Challah: What’s So Special About Making Dough?
Challah: What’s So Special About Making Dough?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Every week, in many Jewish homes, families bake two warm, delicious loaves of challah bread for the Shabbat meal. The smell of freshly-baked challah is familiar and comforting – but how often do we contemplate the meaning behind the act of making challah? Is there any symbolism behind the ingredients — flour, water, often sugar, eggs, oil — of the challah dough? When we knead the challah dough, shape it, bake it… what are we supposed to be thinking about? Sure, challah is delicious, it enhances our celebration of Shabbat, but is there some deep spiritual lesson that we’re meant to take from the challah baking experience itself?
If we follow the clues hidden in the Torah, paying special attention to the Hebrew word for challah, חַלָּה, we can start to see the deeper significance behind those braided loaves. We can see that baking challah is about something much grander, much more significant, than combining ingredients in a mere act of baking.
In this video, Rabbi Fohrman explores the Torah sources for the idea of separating and baking ‘challah’ – and shows how we, thousands of years later, can find deep and lasting meaning in the challah bread that sits on our Shabbat tables.
Making challah. It's a strange and ancient ritual. We throw together flour, water, we knead the dough, and then, before we bake the dough, we do something strange: we take a piece of it and we give it back, symbolically, to God. Why do we do that? What’s the meaning of that act? What deeper meaning, if any, should that ritual hold for us?
The Source for Hafrashat Challah
I'm Rabbi David Fohrman, and I want to try to answer some of those questions with you, and I want to do that by going back to the verses in the Torah that talk about this act of taking challah.
In the Book of Numbers, we read these words:
The first yield of your baking,
חַלָּה תָּרִימוּ תְרוּמָה
you shall set aside a loaf as a gift...
Now, when I just read that to you, I translated that word ‘arisoteichem’ to mean ‘your dough’, or your ‘baking’. But the truth is, this word arisah -- it’s actually a very unusual word in the Bible. And it has another meaning apart from ‘baking.’ As a matter of fact, if you were to travel to Israel and walk into a department store, and you’d ask for an arisah – they wouldn’t point you to the breadmaking section of the store. They’d point you, of all places, to the newborn furnishings. Because the Hebrew word arisah also means ‘a baby’s cradle.’
Strange. Why would that word for dough, double as a ‘cradle’?
The mystery deepens when we look at another Hebrew word for dough – and we find that it too contains a similar kind of resonance. I’m talking about the word Isah, because aside from meaning ‘dough’, it also gets used by the rabbis to describe something suspiciously similar to a ‘cradle’. Isah, in rabbinic terminology, signifies not just dough, but the clay out of which the very first man, Adam, was formed by God. Almost as if God kneaded that clay to make man.
And speaking of that, don’t you think it’s kind of interesting that when experienced bread-makers speak about kneading dough, they actually speak of kneading ‘clay’?
Strange. It almost seems as if there is something interchangeable about bread-making and the creation of humanity itself. Why should that be?
To find the answer to that, I want to think with you a bit about what, exactly, we are really doing when we make bread. I gleaned some of these ideas from listening to a master bread-maker, a fellow by the name of Peter Reinhardt, talk about his craft.
So… what is the first step in making bread?
One might be tempted to say: Well, you start with flour and water. But those aren’t really the first steps. Because… where does flour come from? Not from the grocery store. It comes from wheat.
You see, wheat, when it is growing in the fields – it is vibrant and alive. But then you harvest the grain. ‘Harvest’, of course, is just a euphemism; what you are really doing is cutting the grain down, killing it. Except that grain, like flowers, doesn’t die immediately when cut from the ground. To really kill a plant, you need to be deprive it of water over time. So we leave that cut wheat out there in the fields, all summer long, exposed to the sun, and there it dies a slow death.
Finally, when the wheat is good and dead, you gather it in. Then, you separate out the chaff – which really means that most of the plant, you just throw away. You see, what you’re really after is the seeds. Yes, the seeds; that which the wheat could have used to reproduce itself – those seeds, you take them… and you smash them. You grind them into dust. And that is when you finally have flour.
So it’s like ‘death-squared’ for the plant. But then? Then, just when it is too late to salvage the plant… you finally add water. When you do that, amazingly, you bring life back into it. There is naturally occurring yeast on the side of the husks of wheat – and yeast, it is an organism, it lives. It lives. To ‘leaven’ bread is actually to ‘enliven’ it. The yeast, it actually breathes into the dough; it exhales CO2, the same thing we humans exhale, and the dough rises. The yeast eats the starches in the dough, releases alcohol into it; it lends personality to this newly living dough.
And then, once the dough is alive again… you put it in the oven.
As the baking bread gets warmer and warmer, the yeast becomes more and more active, rising even more -- until the temperature becomes too hot, and the yeast explodes into the bread, spilling itself, in a final cataclysm, into the dough. In the process, yes, the yeast has lost its life... but it has transformed the dough. It’s not just dough, now, but warm, delicious, bread; bread that has become the staff of life; bread that we use to nourish ourselves and our families.
Little Creator, Big Creator
So you see what is happening here? In a miniature, but deep way, we act like God when we make bread. We, like God, become masters of life and death. We, like God, breath the breath of life into clay. We, like God, express complete mastery over the natural world.
Maybe that’s part of what the Torah means when it tells us that we humans were made in the image of God. We express that divine capacity to create not just in the momentary act of birthing children; when we create humans, as God once created humanity. But we emulate God continually, as we nourish our families; as we make bread for them.
To create like God, is not something one undertakes trivially. And so the Torah asks us to recognize what we are actually doing when we make bread. When we create, like Him, we are asked to take a bit of what we have made, a bit of what we have breathed life into, and return it to Him. In doing this, we acknowledge that we have been privileged to become His partner in creation. We acknowledge that we are not the last word in creativity around here. The Universe comes with an Ultimate Creator, too.
When do we make bread? It’s interesting that for generations, we’ve concentrated our bread-making efforts around one day of the week: The Sabbath. It seems singularly right that this should be so. For what, after all, is the Sabbath – but a day on which we, the Little Creators in the Universe, recognize that there is a Master Creator, too. We recognize this truth by resting on the Sabbath, and we recognize it too, perhaps, by delighting in the bread we have made, the bread from which we have taken challah.
The act of taking challah says something unexpected. It says that bread-making is not an act of culinary triviality. No. When we stand in the kitchen, we, together with our children – wearing baking aprons and joking around as we knead the dough, as we braid it and place it in the oven – in those moments, we have surreptitiously, unexpectedly, done something remarkable. We have become partners with the Master Creator in the mystery of creation.
I’m Rabbi David Fohrman. There’s lots of videos like these at Aleph Beta. If you’ve enjoyed this one, please check those out, too. In the meantime, a very happy challah-baking experience to you.