Most challah recipes these days are made with a dough rich in fat and eggs, but it wasn’t always like that.
In the past, the role that it plays today as a holy and blessed bread for Shabbat and holidays, was filled by different types of bread that varied depending on the region – in the Caucasus, for example, they blessed a type of flat bread called lavash, in Yemen on yeasted kubaneh and in Syria on pita bread. The braided challah appeared only in the Middle Ages and slowly became the definitive Shabbat bread in communities all over the world. In certain areas, the braided challah caused controversy – there were rabbis who thought that the richness of the dough made them more like a cake than bread (and thus did not apply under the blessing of “Hamotzi”). In various communities – of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic tradition – a version of challah without eggs and with very little fat continues to be made, a challah which is in fact the ancient ancestor of the modern day version. Among Jews in German-speaking areas, this challah was called Wasser challah (water challah) and many recipes included – in addition to flour and water – potato puree which was responsible for its characteristic softness. Instead of the familiar shaping, some prepared water challah with a narrow strand of dough along its length. This strip has two meanings: it symbolizes the way to heaven, and also the letter “vav”, the sixth letter; when two challahs are placed side by side, they symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel.