The sweet smells of challah baking prompts anticipation of Shabbat. The delicious and beautiful braided egg bread sets the meal apart from the rest of the week, as do the candles and the blessings over wine. The recent “Mega-Challah Bake” drew over 1,200 women from our Orange County to our JCC. What a wonderful celebration of Jewish belonging and creativity. And yet, what makes challah distinctively Jewish?
The bread that we eat on Shabbat receives its name from the Bible (Numbers 15:20), but is not a bread of the Bible. In the Bible and during the close to a thousand years with a Temple in Jerusalem, people drew close to G-d by bringing presents. The Bible commands that when dough is prepared for bread, a portion (challah) was to be taken off and set aside for the priests as a token of appreciation to G-d.
The Shabbat bread that we call challah originated in Eastern Europe in the 15th century. Neighboring non-Jews prepared a similarly enriched, braided bread as an Easter bread. And yet, these breads differed. The challah lacked the ingredient of milk, due to the prohibition of eating meat, including chicken, with dairy. The other difference is that our challah was a weekly preparation. Shabbat is the central holiday in our tradition, the only ritual noted in the Ten Commandments.
The close identification of challah and the Shabbat table is true for Jews from Eastern Europe, Ashkenazim, but was not for Sephardim, Jews who dispersed from Spain to largely Moslem countries. Sephardim also had Shabbat as the center point of each week. The Shabbat tables in their largely Moslem lands presented flat breads and pitas, corresponding to local cuisine. Shabbat pitas were often enriched with seeds, honey, or raisins for the festive meals. Here too, the bread lacked dairy and was a weekly symbol of Shabbat
Customs, often linked to a specific locale, are an important part of Jewish life. Jews have adapted the foods that we eat, but have chosen to tailor the ingredients and the time of serving to our distinctive way of life. No other culture set aside one day a week to prohibit work. Greeks said that Jews were lazy for universalizing the leisure that they identified with the aristocracy alone. In the Ten Commandments, not only the Israelites, but their workers and livestock were given a day of rest. Shabbat affirmed G-d’s dominion and conveyed that self-worth is intrinsic to life rather than defined by productivity.
Shabbat is unique and needed in our day. Our technology enhances our communication and access to knowledge, but we pay a price. Our computer-like phones make demands on our attention and are addictive. Shabbat is a day to limit technology, enabling perspective and rest. Shabbat is a weekly date to gather at home with family and friends around a Shabbat table and to connect with community, prayer, and study in synagogue, and to take a walk with loved ones.
In my home, we have developed the custom of dipping the first bites of challah on Friday night (often purchased at Trader Joe’s) into fine olive oil and a sweet balsamic vinegar. The pleasure of those tastes is now closely identified with Shabbat for me.
How Jewish is challah? Very. But not because only Jews eat braided, sweet bread. Rather because festive foods help make our Shabbat a weekly holiday prompting us to enjoy what we eat just a bit more, to savor our relationships, and to fall in love with the world again.
Rabbi Elie Spitz is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.