“Blessed are You, Lord, our G-d,* Ruler of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to separate the Challah.”
For thousands of years, Jews have been kneading, separating, and baking the challah before serving it for Shabbas (Sabbath) dinner. Challah is an egg-rich yeast bread that, once the dough has risen, is separated into three parts and braided. It’s delicious.
For this weeks’ Renewal in Place challenge to “cook something new,” I dove into making challah. I am not Jewish and I have no intent to usurp another culture’s sacred ritual. But I do frequently feel deep respect—even envy*—when I learn about other religions’ rituals, celebrations, and wisdom. That respect is what I felt as I made challah this week.
A year ago, a good friend sent me the book, “Braided: A Journey of 1000 Challahs.” § It tells the story of a mid-career, mid-life Jewish female who was on the verge of a proverbial breakdown when she chanced upon the tradition of making challah on Friday for her family’s sabbath dinner. Ten years and hundreds of challahs later, she continues to make challah every Friday. It is a way for her to slow down, to breathe, to focus on the mixing of flour, sugar, water, egg and salt. To wait. To pray. Again, I am not Jewish—but I deeply appreciate the slowing down, the mixing, the pausing, the prayer.
The root of the word challah is chol. Chol means ordinary, secular. The process of making this dough is considered to be a Jewish mitzvah, or good deed. Making challah is infused with intentionality. These ordinary ingredients are mixed—often in merit of someone or in solidarity with the thousand generations of women who have prayed over, kneaded, separated—a part set aside for G-d, braided, baked and shared at sabbath dinner. The ordinary becomes sacred.
The scripture for this week is from the Gospel of John, Chapter 21: 9-10. It’s post-resurrection. The disciples are tired after fishing all night and catching nothing. Jesus stands on the shore and tells them to cast their nets on the other side. They don’t recognize him—but do it anyway. You know the story. Yep, so many fish they can’t haul it all in. “When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” They are tired. It’s been a long, all-too ordinary night. And then Jesus appears.
He tells them, “You bring the fish. Come sit by the fire. Slow down. Breathe. I’ve got the bread.”
God, You knew I needed a break this week. Thank you for commanding us to bake bread, to set apart a piece for You, to share it with others. The ordinary becomes sacred. And I feel renewed.
*Jews find the name of G-d to be so holy it cannot be pronounced. Many Jews leave the vowel out of the writing as remembrance that G-d’s name is too holy to speak.
**a nod to “Holy Envy,” by Barbara Brown Taylor
- recipe taken from “Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs,” by Beth Ricanati
2 ¼ teaspoons loose yeast + 1 teaspoon sugar + 1 cup very warm water (almost too warm, but not hot!)
2 teaspoons salt
¼ cup sugar
1/3 cup oil
4+ cups flour
- Mix yeast, sugar, and warm water together in small bowl; let stand approximately ten minutes. This mixture will start to bubble.
- Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix together eggs, salt, sugar, oil, and two cups flour. Now would be a great time to say, “I’m making this dough in the merit of _______.” (name someone…maybe a friend who is sick that week, or someone you are happy for, sad for, mad at, etc.)
- Add yeast mixture (1) to flour mixture (2).
- Add approximately 1 ½ cups flour to the mixture. Dough should start to form a ball, separating from the bowl.
- Place the dough on a floured surface and knead, lifting up with one hand and then the other. This should take at least five minutes as dough becomes increasingly elastic. If necessary, add a bit more flour to the dough if still sticky. Knead dough into a ball.
- Place the dough back into oiled bowl, cover and place the covered bowl somewhere warm for 1-1 ½ hours to rise; it will approximately double in volume.
- Preheat oven to 375°. Remove the cover from bowl, place dough on floured surface. Take a small piece of dough (roughly the size of an egg) and say the prayer over separating the challah. [see prayer above.] Discard this piece of dough [it is a gift to God] and continue.
- Punch out dough one more time. Cut the dough into two balls, one for each challah. Then divide each ball together at the top and braid into a loaf. Place on a greased cookie sheet. Repeat with second ball of dough. You may let the dough rise again at this step.
- Paint each challah with a mixture of egg yolk plus a little water.
- Place braided dough on a greased baking sheet and bake approximately 23-30 minutes, or until bread has risen and is golden brown. Romove, let cool.
- Place challah on platter, cover and wait for Shabbas dinner. Eat and enjoy!