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Challah -- Manna from heaven
(CNN) -- If bread is the staff of life, then challah is manna from heaven.
Far from your average daily bread, this soft, sweet, egg-laden loaf has been a staple of the Jewish household for thousands of years.
Although it is considered a Jewish food, its sweet, cake-like consistency has earned it a following in the non-Jewish world as well, where it is enjoyed in its original form, sliced up for sandwiches, or even served in the form of miniature dinner rolls.
Challah is an integral part of Jewish belief and Jewish cuisine. Bread is described in the Bible as manna, which the Israelites collected and ate as they wandered in the Sinai desert before they entered the Promised Land.
So important is bread to Jewish culinary culture that its mere presence at the table determines that a meal is a true meal, and it is required that a special blessing be recited over the bread.
Baking challah can be a time-consuming, laborious process -- but a rewarding one. Some believe the reward is the intoxicating aroma that wafts through every crevice of the kitchen as the challah bakes. Others may find it in the finished product -- a fresh-baked, golden-brown shiny braided loaf of challah to be enjoyed with family and friends. Still others find the reward in participating in the same tradition their ancestors did.
The word "challah" is derived from the Hebrew word used for "portion" described in the biblical commandment: "When you enter the land into which I will bring you, and when you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set aside a portion (terumah) unto the Lord. Of the first of your dough, you shall set apart challah as a gift ... throughout your generations." (Numbers 15:18-21)
More than 2000 years ago, when Jews prayed at the Temple in Jerusalem, bread was placed at the altar for the Kohanim, or high priests. After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 76 A.D., rabbis ordained that a tiny portion of dough must be separated before baking the challah, and symbolically burned for the Kohanim.
Modern Jewish bakers carry out this tradition by pinching a piece of the dough and throwing it into the oven, making sure that it burns.
When challah is served, it is traditionally covered with cloth to represent the dew that covered the manna in the times of the Temple of Jerusalem.
Before the meal, the head of the table says a blessing over the bread and tears a piece of it, passing it to each guest seated. It is said that the challah is torn rather than cut because the knife is a symbol of violence and shabbat is a time of peace.
Another custom is to dip or sprinkle the piece of challah with salt as a reminder of the salt used on the sacrificial altar of the Holy Temple.
Whatever the flavor or shape of the challah, the prayers and customs that come with the preparation are the same all over the world.
The challah loaf is usually braided, except for Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year, when it is shaped into a round dome, symbolizing the continuity of the new year, with no beginning and no end. Braided loaves of challah are said to carry symbolism in the very intertwining -- each rope symbolizing truth, peace, and justice.
Challah can also vary in flavor according to local customs. Jews of Moroccan descent usually eat challah flavored with anise, while Jews of Russian and Eastern European descent flavor their challah with raisins and honey.
Although challah can be bought at most bakeries and grocery stores, there is no greater reward than participating in the time-honored tradition of baking it at home.
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