Making The Sabbath Challa

by Katherine Powell Cohen

“So you can't eat muffins during Passover, right? ”
“And you have to have challa bread at the table
on Friday nights.” “A little bacon won't hurt.”
I sometimes hear comments like these from non-Jews
who may be interested in Jewish practices and have
heard of dietary rules associated with Judaism.

Judaism has been a part of my life for a long time. As a child in a Protestant home, I was taught that Judaism is a major part of the heritage of Christianity. I listened to my father tell of the awe he experienced when he was eight years old and his Sunday School class visited the Conservative synagogue not far from the church. This was 1942, and neither the little boys nor their Sunday School teacher were yet fully aware of what was happening to Jews in Europe, only that we were all fighting Hitler.

Looking back just a few years later, my father remembered the young rabbi showing them the beautiful Torah scroll, with its intricately embroidered cover, and he thought of the burned synagogues and the lost lives.

While I was growing up I visited synagogues on special occasions, and developed an interest in Jewish thought and culture. From participating in Shabbat dinners and Passover Seders, I observed people practicing Jewish law, or Torah, not so much as a set of proscriptions to follow, but as a way of fulfilling our longing to delight God.

As the wife of a member of Reform Judaism, I have come to understand that, for many Jews, even a taste of bacon would hurt. It would detract from an ongoing recognition of a conscious devotion to God. As Jewish practice becomes more and more a part of my life, I'm pleased not to eat leavened bread at Pesach (Passover), and I take joy in making sure that there are challa loaves on our Shabbat table.

On Fridays, the Chinese man at the local market holds a challa from a local bakery for me. This past winter, Christmas fell on a Friday. On Christmas Eve morning, when I was in the store, Mr. Wong said, "We're closed tomorrow. Do you want your challa now?" Though there's usually a nice balance between Christian and Jewish practices in our home, in my excitement about the Yuletide I'd forgotten about challa. So, Mr. Wong (a Presbyterian, I believe) helped me (an Episcopalian) keep Shabbat in my half-Jewish home. The challa brought God's presence into the everyday.

Some Shabbats, I make my own challa. For me, this means time to luxuriate in God's presence in domesticity. If the ancient Greek goddess Hestia can be seen as an aspect of the Divine that is present in the realm of the hearth, then I understand her importance. The opportunity to spend a few hours enjoying God's immanence in the sensuousness of making bread is a blessing. It also usually turns out to be a time pregnant with interfaith experience.

On Friday morning, after my daily devotions from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, I make the dough. This is a good time for meditating on a phrase or passage from the scripture I've just read. As I knead the flour and egg and water and a bit of oil together, feeling it slither between my fingers, the questions raised by the scripture usually raise further questions, until yet another divine mystery has begun to unfold, drawing me away from impulses to judge, control, contain.

I leave the dough to rise, and when I return, a couple of hours later, the dough has doubled in size. Like grace, like joy, like mitzvot, or acts of good will, the challa dough has miraculously multiplied. And it smells heavenly, making me wonder what fragrance manna gave off.

There must be two challot: one for Friday evening, and one for Saturday, the day of Shabbat. For, as the scripture tells it, God gave the Israelites manna to eat while they were sojourning in the desert. The manna was good for only one day, and each day the Israelites gathered fresh manna that God provided, enough for one day. Except on the sixth day. On that day, they gathered twice as much because God instructed them that the next day be a day of solemn rest. Later, in the days of the temple, an extra challa was placed on the altar as a symbol of God's provision for a day of rest and devotion. My husband, Jeff, usually makes French toast from the remaining challa on Saturday mornings.

The image of food in the desert always reminds me of our reciprocal relationship with God. I know that the divine presence is always there, even when I feel lost. How I respond to God depends on my circumstances and what I am capable of at any given time. Often the outcome of receiving something from God is not what I expected. Sometimes, for various reasons, we don't have French toast on a Saturday morning, so the extra challa goes to a homeless neighbor down the hill. Or, if we're forgetful and the bread sits until Sunday, we might feed it to the ducks in Golden Gate Park.

So, there must be two challot. When the challa dough has doubled its original size, I divide it in two and then divide those into threes, to make two braided loaves, which then are allowed to rise until they have doubled in size. Now there are two ripe loaves, which are brushed with egg and some oilanointed, if you willand placed in the oven for about three-quarters of an hour.

As I tidy up the kitchen and prepare the Shabbat meal, I often find myself singing old Protestant hymns, something the women in my family have tended to do over the generations. The line “Feed me now and evermore” is so fitting that I can't help playing the Welsh tenor for a bit. The hymns may seem incongruous in the midst of Shabbat preparations, but somehow I think the Divine registers no conflict.

Half an hour before sunset, the Wedgwood is on the table, the candlesticks are ready, the warm challa is there, beneath its cover, and we're nearly ready for the first course. It may be just the two of us, or it may be a table of ten. However many there are, another woman or I will light the candles and begin the Shabbat blessing, and others will join in: “Baruch atah adonai, Eloheinu, melech ha olam, asher kid shanu b mitzvotav, vitzivanu, lehadlik neir, shel Shabbat.” “Blessed are you, oh, God, king of the universe, who blesses us with the commandment to kindle the lights of Shabbat.” “...and who sets up this whole scenario that allows us to be blessed through the sharing of a meal, especially the challa loaves,” I think to myself. Jeff then says the kiddush, the blessing over the wine. Then comes the motzi, blessing God for the grain of the earth, from which the bread is made. We uncover the golden challa and serve each other. After the motzi, there is the meal, the courses often interspersed with singing and some dancing. Talk is not of business and other distractions, and, ideally, individual cares and worries are cast aside. Our minds are at rest, to receive the Divine.

By making sure there is challa on the Shabbat table, I'm free to show my love for God, and my gratitude for God's gifts that come through Jeff's and my relationship. The challa, with its ancient aroma, is our overture to the Divine. When I smell it, when the candles are lit and the blessings said, and we break off pieces of the luscious bread for each other, when I dance with my husband to age-old tunes, I know that we're giving of what has been given to us, and that this food will lead us to Shabbat glimpses of Divine delight.

Katherine Powell Cohen is an English professor in San Francisco. She worships at St. Gregory's and Congregation Emanu'el.

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