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Challah: What We Knead To Know

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Some Background

Growing up, I knew that it was customary to eat Challah on Shabbat, but I didn’t know that the actual mitzvah of Challah is Hafrashas Challah (separating the dough), wherein we take a portion of the dough before baking challah.[1] Originally, in the times when we had a Temple, the separated portion of the Challah was given to a Kohen (priest), but today we burn the separate piece.

The mitzvah of Hafrashas Challah is one of the three special mitzvot given to women, along with lighting Shabbat candles and immersing in a mikvah. The reason for this is rooted in the beginning of Creation.

The Talmud refers to Adam, the first man, as the “Challah of the world.” Just like we separate a piece of the Challah dough to sanctify the bread and render it kosher, Hashem separated man from the rest of creation to sanctify the world through Divine Service.[2] (The term for holiness in Hebrew, “kadosh,” means “separate.”)

The mitzvah is given specifically to women (though men can do this mitzvah as well) because Chava, better known as Eve, enticed Adam to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which tainted mankind for the rest of the eternity.[3] This is why Erev Shabbos, the twenty-four hours before Shabbat, is an auspicious time for women to do the mitzvah of Hafrashas Challah, which both rectifies Eve’s mistake and brings blessing into the home. In fact, an ideal time to pray is just after saying the blessing on the separation of the Challah.[4]

A Paradigm for Living as a Jew in The World  

The mitzvah of Hafrashas Challah teaches us about what it means to live as a Jew; it embodies several central ideas about living with faith, joy, and holiness in a physical world.  

When we separate a piece of the Challah dough and burn it, we strengthen our emuna, our faith, that G-d is the owner and provider of all. In this way, the mitzvah of Challah is similar to the mitzvah of masser, wherein one sets aside a tenth of his income for charity. (To be clear, this does not mean that we don’t have to work to earn a living, but we should understand that our jobs are means through which G-d provides for us).

The knowledge that G-d provides for all of our material needs should be a source of joy. More so, in reflecting on the reality that G-d gives us what we need, we should not just be happy, but happy with our lot.[5]

The famous Jewish proverb states: Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot. Whoever is appreciative of what G-d gives him is truly happy, as opposed to one who focuses on what he lacks and always wants to obtain more.  This is because “He who constantly desires material wealth will never achieve emotional satisfaction…” Thus, the one who is “dissatisfied with what G-d provides him is truly impoverished.”[6]

How much do we really need? The Sages say that if one has enough money to support himself and his family and can engage in the development of his spiritual life, then he has everything he needs. After all, the purpose of material wealth from a Jewish perspective is to enable us to develop spiritually through performing mitzvot.[7] In modern-day America, most people are fortunate enough to have this level of wealth, yet we constantly feel lacking due to the societal pressures to live a higher and higher standard of living. As a result, the norm in America today is to live beyond one’s means to achieve this lifestyle.

Thus, in designating a portion of our income, or in this case Challah, to G-d, we recognize that everything we have comes from Him and since He wants what is best for us, we can rejoice in this fact and be happy with our lot.

Challah has one more major lesson to teach us. As part of our Divine mission, Hashem gave human beings the ability to elevate and sanctify the physical world. We can do this through our intentions, as everything that manifests in the world begins with the head, with our thoughts. As Shira Smiles, one of my Torah teachers explains, “Bread represents all eating, a fundamental aspect of our physicality. By taking a portion of the physical dough, we elevate the holy sparks trapped within the animalistic act of eating.”[8]

On a simpler, everyday level, the same principle is applied. For instance, when we eat with the intention that the food should give us the energy to do mitzvot and kind deeds, we elevate the food itself. When we say a blessing in which we thank G-d for the food we eat, we elevate our food as well.

In sum, Challah comes to teach us what we “knead” to know: Every Jew must approach all physical matters with the mindset that we are not here to simply engage the physical world, we are here to elevate it![9]

The Blessing On Separating Challah (said only when baking at least 4.95 pounds of Challah, see footnote 1).

[1] The source for the mitzvah of Hafrashas Challah: “From the first of your dough you shall set apart Challah.” (Bamidbar 15:20).  “One must separate Challah from a dough made from the ‘five types of grain’ (wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye) if more than 2.64 pounds of flour was used. A blessing is recited over separating Challah only if the dough was made from a minimum of 4.95 pounds of flour.”  Halachos Bas Yisrael, p. 175 (citing the Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 324).

[2] Talmud Yerushalmi. Shira Smiles, Torah Tapestries Bamidbar, p. 74-75.

[3] Once Adam ate from the tree, good and evil were mixed, introducing doubt into reality. See Rabbi Akiva Tatz, M.D., Living Inspired, “Doubt and Certainty,” p. 52-53.

[4] Shira Smiles, Torah Tapestries Bamidbar, p. 75 (citing Hilchos Shabbos 242:6, Rashi on Shabbos 31b, and Seforno on Bamidbar 15:20).

[5] Id. at 72 (citing Bereishis Rabbah 42:3, Pirke Avos 4:1).

[6] Artscroll Pirke Avos (Ethics of Our Fathers) 4:1, p. 213

[7] Id.

[8] Shira Smiles, Torah Tapestries Bamidbar, p. 78.

[9] Id. at 79 (citing the Slonimer Rebbe; See Nesivos Shalom, Bamidbar, p. 79-80).

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