Everything has meaning. Everything has a purpose.
Woven into the smooth, elastic strands of dough that compose a loaf of lovingly braided challah bread is a taste of history. Surviving centuries of strife, passed down by word of mouth like folklore, it’s more than mere sustenance, yet hardly given a second thought beyond the customary blessing, if that. Even I was surprised to learn that the term “challah” isn’t necessarily defined by the rich, eggy, soft, and sweet crumb that immediately comes to mind. Any bread that’s sanctified for Jewish observances, from high holidays to regular old week days, can be challah.
That’s only the beginning of my true challah education. Visiting the Chabad Jewish Student Center at UC Berkeley prior to Shabbat one day, I was greeted by the sight of overflowing bowls of dough, the smell of yeast and flour wafting through the windows, perfuming the whole neighborhood.
Traditionally, seven essential ingredients compose the tender crumb we all know and love: water, yeast, sugar, oil, flour, and salt. Eggs, though frequently included to represent renewal, are not actually a necessary staple. That’s right; I wandered into this enclave of busy bakers to find about a hundred pounds of “accidentally” vegan challah dough at my disposal.
As explained by den mamma Bracha Sara Leeds, all while deftly kneading and twisting strands of the soft dough into elaborate braids, each ingredient can be linked back to the tenants of Judaism itself.
Water, the single most important, omnipresent component, represents the Torah. Just as we cannot live without water, we also cannot live without this guiding scripture. Bringing life and nourishment to all, it represents generosity and kindness. Like water, we want kindness to be infinitely abundant, flowing freely through our lives.
Flour is sustenance, the foundation to build a life on, physically and emotionally through our relationships with family, friends, and the community at large. We must feed these relationships as we must feed ourselves to maintain a healthy, happy, stable existence.
Oil is included to represent anointing, or sanctifying, to signify this loaf as being special, holier than your average daily bread. Oil enriches our lives, making particular moments, or meals, a bit more special.
Sugar stands in for all the sweetness in our lives, of course, but in this case also represents faith. With faith (in the future, in ourselves) comes sweet rewards. Fear not the sugar! Though challah is certainly classified as a sweet bread, it’s always well-balanced, to be served with equal enjoyment with toppings as diverse as jam or hummus, at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Yeast provides leavening, of course, allowing the dough to rise, grow, and expand. Whether that means growing in terms of our character, rising up above challenges, or expanding to reach our full potential, it only takes a small push to get started. Yeast is only a tiny piece of the recipe, yet completely transforms the finished loaves.
Salt, used sparingly but in fair measure, represents discipline or criticism. As difficult as it can be to accept, it’s necessary for contrast and proper perspective. Salt can also signify purification, removing toxins from the body, and anything that is toxic in our lives or minds.
Arguably the most ingredient is one absent from any written recipe. Patience, while kneading, waiting for the dough to rise once, rise twice, and again while baking, is indispensable. Have patience for yourself; don’t rush the process to reap the greatest rewards.
It’s my pleasure to share this simple, yet deeply nuanced, meaningful approach to challah for World Bread Day. As my 13th contribution to the effort, I wouldn’t miss this event for anything. Though I wish I could break bread in person with everyone in the blogosphere, I hope that sharing this little morsel of history might provide a bit of virtual nourishment, at least.