For the past many years, I have baked two loaves of challah each week for Shabbat: one chocolate chip and one raisin. It keeps my hands in touch with reality, fills my home with amazing odors, and tastes amazing when it’s warm: they’re baking right now as Shabbat’s approaching tonight! And this week’s Torah portion is about bread as an offering to God in the MIshkan. The Kohanim (priests) would bake a dozen loaves for “show” that would stay fresh. This portion also contains advice about counting our days (toward Shavuot) and commands us to celebrate, and make some periods of time holy. But why bake bread for God as an offering -when God can neither eat nor smell the wonderful odor? A famous folktale to explain (I think I heard it first from R. Henry Weiner). The richest man in a small Shtetl was Chayim. Though he was wealthy, he was pious, if a bit drowsy. One Shabbat he dozed off during services. The Torah was being chanted: the verse about the 12 loaves of bread, the show bread offered to God in the MIshkan. Reb Chayim in his twilight consciousness was sure he heard The Holy One commanding him to bake bread personally as an offering. He was shaken to his core, after all if the Master of the Universe cared enough to speak to Chayim , he could do nothing less than obey! So, the very next Friday, Chayim spoke with his wife and servants about preparing the extra Challahs. He brought them to the synagogue very proudly and placed them within the ark next to the Torah. “I hope you enjoy them,” he whispered to God.
The very poorest man in the village was the Shammes, the caretaker of the synagogue. Normally he would rush home on Friday eve to celebrate Shabbat with his wife and seven children, his in-laws and mother. But he knew that today there would not be much to eat and so he tarried. He approached the ark. “Dear God”, he prayed, “I am grateful for my family and the coming of Shabbat, but I’m so ashamed to see my family share so little, please can you help, show me the way?” and with that, the Shammes sobbed and hit the ark door. Well, it opened, and you can imagine the surprise and glee with which he saw the beautiful loaves and smelled their fragrance! “Master of the Universe, thank you!” he cried and carried his bundle home to his overjoyed family.
Later that evening, Reb Chayim returned early to check the ark. He was delighted to see not a crumb remained! Feeling overwhelming pride, he whispered to the ark, “I’m so happy you enjoyed my wife’s challah!” and he returned to the pews before anyone was the wiser.
The next Friday and the next the scene was repeated, each man feeling specially blessed by God with such favor.
But one Friday the Rabbi watched as the Shammas removed the challas from the ark. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked.
“Rabbi, it’s a miracle!, I prayed to God for help feeding my family for Shabbat, and each week I come to the ark and my prayers are answered!” The Rabbi scolded “Don’t be a fool! I have just seen Reb Chayim leaving, let me call him back, and we’ll know what is really happening”.
Sadly the Rabbi uncovered the mystery. No longer did it seem a miracle, and the world seemed just a bit colder and less magical.
That night the Rabbi had a terrible dream, a nightmare. He had a bolt of insight and knew what he must do. He gathered Reb Chayim and the Shammes back to his office. “I dreamed last night that God was terribly angry with me. A miracle had been in place since creation, and I have disrupted this master plan. That miracle was you, my friend,” he explained to Reb Chayim, “and you,” he said to the Shammes. “God really did require those challahs your wife baked so lovingly; indeed you and your wife have been the hands of God!” “And God really did wish you to take those challahs to feed your beautiful family,” he said to the Shammes. This is ordained and MUST continue!” proclaimed the Rabbi. And so it did, except for the occasions when the family of the Shammes dined with Reb Chayim’s family as guests in their home.
The magic of challah, and making and baking, becomes a fragrant symbol of the holiness our hands can form in partnership with the gifts of wheat and rain and sun. We form it’s dough into intertwined shapes as we are all intertwined. There is no rushing challah, it must take it’s time to rise, just as the savoring of time itself is such an intimate part of Shabbat.
Here’s my recipe:
3 cups bread flour (I use King Arthur)
make a well and put in 1 tsp salt, 2 TBSP sugar, 1 TBSP yeast
add 3/4 cup warm water
1/8 cup oil
1 and 1/2 egg beaten. Reserving the last half egg to brush on top.
Mix and knead. It should be the consistency of play dough.
Let rise in a warm place till doubled, about an hour (or overnight in the fridge)
Break in half, and roll out each on a floured board
fill with chocolate chips or raisins,….
Roll up like a jelly roll
Break the snake into three parts and braid.
Let rise on a floured cookie sheet,. Flour the top and cover with a towel till double in bulk, about an hour. Brush with the remaining half egg (I refridgerate, and then warm for 5 seconds in the microwave)
Bake 350 for 25 minutes.
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