|Alternative names||Hallah, khale, kitke (in South Africa)|
|Region or state||Israel, and Jewish communities worldwide|
|Main ingredients||Eggs, fine white flour, water, yeast, sugar and salt|
|Cookbook: Challah Media: Challah|
- 1 Name and origins
- 2 Ingredients and preparation
- 3 Rituals and religious significance
- 4 Special challah
- 5 Similar breads
- 6 See also
- 7 References
Name and origins
The name challah comes from the biblical requirement, hafrashat challah—separating challah. The etymology of the Hebrew root halal is uncertain. It may originally have indicated roundness ("circle") and then also came to denote hollowness ("space") or vice versa. The bread was originally called Yachov in Hebrew, since it was baked in the form of a round loaf. It is also now known as cholla bread.
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 few European cuisines. These are the Russian and Ukrainian kalach, the Serbian kolač, the Bulgarian kozunak, 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.
Ingredients and preparation
Most traditional Ashkenazi challah recipes use numerous eggs, fine white flour, water, sugar, yeast, and salt, but "water challah" made without eggs 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 Mitzvah of Challah 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, that are eaten by Jews and non-Jews alike.
Egg challot sometimes also contain 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.
Rituals and religious significance
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 for forty years after the Exodus from Egypt according to Jewish religious belief. The manna did not fall on Sabbath or holidays; instead, a double portion would fall the day before the holiday or sabbath. Each single loaf is sometimes woven with six strands. Together, both loaves have twelve which is associated with the 12 Loaves of the Showbread offering (Lechem hapanim) which was displayed in the Holy Temple (in Jerusalem)- on the "Table", each loaf represent a tribe of Israel. Other numbers of strands commonly used are three, five and seven. Occasionally twelve are used, referred to as a "Twelve Tribes" challah.
Hafrashat challah ritual
The term challah also 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 Mitzvah is called hafrashat challah, or "separating challah".
Covering the challah
Before the bread is blessed, it is first covered with a cloth covering during the blessing of the wine. It is customary to use a dedicated cloth called a challah cover for this purpose, although any improvised cover is acceptable.
Traditional Sabbath meal
It is customary to begin the Friday night meal and the two meals eaten during Sabbath with a blessing over two challot. After kiddush over a cup of wine, the head of the household recites the blessing over bread: "Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz" (Translation: "Blessed are you, LORD, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth").
Salting the challah
According to Jewish law and practice, salting challah is a critical component of HaMotzi, the blessing over bread. 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.
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 religious significance of salt is discernible in the Temple Period as portrayed in Jewish liturgy. The importance of salt in ritual is symbolized in the ceremony of the covenant, or the Temple sacrifice to God. Since according to Jewish tradition it is the most important necessity of life, salt is a requisite for the "food of God," or the Temple sacrifice. As commanded by God in Leviticus 2:13, "with all thy sacrifices, thou shalt offer salt." It seems in this verse that salt is required for meal-offerings only; however, 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 constructed a concept suggesting that a table set for a meal was to symbolize the Temple altar; salt should be placed on the table and the blessing over food should not be recited without it.
The ultimate significance of salt in the blessing over challah and in the tradition of Judaism 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.
It is customary for guests to remain silent between the recitation of the blessing over the challah and the consumption of the bread. However, it is permitted to ask for salt in the case that the bread is inferior and salt has not been placed on the table.
The custom of assuring salt is included in the blessing over bread is highlighted and debated further in rabbinic literature. Upon eating at a meal without performing a commandment, the covenant of salt protects them. It is now custom to dip the challah or bread into salt before the HaMotzi.
This custom is illustrated further within the Jewish tradition. 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).
In the Jewish 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 baked with raisins in the dough. Sometimes the top is brushed with honey to symbolize the "sweet new year."
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 origins as a non-Jewish custom.
However, others dispute this contention and claim that there is no evidence connecting schlissel challah to Christian custom. This is despite the fact that 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. 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. The Irish in particular have been known to bake a key in the shape of a cross inside the bread during the Easter period.
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 meals or for meals during the Jewish holidays.
Similar braided, egg-enriched breads are made in other traditions: the Armenian, the Bulgarian kozunak, the Czech vánočka, the Slovak vianočka, the Greek tsoureki, the Turkish choreg, and the Polish chałka.
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