“ברוך אתה ה’ אלקינו מלך העולם המוציא לחם מן הארץ”
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz.
(Blessed are You, Lord our G.d, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth)
As far as I can remember and wherever I am in the world, I always responded Amen or recited this prayer myself at the beginning of each of the three meals of Shabbat (Shabbat dinner, Shabbat lunch and Shabbat afternoon).
My love affair with dough (bread dough, not money!) started barely after I learned how to walk. While my friends were playing with playdough, I was fascinated by bread dough.
On Friday, when my mother, my grandmother or my neighbor Fernande (yes her again) prepared their Sabbath bread, they prepared an extra piece of dough for me that I kneaded for a very long time to make my little braid that I already called “MY bread.” I lovingly watched the dough rise and transform. It was magical! I have a big cooking and baking addiction and you can see that it’s been going on for a while!
I had to start this series of delightful recipes with this Sabbath bread that I have been baking since my childhood.
What is challah bread?
The Jewish bread is called challah (plural challos), חלה in Hebrew, halle in Yiddish, hallah in French, barches in German, barkis in Gothenburg, bergis in Stockholm, khala in Russian and chałka in Polish.
The word challah is traditionally used to designate the two loaves, braided or not, that form the basis of the three meals of Shabbat. But for its most basic meaning, more biblical and halachic (concerning Jewish law), challah is the piece of dough that is separated, then burned and which is traditionally consecrated to G.od at each baking. We call this action hafrashat challah or separation of the challah.
The separation or collection must be made regardless of the amount of flour, but the blessing will not be pronounced unless the amount of flour is greater than or equal to about 4 lb and it will be:
“ברוך אתה ה’ אלוהינו מלך העולם, אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציוונו להפריש חלה תרומה”
Baruch Ata Ado-nai, Elohenu-Melech Ha’olam acher kidechanou bemitsvotav vetsivanou leafrich challah teruma
“Blessed are You, Lord, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with his Commandments and commanded us to separate challah from the dough”
What is the origin of challah bread?
Let’s first go back to the time of Beit Hamikdash, the Temple of Jerusalem. At the time, people had to offer a small portion of the dough to the Kohen (priest, direct descent of Aaron) because no Kohen had received land as all the Kohanim (plural of Cohen) were employed for the Beit Hamikdash service and therefore to G.od. Challah was therefore teruma , sanctified food that only the Kohanim could eat, as they were in a state of ritual purity.
But let’s go back to more ancient times. Another biblical reference says that the mitzvah (divine commandment / good deed) of challah is the first commandment that the Hebrews received when they returned to the Land of Israel.
The Lord said to Moses:
“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat the food of the land, present a portion as an offering to the Lord. Present a loaf from the first of your ground meal and present it as an offering from the threshing floor. Throughout the generations to come you are to give this offering to the Lord from the first of your ground meal.“(Numbers – במדבר Bəmidbar 15 – 17-21)
Challah represents the manna that fed the children of Israel for 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt, as they were crossing the desert. Manna fell in daily rations and in a double ration on Shabbath eve, as nothing was falling during Shabbath. This is why two challos must be laid on the Shabbath table and for each meal.
Moreover, it is a common tradition in every Jewish community to cover the Shabbath loaves with a cloth (dekel or mapah). This cloth is to be embroidered in recognition of this manna, which was protected by layers of dew.
A third biblical reference talks about Sarah, first Matriarch and wife of Abraham, who separated challah already.
The Talmud says that a miracle happened every week: Sarah’s bread kept its freshness from one Friday to another and her Shabbath candles remained lit (Genesis 60-16 בראשית). The divine force that she could relate to – shekhina, divine presence – would never leave her. The Talmud also says that in her role as matriarch, Sarah laid the foundation for the spiritual future of every Jewish woman.
There is a reason why Sarah was the one who had experienced this miracle and not Abraham. Men and women each have a specific direction in their spiritual path. While it is said that men are supposed to bring the divine light to earth, through the study of Torah, women raise this world and allow it to connect to G.od. On the death of Sarah, the miracle no longer occurred, although Abraham continued to separate challah dough. The miracle only resumed when their son Itshaq, who married Rivka, took her into the tent of his mother Sarah. Ah, the presence of a woman!
Women have a primary role in the importance of this mitzvah.
According to halacha (Jewish law), there are three commandments that Jewish women are required to observe:
– niddah, laws of family purity
– hadlakat nerot, meaning the lighting of candles on Friday evening before Shabbath and on holidays.
