The Tisch: Halla bookends

The halla bookends need not be bread; they can be halla of a different sort: prayer and blessings for others.

June 25, 2016 01:29
3 minute read.
halla bread

The blessings we make on halla in our home are meant to reflect on and symbolize the sacrifices in the Temple. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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Halla – those special loaves typically woven from different strands of dough and served as part of every Shabbat meal – is one of the great misnomers of Jewish tradition. It is a misnomer because halla is the one thing that this bread is not; if these loaves were indeed halla, we would not be allowed to eat them! The biblical term halla refers to the dough offering that is one of the 24 gifts given to kohanim (Numbers 15:17-21). These gifts were in lieu of the kohanim’s service in the Temple and in consideration of the fact that the kohanim were not awarded land and therefore had no means or source of income in a predominantly agricultural society.

The dough offering had special status and hence was consumed by kohanim while they were in a state of ritual purity. Nowadays, kohanim do not have the opportunity to attain this state, hence the dough offering is no longer transferred to kohanim.

Nevertheless, so that the commandment would not be forgotten, the sages instituted that half of the ritual should still be fulfilled – the dough offering is to be separated (hafrashat halla), though it is not given to a kohen (netinat halla) (Tosefta, Halla 4:4).

To this day, people preparing significant quantities of baked goods do hafrashat halla. Thus the custom is that when using a minimum amount of flour (at least 1.66 kg.), a blessing is recited as halla is taken from the dough and placed in the oven to burn, rather than given to a kohen (Rema, YD 322:5).

The hassidic master Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein of Krakow (Maor Vashamesh, 1751-1823), offered a creative reading of the biblical verses that outline the commandment of halla. His interpretation took the entire passage out of context, though it added a new angle and – as we can assume with all hassidic interpretations – gave contemporary meaning.

Epstein explained that when a person goes to sleep, before closing his or her eyes, there should be a moment of prayer. A variation of the word “halla” – translated as loaf – also appears in the Bible in the context of prayer: “And Moses implored (vayehal) the Lord his God, saying ‘Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand’” (Exodus 32:11).

Furthermore, the biblical passage dealing with halla requires that the gift be set aside “from the threshing floor (goren).” The Torah scroll is written without vowels, so Epstein creatively changed the vowels so that instead of the word goren (threshing floor) the word should be read garon (throat): the gift must be set aside from the throat – suggesting prayer.

The halla is also termed “the first of your dough” (reshit arisoteichem), which can be alternatively translated “the first of your beds.” While in the context of the commandment of halla it is referring to a stage in the baking process, Epstein focused on the alternate translation: the first part of your bed has to be consecrated for the Almighty. This means that as soon as we rise we are enjoined to praise God and to pray for health and all manner of goodness.

As a proof of his creative reading, Epstein mentioned that the beloved hassidic master Rabbi Meshulam Zusha of Anipoli (ca. 1718-1800), had the custom that each morning he would rise from his bed and immediately announce, “Good morning all of Israel! And blessings and prayers for them!” Another hassidic master, Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen Rabinowicz of Radomsk (Tiferet Shlomo, 1801-1866), had a different version of Zusha’s morning conduct. Each morning after reciting the blessing over Torah study – presumably before he fulfilled his daily prayer obligations – Reb Zusha would go out to the marketplace.

With the hope that his Torah study would not just be a private enterprise but that it should benefit others, Zusha would heap blessings on the first person he met. That is how Zusha would start his day.

The bookends of our day frame our experience. The hassidic masters suggest that we should frame our day with communion with the Almighty. The halla bookends need not be bread; they can be halla of a different sort: prayer and blessings for others. 

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. He is currently an Academic Visitor at the Faculty of Law, University of Oxford.

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