All About Challah - Jewish Shabbat Bread
Challah Recipes and Challah Braiding
Challah is a special Jewish bread that is traditionally eaten on Shabbat and Yamim Tovim (Holidays). One of the greatest mitzvah that Jewish woman have is the privilege of performing the mitzvah of separating the Challah. (Men are also required to separate the Challah if they are the one making Challah). The two Challot (pl. of challah) placed on the Shabbat table is called Lechem Mishneh (Double Bread or Extra Bread), because before Shabbat Hashem brought down a double portion of mann (manna) for each person. (Shemot 16:4-5, 14-16) It is traditional to cover the challot with a challah cover representing the mann that was covered above and below with dew from heaven.
The Halachah of Challah
Challah actually refers to the kohanim's (priest's) share of the cake (challah), donated in Temple times to the kohanim and is a Biblical command to separate a small amount of the dough that one kneads when baking bread. Torah refers to this mitzvah of separating the Challah:
Bamidbar 15:17 Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, 18 "Speak to the Benei Yisrael and say to them: When you come to the Land to which I bring you, 19 it shall be that when you will eat the bread of the Land, you shall set aside a portion for Hashem. 20 As the first of your kneading you shall set aside a challah as a portion, like the portion of the threshing floor, so shall you set it aside. 21 From the first of your kneading shall you give a portion to Hashem, for your generations."
The rosh (head) of the dough was separated and was given to the kohanim. However, this command does not specify what proportion of the dough should go to the kohanim, so the Talmudic sages defined challah as 1/24th of the first of the loaf and 1/48th from a baker.
Today, since the challah can no longer be observed as a priestly offering, and in order that this mitzvah may not be forgotten, the piece taken is burned in the oven in lieu of giving it to the kohanim and also as a contemporary sacrifice, and symbolizing that we diminish our joy in memory of the destruction of the Temple.
The mitzvah of challah is incumbent upon every Jewish person who will eat from the foods requiring challah separation. Traditionally, the woman of the house is who has the privilege of performing this mitzvah (even if her husband made the dough), but if she is not available to perform this, then someone else of the household may do so.
Separating and burning of challah is required at the time that the dough is kneaded and it must be separated only if a specific amount of flour is used in making the challah dough (challah can be made from five types of grain - wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt).
If less than 8 cups of flour (2 1/2 lbs.) is used then it is not necessary to separate. If 10 cups but less than 20 cups are used (between 2 1/2 lbs. and 5 lbs.) then the challah is separated but a bracha (blessing) is not necessary (although this is debatable among the authorities and one should follow the direction of their Rabbi).
If 20 cups of flour are used (5 lbs or more) the challah must be separated and with a bracha. The below blessing is recited just prior to separating the challah from the prepared dough. Traditionally, the amount separated should be equivalent to about half the size of a large egg.
Baruch Atah Hashem Elokeinu Melech haolam asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hafrish challah
Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to separate the challah.
In instances when no bracha is recited then after separating the challah and is still being held the words harei zeh challah (this is challah) is said and then the challah is burnt. When burning the challah it can be put into the same oven that is used to bake the prepared dough, but, the challah must be burnt before the prepared dough is put into the oven to bake. The burnt challah can only be discarded if first wrapped in waterproof wrapping, such as plastic wrap. If one forgets to separate the challah before the dough was baked they may still take challah after the baking is finished.
If a bracha is necessary (due to amount of flour used in preparation), and the baked goods were separated before challah was taken, then each separate baked good must have challah taken from it.
Adding milk as one of the ingredients in preparing the challah loaves is halachically allowed, but these loaves should be shaped different than the pareve challah loaves to prevent halachic problems.
According to halachah, it is not permitted to separate challah on Shabbat from a previously baked item. Nor can separating of Challah be performed on a Yom Tov (Holiday) from any dough kneaded before Yom Tov which is to then be baked on that Yom Tov. However, if the dough was kneaded on Yom Tov then challah can be separated, but it should not be burnt and discarded until the end of the that Yom Tov.
If the dough belongs or belonged to a non-Jew (dough was kneaded by the non-Jew), then no separation of challah is required.
Basic Challah Recipe
- 6 - 7 cups unbleached flour (mix into flour 2 Tbsp wheat gluten - optional but makes bread lighter if used)
- 3 eggs (Jumbo)
- 1/4 cup oil
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- 4 tsp salt
- 2 Tbsp yeast (2 yeast 'packets' are equivalent)
- 1/2 cup honey (optional)
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 1/3 cup warm water for dissolving yeast
- Sesame or poppy seeds (optional)
Dissolve yeast in 1/3 cup warm water. Pour the oil, salt, sugar (and honey if using) into large bowl. Add 1 cup of boiling water and stir. Then add the 1/2 cup of cold water and stir. Beat 3 eggs and add to the oil and water mixture, saving 1 Tbsp of the beaten egg to brush on the tops of loaves before baking. Now add the dissolved yeast and stir. Add the 6-7 cups of flour (mixed with the 2 Tbsp of wheat gluten if using) and mix well until the the dough is of kneading consistency.