It is said that by observing these three commandments (mitzvot), women become the spiritual leader of the house. With her challos, a woman can receive and bestow blessings to herself, to her household members and to anyone who asks her. Just by kneading challah, she has the right to ask G.od to cure many illnesses, since this commandment is the body and soul of Jewish life and it has a great impact on the heart and mind.
Why is challah bread braided?
And what about the shape that is given to this Shabbath bread? What are the origins of this braided loaf of Jewish bread?
Historically, Sephardi Jews and Mizrahi Jews used to give a classic shape to the breads they prepared during the week. On Shabbath, the only importance was to use white flour, usually reserved for the upper class, as opposed to whole wheat flour.
During the early medieval period, Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews began to use only white flour for Shabbath breads. Some communities, however, especially Persians used whole wheat flour even on Shabbath.
Originally, Ashkenazi Jews too gave no specific shape or name to their challos. They just prepared several kinds of white breads and called them either Yiddish broyt or lechem (Hebrew word for bread לחם). It was not until the fifteenth century that Austrian and South German Jews adopted a new oval-shaped braid challah modeled on a popular Teutonic bread, called berchisbrod or perchisbrod in the south of Germany.
In honor of the winter solstice, some German communities used to prepare specialty breads, often shaped like animals. After embracing Christianity, many Germans had kept the custom of creating new shapes.
I definitely do not want to offend any thinker whose spiritual explanation of the braided challah might refer to Eve’s braids in the Garden of Eden but it seems that
braided loaves of German tradition were invented by the women of the Teutonic tribe who made offerings of their own hair to their goddess. Over time, they have learned to preserve their braids by replacing them with braided bread. This bread was called berchisbrod or perchisbrod and offered to the goddess Berchta (or Perchta). The name of German Jews’ challos, bar’hes or barches, actually comes from this tradition.
Another name, Witch Goddess Holle, an ugly Teutonic vixen with big teeth and long tangled hair inspired some Germans who twisted their dough so that it looked like braids and offered these breads to Holle in order to escape bad spells.
Obviously, European Jews have certainly never loved Berchta or Holle and certainly knew nothing of them in their majority but nonetheless copied the shape of this bread that they found attractive.
I am thus sharing my challah bread recipe, the same I have used since I was 14. This is the best challah bread recipe for me. I have not invented anything and each of us brings a little something to our own recipe. There is definitely not a unique challah bread recipe.
I often host hafrashat challah events where I teach but also collectively pray with a very large number of women in several Jewish communities. Before we start preparing this Jewish bread, I always start by telling all the women I teach to:
Relax and knead with love… Kneading challah is a real therapy
Shabbat Shalom to all of you and enjoy this easy recipe for challah bread!
- 8 cups flour , sifted
- 2½ tablespoons active dry yeast
- 4 tablespoons sugar (+ 2 tablespoons for a sweeter taste)
- 5 tablespoons sunflower oil
- 1 tablespoon golden sesame seeds
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 eggs + 1 egg white , beaten
- 2 cups warm water (more or less depending on the flour used)
- 2 teaspoons water
- 2 egg yolks
- White sesame (and/or poppy seeds)
Mix all the ingredients in the large bowl of a stand mixer, except the water and salt. Stir in water slowly while kneading.
- Add salt and knead the dough for 10 minutes by hand or 5 minutes with a stand-in mixer. The dough should be soft and slightly sticky.
- Place dough in a large airtight container or a container covered with a clean cloth. Let rise in a warm, area, draft-free area for 60 to 90 minutes, until double in size.
- Place the dough on a work surface and divide into several pieces that will be used as strands.
- Flatten each piece of dough with a rolling pin to degas the dough and form strands.
Form braided breads. For medium size breads, each strand must weigh about 3 oz (80 g). For large loaves, each strand will weigh 4 oz (120 g).
Place each challah on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, spacing them 2 to 3 inches (5-8 cm) apart, to give them room to rise a second time, as well as during baking.
- Cover the loaves with a clean cloth and let them rise again for about 30 minutes in a dry and draft-free place.
Preheat oven to 350 F / 180 C.
- In a small bowl, combine water and egg yolks. Beat well. Brush this mixture on each challah. Sprinkle sesame and / or poppy seeds.
- Bake for roughly 20 minutes or until the loaves are golden brown.