Challah is a Jewish braided sweetbread, usually enjoyed during Shabbat, or Sabbath, a weekly biblical celebration of rest. But why is challah such an important part of Sabbath, and what is it’s history?
BIBLICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF BREAD
In the Bible, bread symbolizes provision from the Lord. God provided manna or “bread from heaven” for the people of Israel while they were in the desert. On the sixth day of the week, Friday, God provided twice as much of the manna so the people of Israel could rest from work on Sabbath. God provided more than they needed in order to show his abundance and provision to his people.
In Numbers 15:18-21, we see the first reference in the Bible to challah or “cake”. “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land to which I bring you and when you eat of the bread of the land, you shall present a contribution to the Lord. Of the first of your dough you shall present a loaf as a contribution; like a contribution from the threshing floor, so shall you present it. Some of the first of your dough you shall give to the Lord as a contribution throughout your generations.” We see in this passage that some of this bread that was presented to the Lord in his tabernacle or temple was to be holy.
Bread continued to be an important part of biblical stories. Specifically in Mark 14:22-25, Jesus broke bread and drank wine with his disciples, symbolizing his death on the cross in provision for their sins. So bread continued through the Bible as a representation of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross in communion.
THE HISTORY OF CHALLAH
The term challah may come from the phrase hafrashat challah or “separating bread” representing a tradition of the Jewish people back during the first and second Temples in Jerusalem in which they would rip a portion of the dough off of the bread before they braided it as a sacrifice to the Lord. While the word challah means many things in various languages, it consistently has referred to bread in a Jewish context. Through history, challah became the term for a yiddish bread that was made all across European countries by Jews ranging from Poland, Austria and Germany.
THE SIGNIFICANCE AND TRADITION OF CHALLAH
Challah became a tradition during Sabbath dinner in order to represent the provision God gave to his people in the wilderness and the tradition continues today.
Challah is made into two loaves representing the double-portion God gave to his people.
It is to be braided so it has twelve “humps” representing the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve loaves of holy bread in the Tabernacle.
It is braided in three strands to symbolize unity, peace and love because they look like arms intertwined. In addition, it is a reminder of the Shema or “Hear and Obey”. Christians today can also see the trinity in the three strands of bread woven together into one.
When the bread is baked, it is ripped rather than sliced to remember the priests in the temple who would rip a portion of the bread off to offer it to the Lord.
Today, challah can be made with toppings such as poppy seeds, rosemary, salt, cinnamon, raisins and nuts. The bread is covered with a decorative cover and prayed over during Sabbath. As believers we eat the bread and drink wine in communion during Sabbath in remembrance of God’s provision, and Jesus’ sacrifice. Challah is a delicious bread, a wonderful addition to the Sabbath meal, and makes a fantastic French toast for breakfast the next morning. Now, as you dive into the following recipes and new baking traditions, remember the story and tradition that we are blessed to be a part of as we braid our Sabbath challah bread!