors in Jerusalem. Salt is also symbolic of the Jewish people: It never spoils, is always fresh, and brings out the beauty and flavor of everything it touches.
Why Do We Dip the Challah Into Salt?
8. Not Hurting Challah’s Feelings?
Art by Rae Chichilnitsky
When Shabbat and holiday challah loaves are set on the table, they are draped with a beautiful cover, hiding them until it is time to make the Hamotzi blessing over bread. One of the reasons behind this custom reveals a great deal about the value that Judaism places on kindness and sensitivity to others; we cover the loaves of challah because it’s customary to make a blessing over wine on Shabbat and holidays before making a blessing over the challah, and we want to shield the challah from this knowledge that it doesn’t come first. If we take such pains to shield the feelings of mere bread, how much more care must we take to guard the feelings of our fellow men and women?
Further reading: Why Do We Cover the Challah?
9. ‘Water’ Challah
Not all challah loaves are the same. Many Sephardi Jews bake simple loaves of “water” challah, containing no eggs, sugar or other sweetener.
10. Beautiful Shapes
Throughout the Jewish year, some communities bake challah in different shapes or incorporating different decorations. It’s common in all Jewish communities to eat round challah loaves from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, all the way through Simchat Torah, several weeks later. The round shape of these special challahs symbolizes the circular nature of the Jewish year. They also recall crowns, recalling G‑d’s majesty during the High Holy Days.
Some Jews have the custom of baking “Schlissel” challah, also called “Key” challah, the first Shabbat after Passover. This is challah baked in the shape of a key. In some communities, bakers baked real keys into their challahs. Key challahs commemorate when the manna began to fall. Our ancestors felt the sheltering care of G‑d, who looked after the Jews in the desert. One of the reasons suggested for baking this challah is that key-shaped challahs remind us to ask G‑d to unlock the key to His treasure box for our own livelihood.
The Shabbat before Yom Kippur, some Jews bake challah decorated with the shape of ladders baked into the dough, symbolizing Moses’ climbing of Mount Sinai and our hopes that our prayers scale the Heavens on Yom Kippur. Others bake “Feygelech,” or “Little Bird” challah before Yom Kippur; this recalls the prophet Isaiah’s promise, “Like flying birds, so will G‑d, Master of Legions, protect Jerusalem, protecting and rescuing, passing over and delivering.” (Isaiah 31:5)
Recipe: Round Raisin Challah
Further reading: Why is Rosh Hashanah Challah Round?
11. A Sacred Moment
Play VideoKneading G‑d in Creation 5
While there is no obligation to bake one’s own challah, some Jewish women who do choose to bake challah for their families use the time to pray. Some women recite Psalms; others formulate prayers in their own words. As discussed above, separating challah is a major mitzvah that imbues one’s home and one’s challah with holiness.
Some women like to compare the seven ingredients of traditional Ashkenazi-style challah each represent a spiritual dimension as well. Water is often compared to the Torah and its wisdom. Yeast represents our ability to grow and expand and reach new heights. Sugar reminds us of the sweetness we hope to bring into our families and communities. Salt brings out the taste in other ingredients and also recalls the Jewish people; like salt, we never spoil, but remain fresh always. Oil, in biblical times, was used to anoint kings and the priests who served in the Temple; it reminds us to bring majesty and holiness into our lives, too. Eggs represent the giving of life—something Jewish women through the ages have nurtured in our homes and communities. Flour represents nourishment: Just as the flour sustains us physically, we hope that the challah we consume on Shabbat and Jewish holidays sustains us spiritually.