Challah has a place on the Friday night dinner table of Jews from around the world. Once only found in Jewish bakeries on the eve of Shabbat, challah has gained such a following that many grocery store chains stock it on their shelves all week long. The soft and slightly sweet bread has been a part of Jewish culinary history for hundreds of years and is closely tied to religion and tradition in many aspects, from the food it is served alongside to its ingredients.
What is the meaning of the word “Challah”?
The word “challah” is used several times in the Bible, however, it does not refer to a type of bread but rather the size of the portion that must be set aside from any dough prepared for the benefit of the priests in the temple. A common belief is that the word comes from the root hallal, meaning a hollow shell, but it is also possible that the source is the root h”l, which is linked to a sweet taste ( as in “hulw” – “sweet” in Arabic).
The link between the ancient word and the bread we know today was probably forged in the 15th century somewhere in the German-Austrian country when Jews began to set aside challah only for Shabbat. Up until that time, the common name for bread in the region was “barches” (or berkhes). It is interesting to note that despite the similarity to the Hebrew word “bracha” (blessing), it is believed that the origin of the word actually derived from the pagan goddess Berchta, because the non-Jewish inhabitants in these areas made offerings of bread which were similarly shaped.
In some communities, alternate names for challah have been preserved to this day, for example “Kitke” among the Jews of South Africa.
Versions, recipes and symbolic ingredients:
Most modern recipes for challah include some combination of flour, water, yeast and eggs. However, this commonly accepted iteration is a relatively recent development. According to evidence found in European Halacha (Jewish Law) books from around the 15th century, the special Shabbat bread was made with whole wheat flour, without eggs, and was prepared in a pan, not baked in the oven (therefore its shape was flat and round). Also, for kosher reasons, it included animal fat (schmaltz) – unlike everyday bread, which utilized butter. Gradually white flour replaced the whole wheat, and eggs became a significant part of the recipe as did sugar, which became more readily available.
Different traditions and Midrash interpretations attribute symbolic meaning to the challah’s ingredients. For example, salt is likened to the Israelites, because it never spoils; the oil, which was used to anoint kings and priests, gives the bread solemnity; and the water- which nourishes our souls, has the power to change lives, and gives each and every one of us the power to reach our full potential and become the people we were meant to be- is likened to the Torah.
Alongside the popular version, which has Asheknazi roots, challah recipes developed in various diaspora communities that were influenced by local traditions and raw materials in the region. Some of these are eaten on a regular basis on Friday evenings, while others are reserved for community celebrations and special events.
Water Challah (wasser challah) – challah without eggs (also known as “Hassidic challah”)
Kabuloli – sweet Georgian challah
Dabo – Ethiopian challah
Today the act of braiding seems an integral part of making challah but, in fact, this iteration is relatively modern and developed among the Jews of Austria and Germany in the 15th century. There are several opinions as to the origin of the custom of braiding challah, the most commonly believed is that Jewish women of the time adopted the braided form from their non-Jewish. Another theory is that in ancient times, when bread was baked together in a shared oven for the whole week, the braided shape distinguished the Shabbat bread, which was baked with animal fat, from the everyday bread made with dairy.
In any case, the braided form took on many symbolic meanings over the years: as a symbol of the covenant between the people of Israel and their God, or in its resemblance to a bridal braid, because the Sabbath is the bride of Israel’s God. Meanings are also attributed to the number of strands that make up the braid: a challah that has six strands symbolizes the six days of work before Shabbat, and a challah braided from 12 strands (or two challahs with six strands) symbolizes the 12 challahs that were placed in the tabernacle of the temple. And in general, weaving the challah strands together represents the connection between Israel and Shabbat, and the transition between the busy mood of the weekdays and the relaxed atmosphere of Shabbat.
In the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi Jews started making dairy challah for the holiday of Shavuot which was braided in a round shape – probably to distinguish it from Shabbat challah and to indicate that it was made with dairy. Later, the round shape was also adopted for challah made for Rosh Hashanah, to symbolize the completeness of the Jewish circle of life, and in some communities they continue to bake round challahs until Simchat Torah.
Other forms that are typical for holidays and celebrations:
Key Challah for the first Shabbat after Passover, in hopes for continued livelihood.
Ladder Challah with 7 steps for Shavuot, which symbolizes the seven heavens that open on the night of Shavuot. Among the Jews of Ukraine, they bake a Ladder Challah for breaking fast, and it symbolizes Jacob’s dream.
Other forms typical of the break fast meal of Ukrainian Jews are the bird challah, which symbolizes the prayers that take flight to the one who sits on high, or spiral challah, which symbolizes the ascent to heaven.
Lithuanian Jews usually stamp the shape of a hand in the challah for Rosh Hashanah or breaking fast, as a symbol of offering up our hands when asking for forgiveness for our sins.
Ceremonies and customs:
Over the years, challah has nearly become the exclusive bread used for the blessing of “Hamotzi” (bringer) at Shabbat meals. According to the Halacha, two challahs (or other breads) must be blessed, to commemorate the fact that the Jews in the desert received a double portion of manna every Friday in honor of Shabbat.
In recent years, the popularity of another custom related to the sweet bread has been on the rise: challah offering. In the days of the Temple, the women used to set aside a small portion of each loaf as an offering to the priests in the Temple. Since the temple’s destruction, that portion for the priests has been burned, but they continue to set it aside, with the hope that the temple will be rebuilt again soon. Over the years, the proffered challah took on a ceremonial air, and women perform challah ceremonies in hopes for fertility, easy childbirth, finding a partner, and more, sometimes in multi-participant events.
In celebrations related to the Jewish cycle of life, such as weddings and bar mitzvah celebrations, it is customary to serve particularly long challah. At weddings of Polish immigrants, one of the women dances in front of the newlyweds holding a koyletch, a particularly large sweet challah, in hopes that there will always be bread on their table. At other Ashkenazi weddings, one of the witnesses breaks the koilitch over the couple’s head as they enter the Cheder Yichud (seclusion room), then distributes it amongst the wedding guests.