Challah – Breaking Bread on Shabbat
Whenever I attend a Shabbat meal, the process of making the blessing (bracha) on the challah and cutting it seems detailed. Can you give me the rundown of how it’s done?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
There are actually quite a few details to blessing, cutting and handing out the challah on Shabbat. Here is the basic process.
(a) At each meal we recite the blessing on two whole loaves. This is reminiscent of the double portion of manna that the Jewish people in the desert received every Friday (OC 274:1, MB 1). One should use two whole loaves even if he eats an extra meal beyond the three main ones (Rema 291:4).
(b) Before beginning, the challahs should be covered above and below. (The cutting board suffices for “below”; a velvet or embroidered cloth cover is typically used above.) This is in part to enable Kiddush on the wine to be recited before the blessing on the bread, since ordinarily the blessing on bread takes precedence. It is also reminiscent of the two layers of dew above and below the manna in the desert – God's “giftwrapping” (OC 271:9, MB 41).
(c) A small scratch should be made with the knife on the challah you will cut, marking off where you plan to cut, thus minimizing the delay between the cutting and eating (MB 274:5).
(d) Before reciting the blessing, both challahs should be lifted and held, one above the other, with all 10 fingers. The challahs should not be inside of anything – such as a plastic bag, but should be directly in your hands. Some have the custom to reach under the challah cover and recite the blessing while keeping the challahs covered (OC 167:4; The Radiance of Shabbos 14:5:1; MB 271:41).
(e) On Friday night we recite the blessing on the bottom challah, while in the day meals we recite it on the top. On holidays we recite the blessing on the top challah even at night. When reciting the blessing on the lower challah, it should be edged forward, closer than the top one, so that you don’t “pass over” the top one to break the bottom. (Some have the custom to cut both challahs at all meals.) (OC 274:1, MB 4-5).
(f) If you are reciting the blessing for others, you must say the blessing loud enough that they can hear every word. Everyone should be seated when the blessing is recited and recite "amen" at its conclusion (OC 167:11).
(g) If you are blessing for others, introduce the blessing with the words “birshut rabboti” (“with the permission of my masters”) in order to get their attention (MB 274:2). Any English equivalent is fine.
(h) Some have the custom to lift the challahs slightly when they say God's name (ado-nai) and/or when they say the word lechem, emphasizing the bounty God has granted us.
(i) Cut the challah where you earlier made the scratch. Take the first piece for yourself since you should not be involved in distributing food to others with your own blessing unfulfilled (MB 167:79). After your own piece, it is typical to give challah first to your wife, and then to guests and family members in order of age or importance.
(j) There is a custom to have salt on the table for every bread meal. This is because the table of a Jewish home is compared to the altar of the Temple, and just as sacrifices were always salted, so too our bread. There is a Kabbalistic custom to dip each slice in salt three times before giving it out (Rema 167:5, MB 33).
(k) When giving out the pieces, do not put a slice of challah directly into the hands of a recipient since this is reminiscent of the meal given to a mourner (OC 167:18).
(l) When giving out the pieces, do not toss the bread around the table. It is considered disrespectful to throw bread even if no damage will occur to it as a result (OC 171:1; see also MB 167:88).
(m) When a guest receives a piece of challah, he should not be "polite" and pass it along (unless the homeowner specifically indicated he do so). The reason is because one should not pass up a mitzvah that comes before him.
(n) Every person at the table should be given (not necessarily at the time of the blessing) a piece of bread larger than an egg. This is because up to an egg’s volume of bread is considered a snack, and does not lend importance to the Shabbat meal (MB 291:2).
(o) One should first eat the challah he was given at the time of the blessing and only then take other challah, since the first piece had the blessing recited on it. One should also leave a bit of this piece till the conclusion of the meal, so that the taste of the mitzvah remains in his mouth (Rema 167:19; MB 97).