There is nothing like piping hot challah on a Friday night. It is a quintessential scent of Shabbat and one of the defining tastes of any Shabbat meal. How many of us anticipate fresh challah as we return home from Kabbalat Shabbat?
(Unless, of course, you have celiac disease or prefer a gluten-free diet – in which case you might be desperately hoping that the smell of fresh bread wafting through the air is oat bread!)
But the truth is that there is one thing that challah is not … challah is not challah!
According to Jewish tradition, two whole loaves of bread – known in Hebrew parlance as lechem mishneh – honour each of the three Shabbat meals (Rambam, Hilkhot Shabbat 30:9). Lechem mishneh commemorates the double portion of manna that fell from the heavens on Fridays during the years that the Israelites wandered in the desert. We call these loaves that are typically woven from different strands of dough “challah,” but they are not really “challah.” If these loaves were indeed “challah,” we would not be allowed to eat them!
The biblical term “challah” refers to the dough offering that is one the twenty-four gifts given to Kohanim (Numbers 15:17-21). These gifts were in lieu of the Kohanim’s service in the Temple and in consideration of the fact that they were not awarded land and therefore had no means to derive income in a predominantly agricultural society.
When the Jewish People returned from the Babylonian exile there was a general religious revival and the Bible details many commandments that were foregrounded, including giving the “first of our dough” (Nehemiah 10:38) – that is, challah.
The dough offering had special status and hence was to be consumed by Kohanim while they were in a state of ritual purity. Nowadays Kohanim do not have the opportunity to attain this state, hence the dough offering is not given to them. Nonetheless, in order that the commandment not be forgotten, the sages instructed that half of the commandment should still be fulfilled – the dough offering can be separated when baking (hafrashat challah), though it is not given to the Kohen (netinat challah) (Tosefta, Challah 4:4).
Thus the custom is that when using a minimum amount of flour (at least 1.66 kg), a blessing is recited as challah is set aside from the dough and placed in the oven to burn (Rema, YD 322:5). If the amount of flour is between 1.23 kg and 1.66 kg, challah is taken but no blessing is recited.
A note for the gluten-free adherents: challah is to be given from dough prepared from any of the five grains – wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oat. Challah is not a gluten-bound commandment.
The Prophet Ezekiel (44:30) notes that fulfilling the challah commandment brings blessing into the home. May we enjoy the aroma of freshly baked bread on Fridays, may we merit warm double loaves on Shabbat, and may blessings waft through our homes.
A final note … and a challenge: I was recently reminded of the challah anomaly – that is, calling something after what it isn’t – when preparing a piece discussing a hasidic reading of the biblical verses describing the commandment of challah – original challah that is, not what we call challah (for the piece … stay tuned; for other pieces from “The Tisch” click here).
Challenge: Can you think of something else in Jewish tradition that is called after what it is not? Looking forward to hearing your answers …