Challah Baked at Rolings Bakery

Challah is a Jewish bread served on the Sabbath and other holidays. The loaves are often served in pairs with a cloth draping over them (Etz Hayim, 852). The dough is usually made into three separate ropes that are braided together giving it a unique appearance. The dough is made from eggs, flour, water, sugar, yeast, and salt. The flour can be made from either wheat, emmer, barley, oats, or rye; all other varieties of flour, including rice and potatoes, are not permitted (Etz Hayim, 852). The use of egg wash gives the outer crust a shiny appearance in light. Challah is eaten by pulling off pieces of the bread. It is light, airy, and sweet to taste.

This specific loaf was baked at Rolings Bakery in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Rolings is a small family bakery with standing space for about five customers at a time. Closed only on the Sabbath, Rolings serves traditional Jewish baked goods, which are both non-dairy and kosher. They serve fourteen different varieties of challah, including: plain, wheat, wheat raisin, and many others. This loaf is “plain” and costs only $3.50. The bakery is certified kosher by the Community Kashrus of Greater Philadelphia.

The history of challah stems from the Torah. Numbers 15:17-21 explains:

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat the food of the land, present a portion as an offering to the Lord. Present a loaf from the first of your ground meal and present it as an offering from the threshing floor. Throughout the generations to come you are to give this offering to the Lord from the first of your ground meal.’”

This passage in the Torah has been interpreted as a commandment for Jews to break off a piece from the challah dough, and give it to the priest as a payment, contributing to his salary. The tradition of making and separating bread has been maintained for centuries by Jews in order to remember the commandments given to God’s people (Wigoder, 335).  When challah is made today, an olive-sized portion is still taken out as an offering, but instead of giving it to a priest, it is thrown into a fire and burned (Eisenberg, 140).  

Challah is traditionally served during the Sabbath. The Sabbath is the period of time from Friday at sundown through Saturday at sundown. It is meant as a time to refrain from work, in order to foster religious introspection and remembrance. Challah is served on the Sabbath table in two loaves to represent the abundance of manna, or bread, that God gave the Israelites during their forty year period of wandering (Fishbein, 10-11). Others claim that the reason that two loaves are served is because with every cooked meal a single loaf is traditionally served, but during the Sabbath two meals are served, requiring an additional loaf of bread (Eisenberg, 141). The ambiguity of the origin of serving two loaves shows that the Jewish community has variety in its beliefs. Some serve challah with a cloth over the loaves. This is done to make sure the bread is not tainted by the Kiddush, or the blessing of the wine (Eisenberg, 141). Others also believe it represents the condensation that covered the manna to protect it from nature during the Exodus (Eisenberg, 141).  Despite the many approaches to challah, it remains an important code and cultus to those in the Jewish community.

This image shows multiple ways challah can be served (Wigoder, 335).

 

The traditional loaf, braided with three pieces of dough, symbolizes the interconnection of truth, peace, and justice. Loaves that have twelve braids represent the twelve tribes of Israel. During Rosh Hashanah, challah is round to represent the Jewish new year cycle. Additionally, seeds may be added to symbolize the rebirth that the new year brings. Raisins may also be sprinkled on top to add sweetness, and represent a hopefully sweet year to come. During Yom Kippur, challah is shaped like a ladder to represent connecting with God above (Eisenberg, 677).

To some, challah remains an important reminder of the past. Susie Fishbein recalled in her kosher cookbook that she “[loves] … baking challah the old-fashioned way, the way it’s been done by mothers and daughters for generations” (Fishbein, 16). However, to some Jews, the symbolism of challah is not important. Nina Schenk, a student at JMU, reflected that “challah for [her] family was just really good bread–a treat. It wasn’t linked to any special day of the week, holiday or occasion.”

Challah laws are part of the larger Jewish food guidelines, called kosher. The rules of kosher include, but are not limited to, refraining from eating meat and dairy in the same meal, only eating animals that chew their own cud, slaughtering animals humanely, and avoiding the consumption of crustaceans. These laws matter to the Jewish customs because they are given power by both Jewish families and Jewish leaders to this day. They follow these codes and cultuses because they are tradition, originated from the Torah (Kosofsky, xiv). As kosher has become a more widely understood concept around the world, non-Jewish people have begun to observe kosher law, because they see it as a healthier way of eating. As a result of this, today in the U.S., kosher food is at an all-time high in demand. Although kosher is gaining popularity in the secular world, only 22% of American Jews report keeping kosher in the home (“A Portrait of Jewish Americans”).

Challah is a representation of not only the significance of food in Judaism, but also of the great variety Jewish culture, cultuses, and communities have to offer.

By Steve Aderton, Christian Ford, and Mary-kate Mulvaney

We would like to thank Rolings Bakery and the Schenk family for providing us with the challah we used for our model.

Bibliography

“A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” Pew Research Center, October 1, 2013. Accessed on April 20, 2017. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey.

Eisenberg, Ronald L. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2004.

Etz Hayim. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001.

Fishbein, Susie. Kosher by Design: Picture Perfect Food for the Holidays & Everyday. New York: Mesorah, 2003.

Kosofsky, Scott-Martin. The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook for the Jewish Year. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFransisco, 2004.

Wigoder, Geoffrey. The New Encyclopedia of Judaism. Washington Square, NY: New York University Press, 2002.

 

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