Going Full Circle: Challah Rituals

Written by: Dr. C. Tova Markenson

Going Full Circle: Challah Rituals

Around the holiday of Rosh Hashanah (the new Jewish year), you might notice a unique kind of bread in bakeries and on the Shabbat dinner table: a round challah. The circular shape of the challah symbolizes that life is an infinite cycle, a never ending process. In the words of ‘90s pop/rock band Semisonic, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” During the Rosh Hashanah season, many dip the challah in honey to welcome in a sweet new year ahead.

Personally, I am gluten free — I’ve experimented with a few gluten free challah recipes but nothing has stuck (though I am open to new GF challah recipes if you have a recommendation!). Still, I love the symbolism baked into the ritual of baking, blessing, and eating challah (…pun intended).

The  tradition of eating a round challah on Rosh Hashanah reminds me that in the Jewish tradition, time is cyclical. For example, the Hebrew calendar moves alongside the cycles of the moon. Each year resets with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, a time of transformation and renewal.

Where were you this time last year? What are you looking forward to in the year ahead?

Though the round shape of the challah is unique to Rosh Hashanah, the challah rituals and traditions below apply all year long, too.

What’s Challah?

Challah is a slightly sweet, fluffy, braided bread that is eaten on Shabbat and holidays. Traditionally, the dough is made from one (or more) of five species of grains: wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. Challah comes from Eastern European Jewish origins, and is one of several kinds of Shabbat breads that are eaten around the world. There are as many interpretations of what the challah represents as there are challah recipes and variations.

The Hebrew root of the word challah is “chol,” which means “ordinary.” Shabbat is a time to revel in the extraordinary within the ordinary; to bask in the miracle of eating.

What is something from the past week that embodies the extraordinary within the ordinary?

Why is Challah Braided?

There are several different reasons for why challah is braided. The three strands of the braid can symbolize three qualities that Shabbat is associated with, such as beauty, honor, and strength; or truth, peace, and justice; or past, present, and future; or the divine instructions to remember, observe, and guard Shabbat.

The idea of weaving together different strands of a braid is also symbolic. In the Torah, twists and braids represent beauty and power. This connects with the idea that many people working together are stronger than any one person working alone.

Like the process of gathering each strand of dough to braid the challah, Shabbat is a time for bringing together the scattered parts of ourselves and integrating any loose ends back into the whole.

Which pieces of yourself are you gathering together for Shabbat this week?

Covering the Challah

Many place a challah covering over the bread before making Kiddush. Some folks use a special cloth to cover the challah, but any clean napkin or dish towel will do. Why cover the challah?

In Jewish law, food and drinks are blessed in the order of the seven species. Normally, this means that the blessing for the bread (wheat) would come before the wine (grapes); but on Shabbat, we depart from normal routines. One explanation of why the bread is covered, is to prevent the challah from becoming embarrassed that the kiddush wine is blessed and enjoyed first.

Another explanation is that Shabbat is often compared to the image of a beloved, specifically a “bride.” Covering the challah resembles the covering of a wedding veil that is then lifted under the chuppah, or wedding canopy.

At some Shabbat tables you’ll find that the blessing is made over two loaves of challah, a reminder that Shabbat is a time for reveling in possibility and abundance. The two loaves also reference a story from the Book of Exodus — it is said that when the Jews were wandering in the desert for 40 years, on Fridays a double portion of manna (lechem mishna) fell and lasted for all of Friday and Shabbat.

Blessing the Challah

After uncovering the challah, one person can hold the bread or raise it in the air. If there are two challah loaves, some hold them next to each other (or on top of each other) so that they touch.

Others have a tradition of inviting everyone who is present to touch the challah or — depending on the size of the group, place their hand on someone else who is touching the challah — as a reminder of all the many hands that go into the process of making bread.

Next, recite the blessing, which you can read and listen to here. Before eating and after blessing, some people sprinkle salt on their challah too.

Jewish tradition teaches that once we recite a blessing, we should do the action we’re blessing as quickly as possible. In that vein, the person who recites motzi typically takes the first bite of challah, then slices or rips into the challah to share with the table.

Where are you finding nourishment this week?