I was first introduced to challah as a little girl by my mother explaining to me that it was like Sally Lunn bread or brioche, which, I was happy to discover, it deliciously was. It wasn’t until much later that I replaced my non-Jewish notion of challah with a real appreciation for its cultural context. Beyond being tasty and making excellent French toast; challah has a long ritual history and symbolic importance in Judaism. Although an extensive history of challah would fill a book (and has, many times), here is a very brief overview of what it is and why it’s important in Jewish tradition:
- Shabbat meals on Friday evenings and holiday meals include two loaves of challah, or, in the plural form, two challot. This double portion of challah represents the double portion of manna (food from heaven) that God sent to the Israelites during their Exodus from Egypt on Fridays so that they would not have to gather it on Shabbat the following day.
- The poppy seeds or sesame seeds that are sometimes sprinkled on challah may also represent the manna falling from heaven.
- During a traditional Shabbat evening, the challah is covered by a decorative challah cover. The cover represents the layer of dew that enclosed the manna and kept it fresh during the Exodus and also keeps the challah from being “shamed” by the fact that the wine is drunk before the bread is eaten during the Shabbat service.The cover also beautifies the challah.
- Challah loaves are often braided. The three strands of the braid may represent truth, peace and justice. Another interpretation is that having two loaves of three-stranded braids equals six total strands, which symbolize the six work days of the week aside from Shabbat. Challah made for Rosh Hashanah is round, to represent continuity without beginning or end. Challah can also be made into many other shapes to commemorate aspects of other holidays.
- The word challah may be derived from an ancient Hebrew word that meant “portion.” In Biblical times, Jews were to give a portion of their bread to the kohanim, or priests, every Sabbath. In post-Temple times, since there are no longer priests to receive the sacrifice, women baking bread are supposed to burn a small piece of it at home while reciting a blessing.
My interest in challah has been piqued recently because M-Cubed is sponsoring a Challah Baking Class on Thursday, September 4 at 6:30pm. We invite any interested young professionals to join us at the Cedar Center Whole Foods to learn how their bakers make their dough and how to adapt the recipe for various tastes. Each participant will braid his or her own dough and take it home, freshly-baked, at the end of the evening. Cost is $10 per person and participation is limited to 20. Registration closes on September 2, so don’t wait, sign up here now!