We can’t be the only dog-owning Jewish family in which a long nose appears just below the edge of the table as we prepare to eat the challah on Friday night. I wonder how it is that so many dogs, quite incapable of making Kiddush, recognise instantly the sound of the Hamotzi - ‘Who makes bread come forth from the soil’. Their Hebrew must be better than we think.
But dogs are not the only ones who love their challah. It’s arguably the most popular part of the most popular of all Jewish rituals, the Shabbat meal. ‘It’s not possible to have a Friday night or Shabbat morning meal without loaves’, rules the Shulchan Aruch, the key code of Jewish law compiled by Joseph Caro in 16th century Safed.
The bread should be bought from a Jewish baker, notes the Mishnah Berurah, the late 19th century commentary by the Chafetz Chaim, before conceding that those who have no choice, such as soldiers in the Czar’s army, should rather use what bread they have than not say the blessings at all. Better still, challah should be home-baked, this being an essential part of honouring the Shabbat. ‘Because of our many sins’, he adds in a warning happily concealed in the small print of an additional learned commentary, ‘nowadays a number of women have abandoned the custom and buy from the baker. In this they do not do well…’ Note which gender is in the kitchen. But if this comes as no surprise, the following may: ‘Rav Hisda used to chop the vegetables very fine. Rav Nachman would tidy the house’. Tokenism, or equality at last? The point is that Shabbat is the heart of the Jewish week; all the other days face towards it, and preparing for it, especially by making the best food, is one of the greatest honours we can show it. In this everyone should be involved. ‘Don’t say “it’s beneath my dignity”, for in dignifying the Sabbaththis does one’s dignity lie’ – the Shulchan Aruch again.
What then about challah, or kitke if you come from South Africa, or barches if you’re of German-Jewish origin, or birkata in Judeo-Amharic? What is the connection, if any, with the law of ‘challah’ as commanded in the Torah, which consists in giving the first of our baking to the Cohen, a kind of tax, or gift, to the civil service of the day? The custom is to knead a quantity of dough for one’s challah sufficient to take from it the ‘challah’ and say the special blessing ending ‘lehafrish challah min ha’issah’ – ‘who commanded us to takechallah from the dough’. The requisite amount to render our baking liable for this ‘tax’ is about 3lb or 10 – 14 cups of flour, according to the excellent website My Jewish Learning. Nowadays it is not given to the priests but burnt in the bottom of the oven, or thrown away with dignity. It serves as a reminder that of all we eat a portion should be given, in money or in kind, to those who would be glad to see on their table a quarter of what we routinely enjoy.
One has two challot on Friday night, and two at the Shabbat midday meal, in memory of the double-portion of manna which the Children of Israel gathered in the desert. Just as that manna was wrapped above and below in the dew, so we place our challot on a board below and cover them with a cloth above. Unless all the participants have two loaves or rolls in front of them, they should wait for the leader to say the berachah. The latter has two further dilemmas. Firstly, which of the two challot do you use? The lower one on Friday nights, the upper one on all other occasions, says the Shulchan Aruch. Therefore, seeing one doesn’t reach out over the challah one intends not to use, one should move the lower loaf a tiny bit nearer to one’s hands just before saying theberachah. Finally, do you cut the challah with a knife, or break it by hand? I do the latter, based on the Torah’s teaching that a sword, being an instrument of war, profanes the altar – and nowadays everyone’s table is their family altar.
Isn’t simpler to be a dog and wait until one’s thrown one’s portion, or chance it and, while the humans are busy washing their hands, make off with the lot?
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PS - A community dream: to have a rota of challah-bakers so that every Thursday night we can bake at shul, and send challot to all the families where someone is ill, or in hospital, or has had a new baby. Three people have come forward already; would you join the rota, if it was 4 times a year?