The Jewish Chronicle

Knead to know — why challah is more than about making bread


It’s Shabbat UK this week and all over the country people have been getting together to make challah for Shabbat. I say people, but predominan­tly women tend to fill these joyous events. Of course, Challah Makes are open to all, but do they have any particular connection to women? The word challah actually comes from the Torah. God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites, “When you eat of the bread of the Land, you shall set aside a gift for God. As the first of your kneading, you shall set aside a loaf as a gift… it is for God, throughout your generation­s” (Numbers 15:19-21).

So, technicall­y, challah is the small portion of the dough that is separated and given to the priests when you are making a decent amount of bread, over about 1.2 kilograms. This commandmen­t is still observed in homes and bakeries today, but the small portion of dough is disposed of or burnt because priests no longer serve in the Temple. We have taken to calling the bread we make for Shabbat challah, to remind us of this tradition.

It is the Mishnah in Shabbat that first connects women to making challah, instructin­g women to “take care in… separating challah” (2:6). Though the mitzvah applies to both men and women, it seems clear that already by the time of the Mishnah it was part of the responsibi­lity a woman had in maintainin­g her household.

The Talmud in Shabbat makes a similar connection and says that fulfilling this command brings blessing to the family home (32b). It brings a source text from the Prophets, “And the first of your dough you shall give to the priest to cause a blessing to rest on your house” (Ezekiel 44:30).

After some research, I found an even deeper associatio­n in the Midrash Tanchuma, a rabbinic collection of commentari­es on the Torah that dates back to the time of the Talmud. It offers us a memorable and dramatic image when discussing the law of separating challah: “SAID RABBI YOSSI son of Dumseka: Just as a woman kneads dough with water and makes the bread rise, so did the Holy One, Blessed be God, do to make humankind, as it is written, ‘and a mist arose… and watered the ground, and then God created the human from dust of the ground’” (Genesis 2:6-7).

This is a remarkable assertion of Rabbi Yossi. He equates women kneading dough for breadmakin­g with God working the ground to form humankind. As such, it is the oldest rabbinic example I know of a female image of God. Rabbi Yossi is clearly drawing a parallel between a woman giving birth and God cre- Challahmak­ing for Shabbat UK in Brighton ating life. Similarly, the newborn emerging from its mother to take its first breath parallels God breathing life into the first human to make “a living soul” (Genesis 2:8).

Rabbi Yossi has taken the simple act of making challah and linked it back to the dawn of time and the divine origin of our species. Bread is a staple food, a key ingredient of a healthy diet, and sustains our lives. When we make it, our Jewish tradition urges us to recall and appreciate the One who sustains all Life, our Creator.

We could extend Rabbi Yossi’s parallel of woman-toGod by reading further in the Creation story: “Then the Lord God fashioned the rib that God had taken from the human into a woman” (Genesis 2:22). This would then imply that just as God separated a small portion (the rib) of the first human to make woman, so did the Torah instruct us to separate a small portion (the challah) of the dough we use in breadmakin­g, and gift it to God.

In other words, woman taken from the human is like challah taken from the dough. This parallel would then imply that, in some sense, “woman is like challah”. I realise that sounds a little weird, so what could it mean?

I think it might be about investment. Maybe we could learn from Rabbi Yossi that when a woman makes challah, she is literally giving “a little of herself”, as a gift to God. This gift is the personal effort she put into making the bread. That effort could be minimal, in which case breadmakin­g is just a mundane activity necessary for food, or that effort could be a serious investment: to make sure healthy ingredient­s are used, to find a delicious recipe, to put in the time needed to ensure the best results.

The personal effort needed to keep Shabbat is actually a great example of investment. The more you prepare for it and put yourself into it, the more you get from it. Challah then becomes a symbol of personal investment.

In the end, both men and women are required by Jewish law to take challah when breadmakin­g, but our rabbinic sages detected a special and inspiring connection between women and this ancient tradition. This might be something to think about as you tuck in to your challah this Shabbat and celebrate this most holy day. The challah you are chewing is not just made up of physical ingredient­s, it is made from ancient Jewish wisdom too.

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