Challah ( //, // or //; Hebrew: חַלָּה Halla [χa'la]), plural: challot // or challos //) is a special bread in Jewish cuisine, usually braided and typically eaten on ceremonial occasions such as Sabbath and major Jewish holidays (other than Passover). Ritually-acceptable challah is made of dough from which a small portion has been set aside as an offering. Similar braided breads - such as kalach, kalács, kolach, or colac - are found in Eastern Europe, though it is not clear whether these influenced or were influenced by the traditional Ashkenazic challah.
The term challah originally refers to the mitzvah of separating a portion of the dough before braiding. This portion of dough is set aside as a tithe for the Kohen. In Hebrew, this commandment is called hafrashat challah, or "separating challah". This obligation applies to any loaf of bread, not only to the Sabbath bread. The word challah is also used to refer to a specific type of bread loaf.
The word challah likely comes from the Hebrew root halal. The etymology of this root is uncertain. It may originally have indicated roundness ("circle") and then also came to denote hollowness ("space"), or vice versa. The special Sabbath bread was originally called yachov in Hebrew, since it was baked in the form of a round loaf.. It also connotes "let go" of something, to put space between things, (as the dough is taken from the family bread dough, and "let go" to the priests. It is also now known as cholla bread. The bread was adopted by bakers in Poland and Russian Empire and is known as chałka (diminutive of chała) in Poland and khala (хала) in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.
Yiddish communities in different regions of Europe called the bread khale, berkhes or barches, bukhte, dacher, kitke, koylatch or koilitsh, or shtritsl. Some of these names are still in use today, such as kitke in South Africa.
The term koylatch is cognate with the names of similar braided breads which are consumed on special occasions by other cultures outside of the Jewish tradition in a number of European cuisines. These are the Russian and Ukrainian kalach, the Serbian kolač, the Hungarian kalács, and the Romanian colac. These names originated from Proto-Slavic kolo meaning "circle", or "wheel", and refer to the circular form of the loaf.
Most traditional Ashkenazi challah recipes use numerous eggs, fine white flour, water, sugar, yeast, and salt, but "water challah" made without eggs and having a texture not unlike French baguettes also exists. Modern recipes may replace white flour with whole wheat, oat, or spelt flour or sugar with honey or molasses.
Among Sephardic Jews, water challah is preferred for ritual purposes, because Sephardic minhag does not require the dough offering to be separated if the dough contains eggs or sugar. While breads very similar to Ashkenazi egg challah are found in Sephardic cuisine, they are typically not referred to as challah but considered variants of regional breads like çörek, eaten by Jews and non-Jews alike.
Egg challah sometimes also contains raisins and/or saffron. After the first rising, the dough is rolled into rope-shaped pieces which are braided, though local (hands in Lithuania, fish or hands in Tunisia) and seasonal (round, sometimes with a bird's head in the center) varieties also exist. Poppy or sesame (Ashkenazi) and anise or sesame (Sephardic) seeds may be added to the dough or sprinkled on top. Both egg and water challah are usually brushed with an egg wash before baking to add a golden sheen.
According to Jewish tradition, the three Sabbath meals (Friday night, Saturday lunch, and Saturday late afternoon) and two holiday meals (one at night and lunch the following day) each begin with two complete loaves of bread. This "double loaf" (in Hebrew: lechem mishneh) commemorates the manna that fell from the heavens when the Israelites wandered in the desert after the Exodus. The manna did not fall on Sabbath or holidays; instead, a double portion would fall the day before the holiday or sabbath.
In some customs, each loaf is woven with six strands of dough. Together, the loaves have twelve strands, alluding to the twelve loaves of the showbread offering in the Temple. Other numbers of strands commonly used are three, five and seven. Occasionally twelve are used, referred to as a "Twelve Tribes" challah.
It is customary to begin the evening and day Sabbath and holiday meals with the following sequence of rituals:
It is customary to eat the challah or bread with salt, although the specific practice varies. Some dip the bread into salt before the blessing on bread. Others say the blessing, cut or tear the challah into pieces, and only then dip the pieces in salt, or sprinkle them with salt, before they are eaten.
Normally, the custom is not to talk between washing hands and eating bread. However, according to some, if salt was not placed on the table, it is permitted to ask for someone to bring salt, before the blessing on bread is recited.
Salting challah is considered a critical component of the meal. Salt has always played an indispensable role in Jewish life and ritual dating back to the biblical period of ancient Israel. With high quantities located in the Dead Sea region of the historical land of the Jewish people, salt was considered the most essential and common of all elements. Salt was considered the most important necessity of life.
