Challah is the iconic Jewish bread, gracing Jewish tables at nearly every holiday and Shabbat. Its beautiful golden loaves recall key moments of Jewish history. Here are six facts about challah and its importance to the Jewish people.

Origin of the Name

The Torah commanded ancient Jews to donate a portion of bread to God each time they baked: “When you come to the Land (of Israel) to which I bring you, it shall be that when you will eat of the bread of the Land, you shall set aside a portion for God” (Numbers 15:19-20).

The original challah was the part of bread that was removed. In ancient times, this dough was baked into beautiful loaves and donated to the Cohanim who worked in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Challah dough

Once the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, donating loaves of bread to Cohanim ceased; the broken off piece is burned instead. The process of separating challah from dough requires a blessing when the dough contains at least 59 ounces of flour (i.e. 3 lbs. 11 oz., or 1 and 2/3 kilograms). If the amount of flour is between 43 and 59 ounces (1.230 to 1.666 kilograms), challah is separated without a blessing. If the dough contains less than 43 ounces of flour, challah is not separated.

The challah we eat on Shabbat and holidays is named for the challah we separated out from our baking thousands of years ago, keeping this mitzvah uppermost in our minds.

After kneading dough (but before shaping it into loaves) we say:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to separate challah (some add: from the dough).

We then remove a small egg-sized piece of dough (about one ounce) and hold it up, saying Harei zu challah, or “Behold this is challah”. We then burn it to a crisp so that it’s inedible. Some people do this in their oven (though not while other items are baking in it at the same time). I burn it on my stove while I braid my challahs.

Two Loaves

While the ancient Jews travelled through the desert after leaving Egypt, God instructed them to build a portable house of worship, a mishkan, and gave detailed instructions about the beautiful decorations and items that were to be housed within. One of the key components was The Shulchan, a beautiful table fashioned out of wood covered with gold, on which twelve loaves of bread were always displayed (Exodus 25:30). Later on, when the Jews built their permanent Temple in Jerusalem, this table continued to house 12 luscious loaves of bread each day.

After the Temple was destroyed, every Jewish home became a mikdash me’at, a miniature temple where Jews strive to create some measure of the holiness that used to fill the Temple. Loaves of challah placed on our own dining room tables now help remind us of the splendor of the Temple.

It’s customary to recite the Hamotzi blessing over bread over two loaves on Shabbat and holidays. (On Passover, instead of using bread we recite the blessing over matzah.) When our ancestors wandered in the desert for forty years after leaving Egypt, God gave them a portion of a miraculous food called manna every day. On Fridays, God granted a double portion, to last through Shabbat. Today, thousands of years later, we continue to recall this miracle by placing two loaves - a double portion - of challah on our Shabbat and holiday tables.

Covered with a Cloth

Challah loaves are covered with a cloth, recalling the manna our ancestors ate in the wilderness which was covered with a layer of dew each morning.

The challah cover also has a practical lesson, reminding us how crucial it is to be sensitive to the feelings of others. Since it’s customary to make Kiddush over wine before we eat challah, some say that covering the challah spares the challah’s feelings by not letting it see this slight. If we go to so much trouble to symbolically protect inanimate objects from embarrassment, how much more should we be sensitive to the feelings of people, who actually do feel pain.

Reminders of the Temple

After reciting Kiddush over wine or grape juice, we wash our hands, then say a blessing over bread:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who Brings forth bread from the earth.

Ashkenazi Jews have a custom of slicing the challah with a knife, as one would cut any other bread. Some Sephardi Jews have a tradition of ripping the bread, recalling the fact that the Temple in Jerusalem was constructed entirely without sharp implements. Since the purpose of the Temple was entirely peaceful, no tools that could be used for war or to harm others were allowed on the site: stones and other items were cut elsewhere. Today, some Jews recall this entirely peaceful construction method by avoiding using knives in tearing apart their challah.

Another challah custom recalls the days of the Temple. After slicing the challah, before distributing and eating it, we sprinkle it with salt, just as the ancient offerings in the Temple were first sprinkled with salt before being dedicated to the Divine.

Braided Egg Loaves

Most of us pictures golden loaves of rich braided egg bread for Shabbat. Yet many Jews use different types of bread in their holiday and Shabbat meals. Many Sephardi Jews eat pita bread. Yemenite Jews use fluffy loaves called salufe; Indian Jews make Hamotzi over naan or chapati breads. There is no obligation that our Shabbat and holiday loaves be braided, though for many Jews it just wouldn’t feel like Shabbat without two golden braided loaves on the table.

Food historian Gil Marks notes that the braided egg loaf that we call challah today arose in southern Germany in the 1400s, when local Jews began to adopt the region’s braided loaves called herchisbrod or perchisbrod. Locals used these braided breads for special occasions; “so a braided lean loaf, suggestive of a special occasion, soon became the most popular form of Ashkenazi Sabbath bread” Marks notes in his book Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.

Some of these early braided challah loaves were called by different names, including berches, possibly from the Hebrew word brachas or blessing.

Click here to watch a video on how to braid challah

Special Challah Shapes

On Rosh Hashanah we eat round challah loaves, symbolizing the circular nature of the year, which begins anew just as the old year ends. Round challahs are eaten on Shabbat and Sukkot until after the end of the holiday Simchat Torah. (It’s customary to dip challah into honey, not salt, on Rosh Hashanah, symbolizing our hopes that we have a sweet new year.)

Some Jewish communities shape other special loaves. Ukrainian Jews sometimes shape their challah loaves into symbols of rising up, such as birds or ladders, the Shabbat before Yom Kippur. Lithuanian Jews sometimes placed a shape like a hand on their challahs the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, because it was customary to shake hands while asking for forgiveness before the holiday.

Shlissel challah

The first Shabbat after Passover is sometimes called the “Key” Shabbat, and many Jewish cooks bake challah in the shape of a key. These are called Shlissel challah loaves (shlissel means “key” in Yiddish). They are often sprinkled with poppyseeds to remind us of the manna that fell in the desert starting in the Hebrew month of Iyar, which comes after Passover. The distinctive key shape reminds us that our livelihood, like the manna our ancestors ate, comes from God: ultimately, everything we have comes from the Divine.