Challah, a now typically braided bread eaten for Shabbat and holidays, is one of the most recognizable Jewish symbols out there. While many people can recognize a loaf of bread as a challah, relatively few people know what the actual mitzvah is, let alone any particular mitzvah associated with it at all.
So long as a loaf of bread is kosher, and made from one of the Five Grains—wheat, spelt, rye, oats, and barley—then it can be used on as a normal Shabbat or Yom Tov challah. The braids are not necessary, and many Jews including lots of Sefardim will not eat it as challah if it has eggs in it even. So assuming you have enough bread made of even so simple as just water, yeast, and flour, what can be the mitzvah in making it?
Indeed, that is a bit of a trick question, because the main mitzvah associated with challah is not in the making of it, but in separating a portion of the dough to set aside as it is being made, so long as the amount of dough exceeds roughly 1.1 kg (ask your local rabbinic authority), regardless of how many batches are being made. In fact, the separated dough is what the word challah (loaf) refers to in a halachic context usually.
The mitzvah of separating challah (Hafrashat Challah) is based on several passages in the Tanakh (written Torah) and is further expounded upon in the Talmud and subsequent rabbinic writings. In the book of Numbers (Bamidbar) 15:17-21, it is written:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you come to the land to which I am bringing you, and you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set aside a portion as a gift to the Lord...you shall give the Lord a gift throughout the ages.'”
This passage establishes the commandment to separate a portion of dough as an offering to God. The specific requirements and procedures for performing this mitzvah are further elucidated in the Talmud.
According to the Talmudic tractate Challah, the obligation to separate challah applies when making bread from the five primary grains: wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats. The minimum quantity of dough that requires separation of challah is known as a “kezayit,” the size of a large olive.
The separation process involves the following steps:
- Taking a small portion of the dough: When the dough has reached a certain stage of preparation, usually after kneading and before shaping, a small piece is taken, typically about the size of an olive or larger.
- Reciting a blessing: Before separating the dough, a blessing known as “Hafrashat Challah” is recited. The blessing acknowledges God’s commandment to separate challah and expresses gratitude for the opportunity to fulfill this mitzvah.
- Setting the portion aside: The portion of dough is designated as challah and set aside to be burned. It is important to note that the separated challah is not eaten or thrown away but rather disposed of in a respectful manner, namely burning. This ensures that no use can be made with it.
The Talmud discusses the significance of the mitzvah of challah and its relationship to the priests (Cohanim) and the Beit Hamikdash (the Holy Temple in Jerusalem). In Tractate Challa 2a, it states that the separation of challah is akin to offering a sacrifice in the Temple. It is considered an act of devotion and a means of sanctifying the bread, just as sacrifices were offered in the Temple.
In ancient times, when the Temple stood, the separated challah was given to the priests as a gift (Terumah). The priests, who were descendants of Aaron and belonged to the priestly class (Cohanim), were responsible for offering sacrifices and performing various rituals in the Temple. The separation of challah was one of the ways in which the people contributed to the sustenance of the priests. Today, in the absence of the Temple and the cessation of the priesthood, the separated challah is not given to the priests. However, the mitzvah of challah remains an important practice observed by Jewish people, both women and men.
Women today typically perform the mitzvah of challah in their homes when baking bread. In the Gemara of Brachot, this is listed as one of the 3 primary mitzvot of women, along with candles and the laws of family purity. Many communities have established customs and guidelines for separating challah, ensuring that the correct procedures are followed. While by no means necessary, large Jewish communities may see women to gather together for group challah baking sessions, creating a sense of camaraderie and fostering a shared commitment to this mitzvah.
The mitzvah of separating challah is a significant commandment that may be overlooked as it is primarily observed at home, and without the Temple it does not have all of the the practical implications it once did. The separation of challah involves taking a portion of dough and setting it aside as an offering to God. While historically the challah was given to the priests in the Temple, today it is a practice observed by Jewish women as a means of connecting with their heritage and expressing their commitment to Jewish law.