Posted by: Elena's Israel Blog | 06/05/2013


ChallahAlways freshly baked and present at Shabbat tables and Jewish holiday dinners, challah is also a wonderful bread for making French toast. Besides being delicious, did you know that challah bread is rich in Jewish symbolism and rooted in the Torah (first 5 books of the Bible)? Today, kosher families and bakeries cut off a small piece of the dough from each batch and burn it on the floor of the oven to symbolize the mitzvah (good deed) of separating the challah, or “hafrashat challah.” A more recent custom has formed in which women pray over the challah while they separate it, often for someone in need. Separating challah is also believed to be a good omen for an easy birth, causing some women to do so at least once during their pregnancy.

Challah has also been used to symbolize the double-portion of manna that fell on Fridays during the 40 years that the Jewish people traveled through the desert. According to tradition, each baked challah is actually equal to two loaves; it is eaten on Shabbat to represent the biblical gift from God in the desert.


Challah dough

Why use challah and not regular white bread? Because challah is made with eggs and wheat, it is a sweeter, richer bread and therefore more appropriate to honor the manna gifted to the Jewish people. Plus, its sweetness symbolizes the idea of bringing joy and riches to the upcoming Sabbath. These biblical roots explain how challah came to be an integral part of the Jewish religion and Shabbat celebration, but do not explain why it comes in so many different shapes. Naturally, these designs now have little to do with creative bakers and much more to do with Jewish values. However, different holidays require different shapes.

1. On the Sabbath, the braided, intertwined bread-arms symbolize love, truth, peace, and family unity. When there are 12 humps, either between two loaves or one large loaf, it represents the miracle of the 12 loaves for the 12 tribes of Israel.

2. Round challah is eaten on Rosh Hashanah to represent continuity as one year ends and another begins.

3. A ladder-shaped loaf on Yom Kippur symbolizes the idea of ascending to greater heights

4.  The also popular hand-shaped loaf represents the hope of being inscribed in the book of life for a good year.

5. On Purim small triangular challahs correspond to Haman’s ears.

6. Shavuot calls for two long oval loaves that signify the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, as the holiday celebrates the Torah being given to the Jewish people.

Once baked into whatever design is called for on that particular day, a ceremonial cloth covers the challah. For some, this simply keeps the first part of the Shabbat meal out of sight and special until it is time to eat. However, the challah covering and the plate beneath the loaf also represent the two layers of dew that formed around the manna when it fell to protect it from sun and sand.

Almost everything to do with making challah is rooted in Judaic meaning. But for Jews and gentiles alike, whether you choose to layer it with cream cheese and lox, toss with milk and cinnamon for griddled French toast, use as the bookends for a hot brisket sandwich, or just eat it plain, a thick piece of challah will always satisfy. Among all the hardships inflicted upon the Jewish people, challah is certainly not one of them.


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