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A Brief History of Challah

A Brief History of Challah

On my favorite cooking show “Chopped,” I was horrified to see them repurposing our precious Shabbat delicacy – challah.


Okay, I confess. I’m a “reality TV” junkie, but hooked on those shows that actually require skill. Which is why I’m addicted to the food channel.

You see, I can’t cook. Whenever I tried making matzah balls, I had emergency services on speed dial. “I’m experimenting!” would send my family careening through the screen door like the Roadrunner. When our son was young, I baked one big cookie with his name on top. Did I know it would run together during the baking and emerge looking like a miniature European dictator?

My favorite show is “Chopped” where four “common” geniuses vie in three rounds (apps, main, and dessert), from mystery baskets that contain weird stuff I mostly never heard of (buffalo ears, Poussin, watermelon radish, earthy sunchokes – and bubble gum) in less time than it takes me to floss my teeth. More, they must mix, “transform” and “repurpose” this panoply of impossibles.

What could they do to transform challah?! And why would they?

However, a few weeks ago, one of the “secret” ingredients in the basket to be “re-purposed” was challah.

What could they do to “transform” challah?! And more, why would they?

I immediately summoned 3,500 years of Jewish history and I was determined to be defensive.

Our challah is not to be fooled with. We Jews are masters at imbuing ordinary acts with symbolism. For thousands of years challah has been our Shabbat and holiday bread, and as for meanings, challah alone needs a thesaurus.

The first appearance of the word “challah” appears in the Bible (Numbers 15:18-21) as follows:

...When you enter the land where I bring you, it shall be that when you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set aside a portion for God. Of the first of your dough you shall set aside a loaf as an offering; as the offering of the threshing-floor, so you shall set it aside. From the first of your dough you shall give to God an offering throughout your generations.

The word “cake” is a translation of the Hebrew word “challah.” The offering or portion of challah that was given to the priests (kohanim) was called the mitzvah of “hafrashat challah” – separating the challah.

(In the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews were told to separate 1/24th of the doughs and give it to the kohanim every Shabbat. I’m the daughter of kohanim, but I’ve yet to receive a morsel.)

On Shabbat, the two challahs placed on our festive tables represent the double-portion of manna that fell on Friday, the heavenly bread that fed Jewish people during their 40 years in the desert. 

The strands, arms intertwined, symbolize love, truth, peace, creation, freedom, harmony, family connection, unity and justice – following the simultaneous commandments to remember, observe and guard Shabbat (“Shamor” and “Zachor”).

Twelve humps recall the miracle of the 12 loaves for the 12 tribes of Israel.

Round loaves on Rosh Hashanah symbolize continuity.

Ladder shapes, before the Yom Kippur fast, represents ascending to great heights.

On Purim, small triangular loaves represent Haman’s ears.

On Shavuot, two oblongs side by side resemble the Tablets of the Law.

Next to matzah (and chicken), challah is what makes our world go round.

Challah History

The word challah (ḥallah plural: challot/ḥalloth/khallos) (Hebrew: חלה) is also called khale (eastern Yiddish, German and western Yiddish), berches (Swabian), barkis (Gothenburg), bergis (Stockholm), birkata in Judeo-Amharic, chałka (Polish), colaci (Romanian),and kitke (South Africa). Yet the origin Etymology of the word “challah” is as mysterious to me as me trying to bake one – from scratch.

The term challah comes from the Biblical commandment of “hafrashat challah,” separating the challah for the cohen or priest. The word cChallah itself may come from the root word “Chalal” which means space. The term comes from the Biblical commandment of “hafrashat challah,” or burning a bit to commemorate the destruction of the Temple.

Challah may come from “Gal” referring to a circle in Hebrew.

Others suggest “challah” may be derived from the amalgamation of: Hilu or hala, the Arabic root for “sweet.” Nah.

The name “challah” was given applied to the bread in South Germany in the Middle Ages when it was adopted by Jews for Shabbat and holidays. John Cooper (Eat and Be Satisfied) notes that the first mention was in the 15th century. The term was coined in Austria. Before, the bread was called “berches,” a name still used by Jews in some places today.

Every Friday evening, it's challah that heralds the Sabbath. Likewise on Jewish holidays.

The prayers and customs that accompany the mitzvah of making challah for the Sabbath are the same the world over, linking the present to the Book of Leviticus, when God instructed Moses to place two rows of six challot. For more than 4,000 years since, Jews have been delighting in challah for Shabbat.

On Friday night and holidays, this special, oh so delicious bread is also a reminder of the purity of the day of rest, as well as a remembrance of the deprivation of Eastern European Jews who lived on black bread during the week.

Special enough?

Wait! There’s more …

Tearing vs. Slicing: On “Chopped” I saw them slicing the challah instead of tearing! (I ran for the Slivovitz.) Oy vey. Abraham is rolling.

Schlissel challah: Whether a key of dough is baked inside or adorns the top, some still engage in this controversial practice. The key is a form of prayer to open up the gates of livelihood. Other interpretations see the key as understanding the basic necessities in life as stored for us in shamayim (heaven) behind locked gates. All we have to do is ask God to unlock the gates and fill our homes with blessings. Just as He unlocked the gates of sustenance to provide for us in those days in Israel, may He provide us with our needs now.

Salvation: A recent custom, 40 women devote their prayers while separating challah to those in need of salvation (illness, a worthy mate, the birth of a child). Separating challah is a segulah (good omen) for an easy, safe birth and some separate challah at least once in the ninth month of pregnancy.

Special enough yet?!

So, with this history in mind I watched what they did to OUR challah on “Chopped.” Oy, what they made! I don’t want to see (or understand) challah béchameled, cassoletted, chiffonaded, moled, rouladed, confited, aiolied, rouxed, coulisdied, ceviched, sabayoned into a pate, or encrouted in something. I don’t want to see white chocolate (which should be an extra Jewish sin) using our challah! (Never mind the recipes for Challah and Apple Stuffed Pork Loin? Mit bacon or ham? QUICK! THE SLIVOVITZ!)

While “transforming” may be a sign of genius in today’s world, let them play with goat’s feet, dragonfruit, and yes, even Halvah with fried pickles. But there are just some things you don’t futz with.

No ratings, and yes, even “geniuses” should be required to “repurpose” that which has had a purpose to We Jews for millennia.

Just as we don’t need to “transform” Judaism, even for ratings, our challah stands alone (except for maybe some raisins, and French toast) – and like Judaism, should be dosed straight, with love, and respect for this ever-lasting mitzvah!

July 7, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 15

(10) Shalini, November 9, 2016 1:16 PM


I've been baking Challah for some years now. Never realised the significance. I did know about the pair and the friday but never knew about not slicing the loaf. And now when ive read up about your traditions, well, this is an education.We've been using this as our daily bread , once every few days. Now that I know, I will try and be more careful and appreciate the bread for all it represents. And would like to read up more about it. Thanks

(9) Anonymous, May 5, 2016 2:23 AM

Slicing challa

I was told that it important to slice Challa rather than break off pieces, see your LOR

(8) Richard A. Walter, July 16, 2012 4:34 AM

Once again, a home run!

Marnie has once again helped me to understand more of my Jewish heritage! Thank you so much, dear!

(7) Anonymous, July 11, 2012 10:47 AM

There are two challot on the table in remembrance of the double portion of man that we got before Shabbat..

(6) Anonymous, July 11, 2012 1:43 AM

Shame on "Chopped"...

Very educational for me, and a very interesting topic. It truly helps me bond deeper with my Judaism. Unfortunately, regarding "Chopped", as long as it generates profits, everything today becomes a reality show even at the expense of religion and moral values.

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