Challah: The Divine Dough
How Jewish women can unleash the holiness of bread.
There is something about making dough that can only be described with the old cliche, "real." I find that the rhythm of kneading and the fragrance of the loaves is as close as one can get to "experiencing" music. In homes where Shabbat is the soul of the week, bread-making becomes something more, something part and parcel of the way Shabbat bonds the two worlds -- spiritual and physical -- in which we all live.
Most of us are familiar with the braided Shabbat loaves and call them "challah." Literally, challah is a mitzvah in the Torah (Numbers 15:17-21), which enjoins us to set aside one piece of dough from each batch we make, as it says: "…It shall be that when you eat the bread of the land, you shall set aside a portion [of dough] for God."
Actually, the word "challah" doesn't mean bread, dough, or any of the other words that seem to describe the aromatic loaves. The root of the word is chol which means ordinary or secular.
Is Anything Really Ordinary?
When I went to camp as a child one of my least favorite activities was what was known as "the nature walk," in which a large group of incurably urban children were taken through the monotonous backwoods roads of the Catskills in upstate New York. To pass the time on the dusty highways we would sing: "We're here because we're here because we're here…" (ad infinitum).
For most of us, these words describe the way we see the world. We are desensitized to its wonder and beauty, to the extent that "ordinary" describes the way we see life: banal, unremarkable, and most of all "because it's there."
We have permission to use the world on condition that we preserve its holy essence.
The Torah presents us with a radically different approach. Everything is in its essence holy, kodesh, and always will be. God gives us permission to use His world for a "mundane, chol" purpose, under one condition: that we preserve its holy essence.
And what word describes everything in the world after we make this commitment? Chol, which means ordinary. "Ordinary" life has a holy source, and it is our responsibility to use it well.
This is especially true in regard to bread. Nothing is more "ordinary" than eating. Yet on an intuitive level we can connect to the mystic energy of the earth itself while making bread, in its feel and texture. It is meant to touch us deeply, and halacha (literally, "the way to walk") tells us how use its power well.
Microcosm of the World
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 15) tells us that challah is one of the three things for which God created the world. The Torah refers to challah as reishit -- "the first," related to the first word of Genesis, B'reishit -- "in the beginning." Challah is called "the first" because it is so primary to the world's purpose.
Maharal explains this idea further by pointing out that the world is like an enormous human and that each human is like a mini-universe. Just as the globe is land and water, so too the human is composed of earth -- compared to flour, and spirit and intellect -- compared to water. Humans, as a combination of body and soul, flour and water, are like a dough. By separating challah we consecrate our multifaceted identity, the "dough." As a result, God permits us to use this dough in the process of rectifying ourselves and world.
Humans, as a combination of body and soul, flour and water, are like a dough.
One of the great mystical scholars, the Shlah, takes this idea even further. He begins by asking a classical question that had been posed by scholars over the centuries. Being alive means that the soul stays in the body. In order to live, we have to eat. Yet what is there about eating that keeps the soul (which clearly doesn't need nutrients) inside the body?
The Shlah explains that everything we observe in this world has a spiritual parallel. The nourishment that food gives the body has a parallel nourishment that sustains the soul. "Man does not live by bread alone, but rather by what comes forth from God's mouth does man live" (Deut. 8:3). The Torah is telling us that while bread alone may sustain the body, it is the word of God -- concealed within the physical properties of the bread -- that sustains one's soul. And separating challah initiates this process of spiritual nurture.
It is instructive to note that in the biblical text (Numbers ch. 15), the mitzvah of challah is juxtaposed to the laws prohibiting idol worship. What possible connection exists between uplifting bread and polytheism?
The nature of idol worship is to see the Creator as being removed from His creations. Idolaters will isolate whatever they perceive as being the most powerful or beautiful force in the created world, and use it as a medium in their search for a God who they perceive as ultimately inaccessible. It is inconceivable to them that God can be found in the midst of the world that seems to cry out, "We're here because we're here because we're here." By taking challah, we are saying that God is here! He is the source of our souls, bodies, and the forces that sustain them. He is One, and nothing is separate from His transcendental unity.
Staff of Life
A person could conceivably live on bread and water (as opposed to bananas and water). It is for this reason that bread is called "the staff of life." Of course it is what sustains us physically, and it is up to us to imbue that experience with meaning. Let us assume for a moment that we actually savor a moment of connection with God as we release His gift from His domain. Then just at that moment, the baby cries, the phone rings, and the timer begins to let you know that it's time to take the shirts out of the dryer. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that somehow the moment never took place, that all there is to life is mindless movement in which no goal is attained (or even attainable) for more than a few minutes at a time.
In truth, however, every moment of connection is real not only now, but forever. When Moshiach comes, we will experience the unending beauty and excitement of discovering God again and again, even in the core physical experience of making bread. The spiritual light will break through, and reveal how the bread was a means of "holding" that light and making its presence tangibly felt in our material world.
Sarah's bread stayed fresh from Friday to Friday.
Our matriarch Sarah achieved this level in her own lifetime. The Talmud tells us that her bread stayed fresh from Friday to Friday. The life force that she was able to identify -- the Shechinah presence of God -- did not depart. In her role as matriarch, Sarah laid the foundations for the future of every Jewish woman's spiritual journey. God allowed her to experience a miracle week after week -- leaving an indelible imprint not just on her, but on each of her future descendants.
Women and Challah
There is a reason why Sarah was the one to experience this miracle, and not Abraham. Each gender has a distinct direction in their spiritual path. While men bring down light from above to below, through learning Torah as an end in itself, women elevate this world and raise it to reconnect with the Source from which it came. When Sarah died, the miracle no longer took place -- even though the widowed Abraham continued to take challah from the dough.
Today too, women are given precedence in performing this mitzvah. As life-givers they can either rectify the world by relating it to its source, or destroy its integrity by not actualizing their faith in God's presence. They are the ones who knead the dough, and feel how its components of flour and water -- physical and spiritual -- join.
May it be our merit to see the unity and wholeness -- that challah so deeply represents -- redefining the fragmented and wounded world in which we live.
The Nitty Gritty How To
The mitzvah of "taking challah" applies any time you make dough (even during the week) using a kilo (2.2 pounds) of any one or combination of five flours: wheat, spelt, rye, barley or oats.
First, mix the flour with water (and any other ingredients that you use). When it turns into dough, take about a handful from the mixture, separate it from the rest, raise the piece up and declare, "This is challah." Now put aside the piece you removed from the dough ("the challah"), and bake the rest.
In times of the Holy Temple, this piece would be consecrated for use by the kohanim (priests) and their families. Today, although the Temple no longer exists tangibly, it is still the focus of our spiritual vision of our identity as a people. To commemorate it, we take the piece of dough and either discard it (after wrapping it so that it doesn't come in direct contact with the rest of the trash) or burn it. If you burn it, it should be wrapped in aluminum foil, and nothing else should be baking in the oven at the same time.
The moment after "challah" is removed is a time of profound spiritual closeness to God.
The moment after "challah" (what the piece is called) is removed is a time of profound spiritual closeness to God. It is a conduit between this reality and a level of being far beyond the walls of our kitchens. Many women will take advantage of this moment to pray for their families, for our people, and for the restoration of the Temple, or for anyone who is in need of special merit.
If you are baking a large dough (using 2.2 kilo / 5 pounds of flour according to Ashkenazi custom, or 1.7 kilo / 4 pounds according to Sephardic custom), a blessing is said before removing the piece of dough. The blessing is:
Baruch ata Adonoy, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kidishanu bimitzvo'sav, vitzivanu lihafrish challah min ha-issa.
Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, Who made us holy with His commandments, and commanded us to separate challah from the dough.
By invoking God's name, the force of the act is far greater. Because of this, some women will make a large dough so that they can say the blessing. You could then either give some loaves away (I have yet to hear a complaint from a recipient!), or freeze the extra.
[If you live outside of Israel, and forget to separate the dough and have no other bread to use on Shabbat, you can take off a little piece (without saying "this is challah" or saying a blessing) and eat the bread. In Israel, the bread is considered to be actually "unkosher" until the proper blessing is said after Shabbat.]
Fool-proof Challah Recipe
- 3 cups of water
- 50 grams of yeast (or 4 tablespoons dry yeast)
- one cup of sugar or honey (or a mixture of both)
- 3 eggs (this recipe also works without eggs!)
- one cup of oil
- 3 tablespoons of salt (don't try to reduce the salt in the recipe)
- 2.2 - 2.5 kilo flour (or 1 5 lb. bag of flour ( approx. 12 cups))
(I use whole wheat, but this works with white flour or with a mixture of white and whole wheat.)
If you like savory challah, you might want to add a mixture of fried onions, garlic and olives. In this case sprinkle with zatar rather than cinnamon, and reduce the sugar by half or even less according to taste. Don't eliminate the sugar completely, or else the dough will be heavy (the sugar activates the yeast).
1) Dilute 50 grams of yeast in one cup of warm water, one cup of flour and one cup of sugar. Wait until it froths -- about 10 minutes. (This is a perfect opportunity to call an elderly friend or relative.)
2) Add 2 more cups of water, one cup of oil, 3 eggs, and one bag of flour. Mix using the dough hooks on your mixer, or the two arms God gave you.
3) Add 3 tablespoons of salt and the rest of the flour. Keep on mixing until you discover that you are kneading and not mixing. Keep at it until the dough is smooth and not sticky. (Add the onion mix if you wish savory challahs.)
4) Do something else for at least 3 hours, or until the dough doubles in size. You can cook the rest of your Shabbat food, or put the dough in the fridge, take a nap, and go on to the next step in your day.
5) Punch the dough down again, then let it rise again. (It will go quicker the second time around.)
6) Take the piece of dough that you will be separating and consecrating as challah. Say the blessing if the amount of flour used is sufficient (see above), and dispose of it as directed. Make use of the holiness of the moment to let some joy wash over you -- as you celebrate God's goodness, the vitality of the dough, and your place as a link in the tradition that began with Sarah.
7) Roll into braids, knot into rolls, or shape any way you wish. The tradition of braiding challah (with either three or six strands per loaf) goes back to an earlier custom mentioned by the Arizal of using 12 loaves, to symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel. By braiding the dough, you use either 12 strands per meal, or 12 strands for the two main meals.
8) Let the twisted loaves rise for about 30 minutes, then put onto baking pans lightly sprinkled with cinnamon. Brush with egg yolk diluted with water, and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
9) Bake at an initially high heat and reduce to medium heat after 10 minutes. The challahs are done when they look done and sound hollow when you tap them. Depending on their size, this will take between 30-60 minutes.