Search our Archives:
» Opinion & Society
What is Challah, anyway?
By Avi Lazerson
When we hear the word "Challah", we normally think of a delicious, mouth-watering bread that is traditionally served at the beginning of the Shabbat meals. But it might come as a surprise to many that challah was originally a portion of bread that was given only to the priest (the Cohen) to eat in ritual purity during the times that the Temple in Jerusalem existed.
There is a mitzvah to separate part of the dough when it is kneaded and to give it to the priest. This mitzvah is based on Numbers 15:18-21, which states, "…when you come into the land that I will bring you, when you eat from the bread of the land, you shall set aside a portion to G-d. From the first of your dough, challah is set apart as a gift like that which is separated in the threshing, so also with this. From the first of your dough, give a portion to G-d for all of the generations."
Although these verses are not clear, our sages explained that this is talking about the mitzvah of challah. When it says to give to G-d, they explained that this means to give to the priest who is G-d's representative, who will eat it in holiness.
Now there are certain conditions about this law. The first condition is that the dough be of the five species of grain: wheat, spelt, barley, rye, and oats. Once the flour has been mixed with water, the mixture now is subject to being separated. If the challah is not separated while it is dough, before baking, then after the bread has been baked, a portion must be removed from the bread to be the challah.
As mentioned above, the challah was a gift given to the priests. Where as the Jews inherited the land, the tribe of Levi and the priestly group, the sons of Aaron the priest, who were also descended from the tribe of Levi, did not receive land in Israel when the land was conquered from the Cananites. Instead, their portion was to serve G-d in the Temple. Therefore, it was the obligation of the rest of the tribes to support them. Challah was only one of the gifts that was due to them.
In order for a priest to be able to eat the challah, he had to be in a state of ritual purity. This meant that he could not be in contact with a dead person, or in the same room as a dead person, or even touch items that were in contact with a dead person. There are really many more restrictions, but basically, had he become ritually defiled, he would have to undergo the ceremony in which a special mixture, which included among others, the ashes of a red heifer mixed with water from a spring, would be sprinkled upon him.
Since the destruction of the Temple, the priest does not possess the ability to purify them as we, Jews, are all considered ritually defiled. Therefore, the priest can not eat the challah today.
Now in reality, not just any mixture of flour was subject to the law of challah. It had to be a considerable amount. Some say it needs to be 2.2 kilos (4.8 pounds) of flour and yet others say, 1.67 kilos (3 pounds, 11 ounces) is the amount that is required to be mixed at one time. Less that this amount challah can be separated, but with out a blessing. When the amount is under 1.2 kilos (2 pounds, 11 ounces) then challah is not separated. Challah should be separated from the dough, but if it was not done, it must be separated from the bread.
If less than the amount that is required is also used, and separately an additional dough is made , challah may be taken. If the two doughs touch, and together there is enough flour present, then challah must be taken off. If challah was not taken before baking, then after baking, the two breads are put in a container or if they are covered together under a common covering, if the amount of flour is of the measure to take challah, then challah must be taken from the bread.
It is forbidden to eat from bread upon which the mitzvah of challah was not fulfilled. First the challah portion must be separated. The bread of a gentile is not subject to the laws of challah.
The sages taught us that the amount of challah to be taken was one twenty-fourth. This is if the bread is from a household. But if the bread was from a bakery, then the portion was reduced to one forty-eighth.
Before the challah is separated, the following blessing is recited: "Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to separate challah." Then the challah is separated and the custom is to burn it in the oven, preferably in the broiler. If it is put in the oven to be burned, it should not be put in when other food is cooking.
After the challah has burnt, it should be wrapped and discarded in a respectful manner.
Now since the priests are all ritually defiled, we do not give the challah portion to them. Instead we burn it in the oven. This mitzvah is generally given to the women since they are the caretakers of the kitchen. Many blessings come down to the family in merit of this mitzvah. However, if the woman is not able to separate the challah, then anyone else may do it for her.
This was a law that really only applied to the land of Israel and not to the lands of the Diaspora. However, since the sages knew that we would return to our lands, and that the Holy Temple would be re-built, they instituted that even outside the Land of Israel the challah portion must be separated. Now we have witnessed the Jews returning to the land that G-d gave them. May we also witness the fulfillment of His promise to re-build the Third Temple.
from the February 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine