Traditionally, we bake braided challah for Shabbos. The Hebrew word, challah, actually means loaf of bread and alludes to the mitzvah (commandment) of challah, the blessing and setting aside of a small piece of bread dough during the bread preparation process.
At our Shabbos meals, after we say the kiddush (blessing on wine), we recite a blessing over two loaves of bread on a tray that are covered. These braided loaves are referred to as Challah, for their importance in our fulfillment of the mitzvah of challah.
In Numbers 15:17-19, we are taught that at the time of the Temple, when we bake bread, we were to set aside a small piece of dough and give it to the Kohen (priest) to eat. Today, when we no longer have the Holy Temple, we separate a piece of dough whenever we bake bread.
If we have prepared a large batch of dough (at least five pounds), we make the following blessing:
ברוך אתה י-י אלקינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציונו להפריש חלה
Ba-Ruch A-tah A-do-noi Elo-hai-nu Me-lech Ha-O-Lam A-sher Ke-di-sha-nu Be-mitz-vo-sav Ve-tzi-va-nu Le-Haf-rish Cha-lah
Blessed are You, our G‑d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to separate challah.
We carefully discard the small piece of challah or we burn it. We call this mitzvah (commandment) challah.
As our ancestors traveled in the desert, the Maan (manna) fell from heaven to physically sustain them. Every morning, they would go out and collect the Maan. On the Friday morning before our very first Shabbos in the desert, two portions of the Maan (manna) fell for each person so that they would not collect the Maan on Shabbos. To commemorate this double portion of Maan, we set two loaves of challah at our Shabbos table. The loaves are set upon a bread tray and covered with a decorative challah cover. The layers underneath and atop the loaves of challah remind us of the layers of dew sent by G-d to lovingly protect the precious Maan, both on top and bottom.
The root of the word challah is chol which means secular or common. The etymology of its name teaches us much about the challah and our relationship to Shabbos and to the world. The challah tradition takes a mundane, though rhythmic and beautiful, chol (secular or common) task of baking bread and elevates it into something extraordinary and holy. It recreates a physical baking process into a spiritual tradition that provides service and generosity from the baker to the Kohen and ultimately to G-d.
The challah is typically braided with three strands. The two loaves contain six strands of dough. This symbolizes the six days of the week preceding Shabbos. The braids allude to our bringing together the six weekdays of material sustenance into Shabbos, when we create unity and harmony by infusing our lives with spiritual sustenance.
Shabbos and the challah represents unity and spiritual direction. The six weekdays represent the diverse secular part of our week. The days, Sunday through Friday, each represent one of the six directions in our secular world: North, South, East, West, upward and downward. During these weekdays, we move outward as we attempt to master our physical environment.
Shabbos is different. It points inward, and we attempt to infuse our neshoma (soul) with the gifts of spiritual sustenance. We try to achieve a sense of peace and unity as we direct the blessings of the week into our homes. On Shabbos, we greet each other with the words, Shabbat Shalom (peaceful Shabbos) as that is the ultimate goal, one of finding great inner peace as we bring ourselves closer to the ones we love and to G-d.
In the past, when I performed the challah tradition, I either burned the challah portion or carefully wrapped it and discarded it according to the letter of the law. After today’s baking of the challah, I added something else. I added a pretty bag and a bow to the discarded piece of challah. If I were to bring it to the Kohen, I would wrap it properly, so certainly, if I am designated this small piece of dough for G-d, I must present it well. If my weekday recipes must be simple to wow, then certainly my spiritual traditions must be up to par!
Does G-d really care about the external trappings? Maybe, yes or maybe, no. But, there are at least two parts of every mitzvah (commandment). There is the relationship part of the mitzvah that connects a person to G-d. Then, there is another part of every mitzvah that is at least as important. It is how that mitzvah cleanses and imprints the soul of the individual performing the mitzvah. So, wrapping the piece of donated challah with a bow may not affect G-d’s relationship with me, but that special wrapping of the challah donation really imprints me with a greater sensitivity, understanding and yearning to perform the mitzvos (commandments).