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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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Question 7.7:
What is the significance of Challah?


Challah means dough and refers to bread made from dough that has undergone separation. There is a mitzvah (religious law) that requires the head of the dough to be separated and given to the priests as tithe. Since the destruction of the Temple, this mitzvah has been satisfied by separating a portion of the Challah (a piece about the size of an olive) and burning the separated piece in the oven. The preference is separate the dough before baking but it may be done after. Burning the separated piece is a symbolic sacrifice. Only breads made from wheat, barley, maize, spelt,and oats require separation.

Challahs are normally eaten on the Sabbath (Shabbos). The five grains mentioned above were beyond the economic means of many of our ancestors, i.e., considered "rich man's food." Further, "egg" bread is considered to be richer bread than plain white bread. To make us all rich on Shabbos, we eat Challah. Challahs are always served in pairs on Shabbos and Yom Tovs (Holidays). This is symbolic of the showbreads of the Temple and the double portions of manna received in the desert on Friday. None was received on Shabbos.

With respect to the braiding, there are several reasons. The three braids are symbolic of the commands to observe Shabbat that appear in the Ten Commandnments One braid represents the word "Zachor" - "Remember." A second braid represents the word "Shamor" - "Guard." The third braid is for "b'Dibbur Echad" - that these commands of "Remember" and "Guard" were said by G-d simultaneously and as one unit.

Another reason is that Shabbat signifies and reminds us of three different concepts: The Creation of the World, the Exodus from Egypt and the Messianic Era. This is also the reason for three distinct separate Amidot - Silent Prayers - on Shabbat, as opposed to the weekday Amidah which is of identical wording three times a day (the theme of the fourth prayer of Shabbat - Mussaf ("additional") is said for the additional Temple sacrifice for Shabbat, and also applies on Festivals.) This idea also provides an understanding for the three meals eaten on Shabbat.

For the most strictly observant, even the way the challah is cut is symbolic: Although the knife is on the table, it is not used, as the Bible recounts that the patriarch Abraham, tested by God, did not use the knife on his son Isaac. Instead the bread is torn after the blessing is said.

On Rosh Hashana, the braided form is not used; instead, a round Challah, often with raisins for extra sweetness, is used. In its round form, the challah represents the cycle of life and the wholeness of the universe, and the seeds symbolize fertility and plenty.

In some Jewish communities, holiday challah is also shaped like ladders and hands: the ladder to help us reach great heights and the hand as a symbol of the desire to be inscribed in the book of life for the coming year. (Some also believe it is an amulet against the evil eye.) Among Jews originating from Tripoli, it is customary, particularly on the New Year, to make challah with caraway seeds, a symbol of fertility. Among Moroccans, challah is made with raisins, nuts and anise in the dough and served with a hard-boiled egg placed on top. These are all symbols of sweetness and fertility. Many Central European Jews also add raisins to their challah dough and serve it with a little bowl of honey in the center.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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