There is nothing that screams Shabbat more than the smell of fresh dough wafting up the stairs of a house from the kitchen. In college my roommate made challah in our apartment every week. Thursday nights instead of doing the dreaded end of week homework, my roommates and I would clear off the kitchen table, make sure it was clean and then help roll out dough on the floured surface. Each Friday morning as I ran out the door for classes I noticed the large glass bowl overflowing with dough and covered with plastic wrap sitting on our counter. By the time I came home from school the dough was turned into two braided loaves. There is something so calming about this tradition, something about the making of this bread that silently says “your week is over, relax.”
Since I graduated from college those weekly challah baking sessions have ceased to exist in my life. Yet, I have found the same positive feelings that bring the start of each weekend each time I walk into the Mandel JCC on a Friday morning and see the table at the front entrance stacked high with all kinds of challah loaves. This table brings a smile to my face and by the end of the day as I depart work all of the challah is gone—a symbol that Shabbat is about to start. With the temporary closing of the Mandel JCC this tradition has now become stalled as well. Missing this special preparation for Shabbat I decided to make my own challah. Just the very act of kneading the dough in my hands, stretching it into long strands and twisting the pieces into braids brought me back to the very roots of my Jewish practice.
On festive occasions we say a blessing over two loaves of challah which symbolizes the two portions of manna, a double portion to last through Shabbat, which was given out on Fridays to the Israelites wandering in the desert during their exodus from Egypt. We cover the loaves on the table with a decorative challah cover in order to represent the dew that collected on manna in the morning. Even the poppy and sesame seeds that people choose to sometimes sprinkle on top of challah has a meaning —the sprinkling of the seeds represents the manna that fell from heaven.
The name “challah” actually has nothing to do with the physical appearances of traditional challah loaves: it has nothing to do with the braided nature of challah, the shiny egg washed coating, the sweet flavors or even a specific type of bread. The name that we use was coined in the 15th century in Austria and comes from the biblical Hebrew word used for ‘portion’, a reference to a section in the Torah where G-d instructs Moses to set aside a portion of each loaf of bread and use it as an offering to local Jewish priests. This tradition is known as the separation of the challah. Today many bakers and bakeries take a piece of the dough and burn it in the oven before baking the bread in order to still set aside this portion of bread. In the most common shape of challah, a three braid challah, the braided strands form 12 humps which represent the 12 ceremonial loaves kept in the Temple in Jerusalem for the 12 tribes of Israel.
Because the name has nothing to do with the way challah looks you can be as creative as you want in making challah and there are no rules against it. You can choose the flavor, be it chocolate chip, cinnamon or even pesto, and you can vary the shape from round to braided, to the most recent viral creation: a Coronavirus shaped challah. There are even different interpretations behind each of the ingredients used, for instance, some people believe that sugar represents our hope for sweetness and good things and yeast represents our understanding to keep growing—with challah, you can also be creative in finding a meaning that feels significant to you.
A few summers ago while I was living in Warsaw, Poland I noticed fresh, braided loaves of bread sitting in a basket at the bakery near my apartment. I asked the baker what the bread was called and she told me “chalka.” Later, I learned that chalka is sold at bakeries all over Poland. The Jewish bread is a staple at Polish bakeries, showing how this Jewish bread links Jews together from all over the world. Poland is not the only place that has its own name for the Jewish bread. In southern Germany it is called berches. In Hungary, szombati kalács. In South Africa the bread loaves are today called kitke.
Just like every challah is a bit different I encourage you to make this upcoming Shabbat your own. Find a way to spend this Friday night to Saturday night a little different than you spend your time during the rest of the week. Maybe it’s taking a break from going on social media (we can all use an occasional break from that, especially now) or playing board games with your family. Or, maybe it’s bringing everyone together, kids and parents alike, to make your very own homemade challah. I guarantee no one in your household will complain about that.