Sunday, January 1, 2006
In biblical tradition, challah was a portion of dough set aside for the priests as described in Numbers 15:18-21. The amount of challah to be set aside was never specified in the Torah. According to rabbinic tradition it was either1/48th or 1/24th part of the dough. Nowadays, since we no longer have the priestly offerings, when one makes challah, one is now supposed to set a portion of the challah aside and throw it into the fire.
There is even a bracha recited when casting aside the dough which ends with, “Who commanded us to separate hallah from the dough.” The mitzvah of separating challah is traditionally regarded as one of the three positive mitzvot incumbent upon women (the others include the lighting the Shabbat candles and niddah, the laws of family purity).
Challah also has a second traditional meaning as described in Exodus 29:23, Lev. 24:5, and II Sam. 6:19 as a loaf or “cake” of baked bread. From these readings, challah now is primarily associated with the special loaves made for holidays and Shabbat, usually from white flour that is twisted or braided. That being said, there is no law in Jewish tradition specifying the shape or style of a challah, or even its particular ingredients.
Traditional challah recipes usually use a large number of eggs, white flour, and sugar. There are also that use fewer eggs or are even eggless and replace white flour with whole wheat, oat, or even spelt. Sometimes honey or molasses is substituted for the sugar as a sweetener. The dough is then rolled into rope-shaped pieces which are braided with an egg-wash brushed on right before baking to add a golden sheen. Raisins can be added as well especially during Rosh Hashana as a symbol of a sweet New Year.
There are several interesting traditions associated with challah. For example Shabbat begins with the blessing of two challah loaves as a reminder of the double portion of manna the Israelites received from God while wandering in the wilderness. In some communities the challah is not even a braided loaf. Instead it is flat bread which most closely resembles pita as can be found in various Mizrahi Jewish communities.
Whatever your tradition is whether it involves lovingly handcrafted, frozen, or store-bought challahs, please make sure to add them to your Shabbat table. For even in our carb-conscious society, there is just something special about baked bread that adds extra significance to the meal. Plus it makes for great French toast on Shabbat morning.