As a Jewish educator I always look for teachable moments in anything that I “do Jewish”. For the last six months, I’ve embraced the practice of baking challah and it has been a huge learning and teaching experience for me. In the past, I made challah occasionally on holidays or when my kids asked. But my challot were always….lacking, so I, all too often, relied on buying bakery challah. When COVID-19 struck and had us in lockdown, I turned to online grocery shopping and good challah became harder to buy. I realized then, to avoid a Shabbos table coup, I needed to learn to make my own bakery quality challah!
Shiur Rishon (first lesson): Challah baking is a labor of love; one has to accept the time it takes to make and bake as part of the process. Challah needs kavanah (intention) and attention when baking it. I found the intentionality of the challah process to be deeply spiritual. The funny thing is, I realized having my children help or even in the same room playing didn’t detract from my kavanah – their presence only enhanced it. The first week the kids were back in school, the kitchen was quiet and a bit lonely. Indeed, I found it was harder to find kavanah!
Shiur Sheini (second lesson): Challah can create kehillah when one feels disconnected from the world. One of my closest friends of over 25 years lives in California and we rarely see each other. She started a challah Facebook group and now, along with 4,700+ friends and growing, we have created a challah baking kehillah. We inspire each other and reminisce: we share stories, experiences, questions, successes, and failures.
Every week of my challah journey, I know that I am baking with my friends.
Shiur Shlishi (third lesson): Challah baking can be an act of yetsirah (creation). I’ve always enjoyed cooking, adjusting ingredients, or simply making things up as I went. But baking is more specific, so in years past, I would dutifully weigh the ingredients to have recipes come out consistent and delicious. So, how did my challah baking become an act of creation? I learned to make different shapes: braids with many strands, round styles, and even stars. Expanding flavors and stuffing ingredients is another way to enhance challah (and keep the kids happy!). For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur break-fast I made an 8-strand round cinnamon sugar challah and apple-stuffed pull-apart challah. Feeling confident, for Sukkot, I summoned more yetsirah and made pumpkin-stuffed, 4-strand round challah, cinnamon bun star shaped challah, and apple cider stuffed etrog-shaped challah.
As you make or buy, and enjoy your challah this Shabbat, think about how challah isn’t just the bread you eat on Shabbat or chaggim. Challah is also an opportunity to embrace spiritual kavanah (intention), a connection to your kehillah (community) and yetsirah. Test your challah flavor palate and your baking limits! Enjoy!