In the Torah, salt symbolizes the eternal covenant with God. As a preservative, the mineral never spoils or decays, signifying the immortality of this bond. Moreover, adding taste to food, salt represents a covenant with God that has meaning and flavor.
The Torah requires that Temple sacrifices to God, sometimes described as the "food of God," be offered with salt. Leviticus 2:13 states "with all thy sacrifices, thou shalt offer salt." While this verse seems to relate to meal-offerings only; rabbis later concluded that just as no sacrifices can be offered without the presence of priests, no sacrifices can be offered without salt.
Following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, Jewish ritual was redefined to exist in a diaspora. Rabbinic literature suggested that a table set for a meal symbolizes the Temple altar; therefore, the blessing over food should only be recited with salt present on the table. Should one eat a meal without performing a commandment, the covenant of salt protects him.
Tradition suggests that a meal without salt cannot be considered a meal. As Soferim 15:8 suggests, as the world could not do without salt, neither could it do without Torah. The challah bread, blessed and eaten on the Sabbath, is a part of this obligation; especially considering the challah was the priest’s portion of the bread during the Temple period.
A Yiddish proverb declares that "no Jewish table should be without salt," which is in accordance with the homily that makes one's table "an altar before the Lord." (cf. Avot 3:4).
The midrash Yalkut HaReuveni tells the following story:
The world is one part wilderness, one part settled land, and one part sea. Said the sea to G-d: "Master of the Universe! The Torah will be given in the wilderness; the Holy Temple will be built on settled land; and what about me?" Said G-d: "The people of Israel will offer your salt upon the Altar."
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi interpreted this story as such: "The wine is like the wilderness — fermentation requires wild, airborne yeast. The bread is like the settled land — bread is created through cultivation and human intervention. Salt is like the ocean — the sea, where life began and purity begins." These are the three realms of the world and are framework of what unifies the altar within the Jewish home. Thus through the Sabbath blessing over wine and Challah, the covenant with God is manifested.
On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the challah may be rolled into a circular shape (sometimes referred to as a "turban challah"), symbolizing the cycle of the year, and is sometimes baked with raisins in the dough. Some have the custom of continuing to eat circular challah from Rosh Hashana through the holiday of Sukkot.
Sometimes the top is brushed with honey to symbolize the "sweet new year." According to some traditions, challah eaten on Rosh Hashana is not dipped in or sprinkled with salt but instead is dipped in or sprinkled with honey. As above, some continue to use honey instead of salt through the Sukkot holiday.
For the Shabbat Mevarchim preceding Rosh Chodesh Iyar—i.e., first Shabbat after the end of the Jewish holiday of Passover—there is a custom of baking schlissel challah ("key challah") as a segula (propitious sign) for parnassa (livelihood). Some make an impression of a key on top of the challah before baking, some place a key-shaped piece of dough on top of the challah before baking, and some bake an actual key inside the challah. The earliest written source for this custom is the sefer Ohev Yisrael by Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel, the Apter Rav, written in the 1800s. He calls schlissel challah "an ancient custom," and offers several kabbalistic interpretations. He writes that after spending forty years in the desert, the Israelites continued to eat the manna until they brought the Omer offering on the second day of Passover. From that day on, they no longer ate manna, but food that had grown in the Land of Israel. Since they now had to start worrying about their sustenance rather than having it handed to them each morning, the key on the challah is a form of prayer to God to open up the gates of livelihood.
This practice has been criticized for its alleged origins as a non-Jewish custom. However, others dispute this claim, and assert that there is no evidence connecting schlissel challah to Christian custom.
The practice of baking Easter breads, also known as hot cross buns, have been documented to exist at least since the 1500s. Two cross-marked buns have also been found in the Roman city of Herculaneum in modern-day Italy dating back as early as 79 CE. The Irish in particular have been known to bake a key in the shape of a cross inside the bread during the Easter period. It is uncertain, however, how cross buns are similar to shlissel challah, other than the fact that people have always made signs or symbols on their bread.
Shabbat challah, known as a bilkele or bulkele or bilkel or bulkel (plural: bilkelekh; Yiddish: בילקעלע) baigiel (Polish) is a bread roll made with eggs, similar to a challah bun. It is often used as the bread for Shabbat or holiday meals.
Similar braided, egg-enriched breads are made in other traditions: the Armenian, the Bulgarian kozunak, the Romanian cozonac, the Czech vánočka, the Slovak vianočka, the Greek tsoureki, and the Turkish choreg. Zopf is a similar bread from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
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