Parashat Shelah: The many braids of challah

Just as the history of hafrashat (taking) challah has had different chapters in its long existence, we find the same with challah, the bread served on Shabbat. 

 Challah bread (Illustrative) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Challah bread (Illustrative)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

We associate challah as one of the key elements of Shabbat dinner and lunch. It is often braided, but there are traditions to bake it in different shapes for different holidays. In the Torah, the word challah means “loaf,” as in one of the 12 loaves of bread baked for the sanctuary used as “bread of display” (Lev. 24:5/Ex. 25:30).

In this week’s parasha, Shelah, the word “challah” refers to a loaf set aside from “the first yield of your baking” to be presented to the priests “throughout your generations” (Num. 15:17-21).

A biblical description of this practice is found in the Book of Ezekiel: “You shall further give the first yield of your baking to the priest, that a blessing may rest upon your home” (Ezek. 44:30).

After the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the priests no longer functioned as priests and therefore no longer received the first baking. However, since that mitzvah was to exist throughout the ages, the rabbis needed to create a way to continue the mitzvah, even though the Temple was no longer standing and the priests were no longer acting as priests. As the rabbis explain, so the “category of challah should not be forgotten” (Bechorot 27a).

In one of the earliest rabbinic discussions, we are told there are five types of grain considered: “The priest’s share of the dough, wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye” (Mishna Challah 1:1).


If one of those grains is used and the amount of flour is over a tenth of an ephah (a bushel), one “is obligated in challah” (Eruvin 83b).

This is based on the understanding that an “omer is a tenth of an ephah” (Ex. 16:36). An omer was the amount of manna the Israelites collected daily in the desert. This was also the measure of grain offered in the Temple: “When you come into the land that I am about to give you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring a sheaf/omer, first of your harvest, to the priest” (Lev. 23:10).

It is understood that an omer is approximately 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg.). It is not surprising that these days we find a range of answers when it comes to when challah needs to be taken, as we are dealing with a ritual that has traveled from our distant past. That time has separated us from knowing exact age-old measurements. With that being said, we find a number of different opinions. Some say that challah does not have to be taken for less than eight cups of unsifted flour; and if one is using between eight to 12 cups of unsifted flour, challah is taken, but without a blessing. If one is using over 12 cups, around 3.3 pounds of unsifted flour (1.5 kg.), one separates challah with the blessing. There are variations on these opinions.

A question that also needs to be asked is how much challah should be taken. In the Mishna, there is a discussion with different answers based on the use of the bread (Challah 2:6). As Jewish law evolved, the amount needed became kezayit, the size of an olive. Why that size? Rabbi Shlomo Brody explains: “For example, with regard to many commandments involving food, consumption was not considered ‘eating’ unless one ate the equivalent of the size of an olive (ke’zayit) within a specified period of time.”

The procedure today is after kneading the dough, take an olive-size piece of dough and, before detaching it, say: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us to separate challah from the dough.” Then detach the piece of challah and say: “This is challah.”

There is also a tradition to add personal prayers for specific needs and requests at that moment. The piece of dough is then ready to be burned – often by wrapping it in aluminum foil and placing it on the bottom of a preheated oven. There is a minor opinion that says that a piece of dough can be disposed of by putting it in a compost container.

Why burn the piece of dough?

In the Talmud it states: “Rav said: ‘Just as there is a mitzva to burn consecrated items that became ritually impure, so too, there is a mitzva to burn truma/sacred contribution that became ritually impure...’” (Shabbat 25a).

Rabbi Chaim Yeshaya Freeman explains: “During the era of the Temple, and even after its destruction while Jews still observed the laws of ritual impurity and purity, the challah was given as a gift to the kohen, who would eat it in a state of ritual purity. Nowadays, this is not the case, since everyone is assumed to be in a state of ritual impurity. The challah is therefore not given to a kohen, but instead burned (Shulhan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 322:4).”

JUST AS the history of hafrashat (taking) challah has had different chapters in its long existence, we find the same with challah, the bread served on Shabbat. 

Culinary anthropology writer Lis Susman Karp explains: “In medieval times, challah was a plain, simple bread. According to Maggie Glezer in A Blessing of Bread, braiding it began in 15th-century Austria and Southern Germany, with Jewish housewives following their non-Jewish counterparts, who plaited the loaves they baked on Sundays. Braids also symbolized the Sabbath bride’s hair, says Prof. Hasia R. Diner, the Paul and Sylvia Steinberg professor of American Jewish history at New York University.... The word ‘challah’ is first mentioned in a 1488 Austrian book, Leket Yosher, but took hold in Poland. In America, berches, the German Ashkenazi potato bread, became known as challah with the additional influx of Eastern European immigrants.”

Renee Rousso Chernin, creator of the website, has an important insight: “It is interesting to note that the Hebrew root of the word ‘challah’ is ‘hol,’ which means ordinary.... Just as separating challah dough makes the bread edible,” she points out that to make the world holy “requires our involvement in it, and also our separation from it.”

When we take challah, we can be transported to, we touch, an earlier time in our history. We are also reminded that the task of bringing more holiness, to reveal the holiness, in the world and in our lives requires both active engagement and moments of quiet separation.

Baker Dina Bronson of Dina’s Bakery in Manchester, Vermont, who many say makes the best challah they have ever tasted, shares this insight:

“Each Friday, as I make challah, something happens. As I prepare the dough, prayers and Hebrew songs rise unbidden in my mind. I think about the people who will eat this challah. I think about my community. And as I braid each loaf, I count 18 twists in each braid – a little chai with your bread. And as the last loaf is finished, I say ‘Baruch Hashem.’ How grateful I am that this act that pleases others helps remind me who I am.”■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.