A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of the Jewish bread "challah"?

May 28, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

I am taking a class on Judaism. As we were discussing Shabbat rituals and blessings, someone asked a very basic question.  Where does challah come from? Once we dispatched the obvious answer--from mommy and daddy challot--the rabbi was stumped. I've looked and looked and what I find most is recipes. I am still left with, when did challah become the 'official Jewish bread'.

The Hebrew word challah means "loaf"; the word is pronounced with a hard ch, like in the German word "ach," so you will find several English variant spellings, like hallah.

As with most Jewish traditions, there's a short answer and a long answer when it comes to origins. The short answer: 15th Century, Eastern Europe.

The longer answer: The word challah (plural: challot) is found in Bible. F'rinstance, Leviticus 24:5-7, refers to showbreads, displayed in the sanctuary and eventually eaten by the priests. (Most sacrifices in ancient Israel were used to support the priestly/scholarly class, and were fed to the priests; only the non-edible parts were burnt.) There were twelve showbreads, in two stacks of six each.

In Numbers 15:17-21, there is a law parallel to the sacrifice of first fruits: one takes the first bakings (a challah, a loaf) as a gift to the priests.

In the Mishnah (compiled between 450 BC and 200 AD), the rabbis applied this law to five kinds of grain indigenous to the land of Israel: wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye, but not to rice, millet or pea-flour (no cracks, please.) When the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the law of first dough was no longer technically applicable. The rabbis ruled, however, that the law should continue to be observed symbolically. Thus, whenever bread is being baked, a small portion of dough is twisted and thrown into the fire, as a reminder of the Temple sacrifices.

The transition from Temple worship to synagogue and home happened over that next century or two. The priestly offering of showbread was replaced by the everyman offering of challah, and the Temple altar was symbolically replaced by the Sabbath table in the home.

The Sabbath bread of the time was white, sweet, and round, but no particular shape was prescribed.

Around the 15th Century, Ashkenazic Jews (in eastern Europe) developed the challah that we have today. It is thought that the braiding or twisting was a pun on twisting off the little piece of first dough as a reminder of the Temple sacrifices. The braided shape is believed not to be of purely Jewish origin, but modelled after twisted white breads that were found through central Europe and the Slavic countries.

No milk is used (so that the bread can be eaten with meat in a kosher home). Eggs are used to make the bread richer, tastier, more worthy of its prominent place at the sabbath table.

Over time, a complex arrangment of shapes arose. There were usually three, seven, ten, or twelve strands braided together (all symbolic numbers from the Bible, of course.) There were simple braids or larger multiple twists. The loaves were long, or circular, or wreathlike, usually one to three feet long. They were intended for use on Sabbath and holidays.

In the Ukraine in the 1700s, a variety of challah types were developed, including a crown shape (for Jewish New Year, to represent the King of Kings, Creator of the World), a bird-shaped challah for before Yom Kippur (from Isaiah 31:5 where a hovering bird is a symbol of divine protection), a spiral challah, a challah with a ladder design, and others specialized for holidays.

Nowadays, one can find (or bake) challahs in the shape of a fish, a menorah, a dreidel, the Hebrew letter shin (for "Almighty"), and about anything else.

So, that's pretty much where the challah comes from.

A few side notes:

  • The Sephardic tradition (from Spain and Portugal and the Mediterranean countries) dating from the second century AD involves twelve pita-like breads (reminder of the twelve showbreads.)
  • Jewish mystics in the 18th Century in Safed, in Israel, sometimes baked challah in the shape of the Hebrew letters/numbers for twelve.
  • As with any custom that has been around for well over two thousand years, there are many rituals and traditions. For example, at the Sabbath table, there are usually two challot (plural of challah), to represent the manna in the wilderness that was doubled on the day before the Sabbath. There is also a custom not to cut the challah with a knife, but to tear it, the knife being a symbol of violence and death that should not intrude upon the peace of sabbath. And the challah is kept covered before it is eaten, because ... well, now we're getting esoteric.

If you'd like to know more, I recommend The Hallah Book by Freda Reider (1987), which discusses the history and offers several good recipes. Other good recipes can be found in The Settlement Cookbook and The Jewish Catalog. Or you can find your favorite from any Jewish cookbook.

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