The mitzvah of challah
On Rosh Hashanah, the challah is round and sweet, symbolizing our collective wish for a good, sweet year. (photo by Przemyslaw Wierzbowski)
It was two years ago that I fell in love with challah. I attended a challah baking workshop at a Jewish retreat and, at that point, the extent of my challah knowledge was that it’s sold in delis, comes in a plastic bag with a twist tie and makes great French toast. I was a challah virgin. This was around the same time that I was test-driving a more observant Jewish life, and figured it behooved me to learn more about our people’s famous braided egg bread. Little did I know how profoundly the workshop would affect me.
There we were, 40 or so Jewish women, up to our elbows in yeast dough, patiently following the instructor’s directions. She explained what each ingredient symbolizes, and how making challah each week is an auspicious time for Jewish women to pray for what they want and need. I was hooked. When it came time to make the blessing over the challah, that’s when I lost it, and became emotional. Something about a sisterhood of Jewish women gathered around tables doing something their mothers and grandmothers had been doing for generations struck a chord deep within me.
As I said the blessing, with my eyes closed and my hands atop the soft dough – “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melech ha’olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu, l’hafrish challah” – tears poured down my cheeks like they would never stop. The woman sitting next to me (almost a complete stranger) heard my sniffling and put her arm around me. I’m sure she was puzzled by my tearful response and, truth to tell, I was embarrassed, but I was overcome and just couldn’t help myself. Somehow, the mitzvah of making challah, and all that it symbolizes in our collective identity as Jewish women, hit me.
It mattered, in a deep-seated way, that I was part of something much bigger than myself – something inextricably tied to my Jewish roots, something to which I had paid scant attention over the years. I knew this activity would become a meaningful part of my life from that moment on. Challah is far more than just a food to sustain my family and me physically. It fills us spiritually as well. And that’s the most beautiful taste in the world.
Long story short, I now bake challah on a regular basis, for others and myself. It reminds me of who I am at my core. It draws me closer to my community of Jewish friends and acquaintances, and places me smack in the middle of what is real and true – my Yiddishkeit. Who knew that combining a few essential ingredients could produce such an inexplicable gift in my life?
It’s no secret that every Jewish custom is significant on a spiritual level. With Rosh Hashanah approaching, I set out to learn how to make one of the many unique symbols of the Jewish New Year – the round challah. The rest of the year, we make braided challot and dip them in salt, but, on Rosh Hashanah, the challah is round and sweet, symbolizing our collective wish for a good, sweet year. Its circular shape, which represents the cycle of life, has no beginning and no end, thereby symbolizing the continuity of the Jewish people. You could also say it’s a metaphor for the endless blessings that God sends us. Another interpretation is that the round challah resembles a crown, symbolizing the supreme power and authority of God.
As Rosh Hashanah nears, it’s a time for personal introspection and the beginning of our individual and collective teshuvah (return or repentance). We get ready to reflect, repent and ask for forgiveness. It’s a time to elevate ourselves and direct our thoughts and deeds toward a higher, more purposeful end. At precisely this time, when our thoughts turn to repentance and resolutions for improvement, the round challah reminds us that the opportunity for teshuvah is never-ending. This Rosh Hashanah, may we all be successful in elevating ourselves from our current reality into a higher, more spiritual state of being, on both an individual and collective level.
For those of you who want to learn more about the significance of baking challah, there’s a fascinating book called The Mitzvah of Challah by Esther Rivka Toledano (ArtScroll Mesorah Publications, 2018). The author dives deep into what is undeniably a mitzvah granted especially to women. She shares the history, the halachic (Jewish legal) guidelines, several recipes and lots more. The book goes far beyond the basics for those who really want to understand and embrace the mitzvah of challah.
May we all have a sweet, happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. L’shana tova u’metuka!
Shelley Civkin is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review, and currently writes a bi-weekly column about retirement for the Richmond News.