If you are like me, among the best parts of Shabbat dinner each week is the challah. My wife Rebecca happens to be a wonderful cook, and so each week our family is spoiled with different loaves of the tasty egg bread: sometimes braided long, or circular, or even sun-shaped; sometimes infused with raisins, or chocolate chips (my favorite), or whole wheat challah; and, on occasion, the traditional “plain”–which is anything but plain. After we say hamotzi we all dig in, and seconds are always requested!
We first read of challah in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shelach L’cha. “When you enter the Land to which I am taking you and you eat of the bread of the Land,” God tells Moses to instruct our ancestors, “you shall set some aside as a gift to the LORD: as a first yield of your baking (challah) …” (Numbers 15:18-21). While the etymology of the Hebrew wordchallah is unknown, its use was not associated with Shabbat and holiday egg bread (that which we call challah) until about 500 years ago. Rather, challah was the act of separating dough as a means of giving thanks, symbolic of the ancient practice referenced here in the Torah. In our own times, whenever at least three pounds of flour of any of the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats) are used to bake bread, a piece of the dough at least the size of an olive is removed and burned in the oven. The blessing “… v’tzivanu l’hafrish challah min ha-issah” is recited, and the baker is reminded that, though we humans might mix together a variety of ingredients to create a new, single entity, it is God’s “ingredients” we are using.
Of course, for most of us, challah is that wonderful bread we eat on Friday nights, Saturday lunch and Saturday dinner (as well as the holidays). The origin of eating bread at Shabbat, like the etymology of the word challah, is unknown. During the Exodus, we know that our ancestors were granted two portions of manna on Fridays rather than one, so they would have food to eat (and not have to gather) on Shabbat. Likewise, we eat two challot on Shabbat. The kohanim in the days of the ancient Tabernacle and then Holy Temples would bake twelve loaves (for the twelve tribes) of showbread which would sit by the altar all week untilShabbat, at which time the kohanim would consume the bread. It is clear that eating bread as a significant part of Shabbat goes back thousands of years.
While the origins of challah may be entirely unknown, I will gladly continue the tradition each and every week at our Shabbat dinner table–and the holidays as well (the chocolate chips never hurt, either). Moreover, through both the prayers of l’hafrish challah and hamotzi, and let us continue to give thanks to God for providing us with food to eat, and the awareness of how blessed we truly are.
Rebecca, Caleb and Ayal join me in wishing you a sweet and savory Shabbat shalom!
-Rabbi Aaron Starr