In the year 70, the Roman Empire destroyed what was known as the Second Temple in Jerusalem and, with that, the ability of the Jewish people to continue their hallowed sacrificial system.
So, the rabbis transferred many of the rites performed at the Temple onto the home (as a representative of the Temple), especially to the table of the home, a symbol of the sacred altar of the Temple. The rites of lighting candles, washing hands, blessing wine — all would take place, now, at the table of the home.
Thence, daily mealtime bread took on new meaning as a symbol of the age-old bread sacrifice brought to the Temple. This was a portion of the bread baked by the Israelites in their normal course of kitchen work, set aside and offered as sustenance to the priests of the Temple.
Those bread offerings originated in obeyance to the command from the Bible in Numbers 15:20: “From the first of your dough, you are to lift up a portion as contribution.” Putting aside that portion was called “taking challah,” as “challah” meant “bread” or “loaf.”
Today, observant Jewish bakers remove a small portion of their challah dough (it is a redundancy, for the name of the portion is itself called “the challah”) and burn it, in the oven or on a skillet, to remind them of the bread given to the priests in times long gone by.
On Shabbat each Friday evening, the head of the household (himself a representation of the Temple priest) breaks off a piece of the challah loaf and passes it to a member of the family. Again, a taking of, as it were, challah of challah.
The significance of these acts and gestures is heightened each year at the time of the High Holidays that commence each year on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. For 2022, that is the evening of Sunday, Sept. 25.
Typically, for Rosh Hashanah bakers make round (or turban-shaped) challahs as a symbol of life’s cyclical nature, or as a symbol of hope that the coming year will be both complete and unbroken by any tragedy, or as a “crown” in God’s honor, or as a representation that one year begins as another ends. There it is, circles drawn from dough.
At Rosh Hashanah, the first piece of broken challah is allowed to be dipped or dabbed in honey, rather than salt (as at all other times of the year, for example on each Friday’s Shabbat), a symbol of the hope that sweetness, not bitterness or “tears” (salt), will enter the lives of Jews in the coming year.
It is quite awe-inspiring to me, as a non-Jew, to see that the simple baking of challahs — each instance — is a calling back to the obeying of a simple command and the presentation of an original sacrifice holding profound meaning.
Challah symbols and history
- At the Sabbath meal, two challahs are offered and blessed. They are a sign of the extra portion of manna given to the Israelites on the sixth day as they wandered the desert (so that they need not work on the Sabbath collecting sustenance).
- Likewise, seeds sprinkled on challahs symbolize the manna in the desert.
- Challah is dipped in salt before it is eaten as a memorial to the Temple’s sacrificial system in which all sacrifices brought there were accompanied by salt.
- It is said that challah is torn rather than sliced because “knives symbolize violence.”
- German Jews bake what is called “water challah,” or berches, a braided loaf enriched with mashed potato instead of egg.
- Ethiopian Jews prefer dabo, a honey-sweetened loaf spiced with turmeric and sprinkled with nigella seed.
- Tunisian Jews eat bejma, a yeast dough formed into triangles.
- For Shabbat, Moroccan and Syrian Jews use whole wheat flatbreads called khubz ‘adi.
- In the Jewish tradition, no food is more significant than bread. (Deuteronomy 8:8 mentions wheat, i.e., “bread,” before any other food.) Therefore, when the blessing over the bread (Hamotzi) is recited, it covers all food subsequently eaten during any meal.
The challah recipe here is from Luisa Hagemeier, a Denver-based baker (@challahradohearth) who earned her challah chops at her native New York City’s Silver Moon Bakery. She has been baking challahs since she was 3 years old. It took her four months to master the two-braid challah, but she finally got it at the apron sides of a Muslim man named Hayouba at Silver Moon.
From Luisa Hagemeier, adapted from smittenkitchen.com, itself adapted from cookbook author Joan Nathan. All measurements in grams are by weight. Makes 3 medium or 2 large loaves.
- 1 1/2 cups (375 g) lukewarm water
- 4 1/2 teaspoons (14 g) dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 8 to 8 1/2 cups (1100-1200 g) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup (120-150 g) granulated sugar or honey, depending on desired sweetness
- 1/2 cup (120 g) neutral oil, such as canola or safflower
- 4 large eggs
- 4 egg yolks
- 1 1/2 tablespoons salt
- For the egg wash: 1-2 eggs, well beaten
Whisk water, yeast and the 1 tablespoon sugar together in mixing bowl (or bowl of electric mixer, if using). Wait until yeast mixture bubbles, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 of the flour and all the additional sugar (or honey), oil, eggs and egg yolks. Mix by hand or on low speed until combined. Add the remaining 1/2 of the flour and the salt, mix by hand or on low speed until combined and shaggy. Continue to knead (at least 10 minutes) or increase speed to medium, until smooth and pulling away from sides of the bowl.
Film a large bowl with cooking spray; place the dough in the bowl and turn so entire ball is covered with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm spot (or in your oven at the proofing setting, if you have one) until approximately double in size, about 1 hour.
Uncover, stretch opposite sides of the ball and fold to the inside, and then stretch the other opposite sides of the dough ball and fold into the center (this is called a “stretch and fold”). Turn the ball over so the smooth side faces up. Cover and allow to rise again for about an hour, until doubled in size.
Using parchment paper, line 2 to 3 baking sheets (depending on size of sheets). Uncover the dough; divide into however many loaves you wish to make, then divide each section of dough into however many strands you need for braids. Roll each strand into a rope with tapered ends.
Braid loaves and place on baking sheets; spray tops of loaves with cooking spray and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Allow to rise 1-2 hours, until doubled in size. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Glaze each loaf with egg wash, using either a pastry brush or some wadded-up cheesecloth. For best results, brush in one direction only.
Place sheets in oven and allow to bake for 10 minutes. Lower temperature to 350 degrees. For medium loaves, bake for about 25 minutes (or for large, about 30 minutes), testing for doneness with a wooden skewer or by the hollow feeling when tapping on the bottom of the loaf. Allow to cool.
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