Turn out onto a floured surface and knead (or use food processor) until dough does not stick to board or hands, adding more flour if necessary. Return dough to bowl and cover bowl top with plastic wrap and place in 'warm' oven that has been preheated for 1 minute only and turned off. Let dough rise for 1 hour; it will double in bulk.
After dough has doubled, again turn out onto a floured surface. Take the piece of dough that you will be separating and consecrating as challah. (Say the blessing if the amount of flour used is sufficient - see above) and dispose of it as directed. Knead rest of dough for 1-2 minutes. Separate dough into 4 equal parts, kneading each piece with a little flour until it is no longer sticky. Separate each of the 4 pieces into 3 smaller portions and roll each of these smaller pieces into 3 strands approx. 12 inches long and braid according to the below 3-braid diagram to make the traditional Jewish braided loaves (or separate as necessary to make the different braids).
Place the four braided dough loaves on a greased cookie sheet (I line the bottom of baking pan with parchment paper for a much easier clean up). Allow loaves to rise at room temperature till double in size.
Brush the top of the loaves with the egg-wash (and sprinkle with the sesame or poppy seeds if desired). Bake at 350 degrees 25-30 minutes or until loaves are golden brown. Remove to racks to cool.
Approximate baking times for various sizes of loaves:
- 4 loaves: 30 Minutes
- 3 medium - large loaves: 30-45 minutes
- 2 large loaves: 45-50 minutes
- 1 super large loaf: 50-55 minutes
Loaves can be frozen by wrapping in aluminum foil and then plastic wrap. When needed just remove from freezer and remove plastic wrap and place foil covered loaves in oven for 5-10 minutes restoring fresh flavor.
Makes 4 loaves - enough for two Shabbat.
To form a round challah (crown) for Rosh Hashanah, use the below 3-strand braid placing in a spiral form and pinching together meeting ends. Also, can be formed by forming unbraided dough into a circle while placing a smaller 3 - strand braid in a circle on top
No Fail Challah Recipe
NOTE: Do not change the ingredients or the order of mixing this recipe or it may not be fail safe anymore!
1.5 Tbsp. dry active yeast
1/2 cup warm water
(I buy dry active yeast in bulk - you can find it in bulk at a very inexpensive price at most health stores like Mama Jeans)
*After mixing yeast with the warm water, wait for yeast to activate and bubble until double in size. Make sure water is just slightly above lukewarm. Too cold water will cause yeast not to activate. Too hot water will kill the yeast.
Add and mix together with dissolved yeast:
1-1/2 cup warm water (this makes 2 cups total of warm water, including the 1/2 water used in the yeast)
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. salt
3 cups flour
Add to mixture and mix together:
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup oil
Add to mixture and mix together:
3-1/2 to 4 cups flour
Remove from bowl and knead into a good dough. Lightly sprinkle with flour while kneading. Continue kneading until no longer sticky but not dry.
Cover with clean towel and let rise for an hour. Punch dough down at least three times during that hour.
After rising, take the piece of dough that you will be separating and consecrating as challah. (Say the blessing if the amount of flour used is sufficient - see above) and dispose of it as directed. Shape dough into braided loaves (braid diagrams are below). I divide dough into four sections for four braided loaves. Each section is then divided into three sections, using the three sections to make one 3-strand braided loaf.
Optional: Brush with egg wash and add toppings:
1) a mixture of salt and garlic powder
2) a mixture of sugar and cinnamon
3) or add either poppy seeds or sesame seeds
Place challot either on a baking sheet or loaf pans. I have special made loaf sheets, somewhat like French bread pans, that I use and line with parchment paper for a much easier clean up and allows even browning. Allow loaves to rise in the baking pans another additional hour. After final rise, place challah in cold oven. Turn on heat to 350 degrees and bake for 45 minutes or until gold brown. A cold oven allows the challah to continue rising as it warms up to baking temp.
This recipe can be doubled.
Before breaking and eating of the challot the below blessing is recited:
Baruch Atah Hashem Elokeinu Melech haolam hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz
Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe. Who brings forth the bread from the earth.
It is also customary to set aside something for tzedakah (charity) in conjunction with the removal of challah.
In order to venerate and celebrate the Shabbat and Yamim Tovim over the years, in different communities and because Jewish law makes no demands as to the size and shape in which a challah should be made for any occasion, therefore Shabbat and Yom Tov Challot have been made in a variety of shapes and styles: rectangular, oblong, flat, braided, round, filled with raisins, sprinkled with seeds (to represent the man of the desert).
