The Secret of Challah

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Adapted from The Book: "The Rising Life" by Rochie Pinson
Edited with additions by:
Rabanit K. Sarah Cohen

The pasuk in Sefer Bamidbar the pasuk states (15:19-20): “Ve’hayah be’ochlam mi’lechem ha’aretz, tarimu terumah la’Hashem…reishit arisatchem challah tarimu – and it shall be when you eat from the bread of the land, you shall offer it up as a gift for G-d - the first of your dough, challah, you shall offer as a gift.”

The first and the best of our sustenance is designated as challah for Hashem and as such, it is designated for a higher purpose. We have the ability to elevate anything mundane into something more spiritual through the work of our hands. The perfect challah is the one that is made and baked with positive kavanot (intentions) and with love. If it is served the same way, it is all the more valuable.

That means that it is not about how good the challah tastes, but rather the process. When the process of challah is accompanied with good intentions, miracles can come down to your life and a closeness to Hashem can be achieved.

In the natural world, when you give something away, there is less of it. But the Torah Ha’kedoshah informs us that the more we give away, the more we will have. This is the idea of tzedakah (charity). We give ma’aser (a tithe). We do not realize that by giving tzedakah, we will merit the blessing of more parnasah (sustenance).  Challah is the same way. Somehow, even after we separate a piece of the dough we still have enough to make many challot. When we become used to giving, it turns us into unselfish people who learn what it means to be givers and not takers. We become people who do not just put ourselves first, we put someone else or something else ahead of ourselves. When we give of ourselves, we receive a lot more than we give.  Just like a burning flame that gives away its light – yet its own light never dies; so too with challah.

Challah is a mitzvah. The word “mitzvah” doesn’t only mean, “commandment.” The word “mitzvah” is derived from the word, “tzavtah,” which means to connect. When we bake challot, we have the opportunity to connect to Hashem and to a very deep part of ourselves as women.

Challah starts with a small, round, flawless ball of dough and after we make this dough Hashem tells us that it is not complete; it is not yet whole until we remove a piece of that dough. The separation of that dough is how we create perfection. That means that nothing is perfect unless we give something away from ourselves.  Our life is not about what we want but also about what we can give to others. This is the idea of challah and this is the beauty of it.

Challah, as we know it, is bread - but we don’t call it “bread.”  We call it, “challah.” It is special and different from the every-day bread we eat. The Hebrew word for bread is, “lechem [לחם]” If you notice, the word “lechem,” and the word “challah [חלה]” share the same two letters: the letter “Lamed” and the letter “chet.”  The final letter of each of these words, however, is different. The word, “lechem” ends with the letter, “Mem” and challah ends with the letter, “Hey.”

The letter “Mem” is a closed letter (ם). Whatever is inside cannot release itself to the outside and whatever is outside, cannot enter. However, according to Sifrei Kabalah, the letter, “Hey,” is the letter of giving and receiving. It receives from above and after it receives, it gives to those below (ה). Therefore, the letter “Hey,” at the end of the word “Challah” turns the bread from ordinary lechem, into extraordinary challah. So, even though challah looks like bread it is much more than that. Think about it. Challah is baked in large batches and is usually served in pairs. It is served on Shabat, which is the holiest day of the week.

Challah comes from the word, of “chol.” Chol means mundane, ordinary, and physical matters. One of the physical items of this world is eating. When we eat challah we show how we can turn something as ordinary and materialistic as eating, into something kadosh.

Challah is a mitzvah designated for women. Men are obligated to learn Torah. Through their Torah they bring down the spirituality from the heavens into this world. Women, have the power to bring out from the earth below (adamah) all its gifts and then elevate them towards the heavens. This is challah.

Sarah Imeinu had a special dough that always stayed fresh. How is this possible? The reason why her challah contained a special blessing is because her intentions were to feed her family. Her challot were made with kedushah, with love and with care. When she baked the challot she had the kavanah that the physical body should be influenced by the spirituality embedded within the challah. Sarah Imeinu’s challah was not about how good it tasted but how it affected you from inside. This is why her challot always stayed fresh. This is the power of women. We give for the sake of our family member. You have the power to make your children realize that they are not just a physical body; they also have a neshamah (soul) – they are also spiritual beings.

This is the idea of Shabat as well. Shabat is a very special and holy day that is different from the rest of the week. It is not an ordinary day. Shabat also has a special neshamah; a special spiritual elevation. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that we eat the spiritual bread challah, on the holiest and most spiritual day of the week.

Think about Erev Shabat. As we light the candles Friday night, the sky outside is painted with the most beautiful colors and there is an incredible feeling that comes over us. There is nothing left to do in the house.  The men go to shul and the house is quiet with a feeling of peacefulness. We do not have to think about doing anything that we would normally do during the other days of the week. We do not have to create or to busy ourselves with our phone or work. Everything is so perfect when Shabat enters. We can simply disconnect ourselves from the mundane world and instead connect ourselves to the world of Hashem.

When the Jewish people came out of Egypt and they were traveling in the desert, Hashem made a miracle.  Every morning there was a special kind of bread that fell from the heavens. It was called, “Mahn.” Each day, the exact amount that every person needed to eat, fell from the heavens. As a result, it forced Bnei Yisrael to have emunah in Hashem. When they woke up in the morning, they knew that Hashem was going to take care of them and that they would see the heavenly bread laying there in front of their doorsteps.

On Shabat however, Hashem did not allow the Jews to go out to collect the Mahn. Instead, a double portion fell from the skies. One portion was for Friday and the second was for Shabat. So, the two challot that we place on our tables on Shabat represent the double portion of the Mahn, which was the original Shabat bread of the Jews in the desert. What does this teach us?

We are reminded how faith the Jewish nation had in Hashem. The same is true with the Shabat. We do not work on Shabat and yet we have faith that Hashem will provide sustenance throughout the other days of the week. Shabat is the day of the week that separates us from the rest of the week and sets the Shabat day apart from all the other days. This is what keeps the Shabat holy.

The same can be said about challah. When we remove a piece of the challah, we say, “Harei zo challah.” At that moment we are proclaiming that this piece of dough is separate and holy. We are reminding ourselves that Hashem is the only one that can provide sustenance and success. We are showing Hashem that whatever gifts He brings down into our life – we are going to use them for holiness and for an elevated purpose. When we put our hands into that challah bowl and we knead all the ingredients together – we are demonstrating the power of the woman and everything she is able to create with the few things in life that she is given.

A woman is compared to the Kohen in the Bet Ha’mikdash. Just as the Kohanim used their hands to do their service in the holy Temple – so too with the Jewish woman and the Jewish home. Our Rabbis teach that our home is like a mini Bet Mikdash and the woman in her home is like the Kohen in the Bet Mikdash.

There are three basic mitzvot that belong to a woman: The lighting of the Shabat candles (hadlakat ha’ner); the baking of challah; and nidah (immersing in a mikvah). The mystical books (Sifrei Kabalah) teach that these three mitzvot correspond to particular holy vessels that were in the Bet Ha’Mikdash.

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