Weaving Strands of Challah History
by Tina Wasserman
Shabbat has always had a meaningful place in my memory. When I was five, my mother began her long association with our synagogue choir. Every Friday night we’d light Shabbat candles in the brass candlesticks that had arrived in New York in the late 19th century with my grandparents, bless wine, eat challah, and hurry through the meal to get to shul in time to hear my mother’s beautiful voice. This Shabbat ritual occurred every week for more than a decade, and thus began my connection and love for all the traditions of our heritage.
Today, I constantly seek recipes that connect the stories embedded in our culinary heritage to our modern world. Our laws go back millennium but our recipes, as we know them, are less than a thousand years old.
What are the stories found in the challah we eat on Shabbat?
In Leviticus (24:5-9), Aaron is instructed to place twelve loaves of bread on a golden table before the holy of holies as a gift to God. The bread wasn’t a burnt offering and it wasn’t eaten by the priests until the end of the week. The priests were normally allowed to eat the finest roasted meats after sacrifice, so what was the meaning of the “show” bread sitting on the table for 7 days? Rabbi Helaine Ettinger posits an explanation that resonates to me in our modern times. Her commentary suggests that the bread was a “… symbol of humility —a reminder to the priests, who were elevated above all the rest of the people by their service to God, that unless every person from every one of the twelve tribes had enough bread to eat, the priests were not fulfilling their duties.”1
The original ‘show’ bread resembled pita, so where did the tradition of braiding the bread come from and how do we interpret its meaning? There is no definitive answer, but there are many interpretations of the practice of braiding the bread.
Jewish cooks were instructed to elevate even the most basic foods to be fit for Shabbat. In Europe, unmilled flour was used daily to make dark bread, but for Shabbat the bread was only made with fine white flour. Even the poorest Jew would use the milled flour to make their bread fit for the “Sabbath Queen.” In medieval times, it was common throughout Eastern Europe to braid all types of baked goods. Jewish cooks, wanting to make their challot special and different from daily bread, probably took the regional tradition of braiding and incorporated it into their Shabbat ritual.
But why make a six braided challah?
Why not a four braid or three? There are many interpretations; some even focus on the number of bumps on the top of the challah and ascribe a Gematria (number association) to find meaning. To my thinking, two other interpretations make more sense, considering differences in the size of the loaves. Chassidic thought says that the six days of the week are isolated days, until they are brought together with the culminating celebration of Shabbat. Following that line of thought, combining six strands of dough into one loaf is symbolic of this unity.
I theorize that the medieval housewife had some understanding of Torah and remembered Leviticus when the priests were instructed to put the loaves of bread on the table in two rows of six; NOT one row of twelve or three rows of four. So, when you braid a challah with six strands, and place two challot (representing the double portion of Manna that was given to the Jews for Shabbat while they were wandering in the desert, Exodus 16:22) side by side on your beautiful Shabbat table, you are re-creating the ritual followed in the Temple long ago. The housewife not only mimicked the commandment in the Torah, but she glorified the challah for Shabbat.
Ahad Ha’am, Hebrew essayist and founder of cultural Zionism said, “More than the Jew has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jew.” Our traditions for Shabbat are often born in recipes that reflect stories that were passed down through the generations. These traditions often keep us close to the observance of our religion.
May your own traditions bring your family closer to the table for Shabbat and bring your memories of generations past closer to your heart at that same table.
Eat in good health!
- Rabbi Helaine Ettinger, Emor, 5759 Torah Study for Reform Jews, May 1, 1999
Tina D. Wasserman is a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas. Her recipes for Shabbat (including challah) are included in her cookbook, Entrée to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora (URJ Press).