- Challot that is served during Yom Kippur's pre-fast meal sometimes are decorated with birds. On Yom Kippur, because man is compared to angels [with wings], the custom among some is to decorate the challot with birds to express the hope that just as winged creatures fly heavenward with ease, so will man's prayers rise quickly and be answered favorably.
- Challot that is served during Hoshana Rabbah sometimes are decorated with hands. Tradition is that on Hoshana Rabbah (7th day of Sukkot) the judgment of G-d, passed on Yom Kippur, is sealed by a written verdict. The extended hand represents the acceptance of the kvitel (the receipt or document) on which the verdict is recorded.
- Challot served on Purim, called keilitsh in Russian, is giant-sized and braided. It is designed to represent the long ropes used to hang Haman.
- Challot served on the first Shabbat after Pesach sometimes have a key-shaped decoration on top. The key represents the key to the "gate of release" from the bondage of Egypt. According to tradition, the "gate of release" can be opened for one month after the festival.
- Challot served on Shavuot is shaped round in some communities and is elongated in others. A ladder decoration is placed on top of the bread to commemorate the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai. The ladder design was chosen because the numerical value of the Hebrew word for "Sinai" (130) is the same as that of the Hebrew word for "ladder" (sulam). The ladder symbolizes the ascent of Moshe to heaven to receive the Ten Commandments.
- Challot served on Rosh Hashanah is round in shape and symbolic of the cyclical and eternal nature of life, and expresses the hope that the coming year will be complete, unbroken by tragedy.
Chatan Sofer says, "Where does this custom come from that on Rosh Hashanah we make the Challah round? Because we want a bracha, and we want an unending bracha, and the circle doesn't have an end to it. It keeps on going around and around. So therefore, to symbolize the bracha that is never ending, we make a challah that's also round."
It is also customary to superimpose a round ring of dough (in the shape of a bagel) on top of the round challah.
A couple other reasons why challot is covered with a decorative cloth on Shabbat:
- The Shabbat in Jewish tradition is compared to a bride. Just as the veil of the bride is removed after the blessings under the chuppah (marriage canopy) have been recited, so are the Challot "unveiled" after the blessing is recited and the bread is about to be cut.
- Another explanation is that since the kiddush (blessing of sanctification) is recited over the wine before the challah blessing is recited, the challah is kept covered so it should not be slighted. When one does not have wine for kiddush, the kiddush is recited over the challot and in such case the challot is not covered.
It is customary for some to dip the challah in salt before eating it. In Jewish tradition the table is like an altar.
As the Talmud says: Rabbi Johanan and Rabbi Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Yisrael, but now a man's table atones for him. (Talmud Bavli - Berachot 55a)
Salt was used with all sacrifices brought on the mizbeach (altar) in Temple times, and the custom of dipping bread in salt evolved as a memorial to the sacrificial system.
Traditional serving methods for Challah
After the HaMotzi blessing is recited many heads of the household break the bread and distribute it to those at the table. The reason being and as the Talmudic quote above indicates, with the destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash (Temple) and the discontinuance of the sacrificial system, the Rabbis of the Talmud began to think of the table in the home as representing the mizbeach in the Temple. It was then that the bread served at mealtime began to take on new meaning as a symbol of a replacement for the sacrifice that was brought in the Temple times - a sacrifice consisting of a mixture of fine flour, oil, and frankincense, often baked into loaves.
In post-Talmudic times (after 70 C.E.), it became tradition for the head of the household to break off pieces of bread after HaMotzi blessing was recited and to pass the bread to those at the table. This custom is also described in the Talmud:
Rabbi Zera once was ill. Rabbi Abbahu went to visit him, and made a vow, saying, If the little one with scorched legs 1 recovers, I will make a feast for the Rabbis. He did recover, and he made a feast for all the Rabbis. When the time came to begin the meal, 2 he said to Rabbi Zera: Will your honour please commence for us. 3 He said to him: Does not your honor accept the dictum of Rabbi Johanan that the host should break bread? So he [Rabbi Abbahu] broke the bread for them.
1 A nickname of Rabbi Zera, explained in B.M. 85a.
2 By breaking bread.
3 i.e., break the bread.
So, in many homes today, and especially on Shabbat, after cutting the loaf of bread part way through the head of the household breaks off pieces of challah (with crust) and passes a piece to each family member.
Ashkenazim, many times will score the loaf top and bottom before breaking off pieces for distribution to family members. According to the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Orach Chayim 167:1, the piece of challah that is first tasted after HaMotzi prayer is recited should include part of the crust of the challah. This, the most baked part of the bread, is a reminder of the meal-offering that was burned on the Temple Altar.
The French custom was to cut the challah on the bottom and break it upward, while the German custom was to cut the challah on top and break downward. Therefore, Rabbi Meir Rothenburg (13th century) avoided slighting either group by cutting the challah part way through, top and bottom, and then breaking off pieces.
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