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The first portion of your kneading, you shall separate as a dough offering (challah)… In all your generations, give the first of your kneading as an elevated gift to G‑d (Numbers 15:20-21)
In its more widely-known usage, the Hebrew word challah refers to the two loaves of bread that form the core of the Shabbat meal. But in its more basic, biblical and halachic meaning, challah is the piece of dough that is traditionally separated and consecrated to G‑d every time we bake bread.
The Separation of Challah is one of the 613 mitzvot (divine commandments) that constitute the body and soul of Jewish life. Replete with spiritual meaning, it is one of the three primary mitzvot of the Jewish woman and has a far-reaching effect on the mind and heart of the one who fulfills it, on her household, and on the very character of her home. For more than a hundred generations, Jewish women throughout the world have fulfilled this beautiful and life-transforming mitzvah.
When the Jewish people first entered and settled the land of Israel, one of the many gifts they were commanded to give to the Kohanim, the priestly tribe who served in the Holy Temple, was “challah” — a portion of dough separated from their kneading bowl every time they baked bread.
In addition to its practical function as a gift to the kohen, the mitzvah of “Separating Challah” embodies a profound spiritual truth. Challah is G‑d‘s portion in our bread, in our life. It expresses the belief that all of our sustenance truly comes to us through G‑d’s hand. Just as we may not use the bread dough unless we have separated challah, so too, a portion of our livelihood is always reserved for the giving of charity.
The Torah refers to challah as the reishit–the first and the best–of the kneading bowl. So, too, our spiritual pursuits may occupy only a small portion, quantity-wise, of our lives, but they are “the first and the best” in us, to which we devote the first moments of our day, the freshest of our energies, the keenest of our talents.
Today, because the Holy Temple has been destroyed and the conditions of ritual purity in which the Kohanim ate the challah are not available, we do not actually give the challah to the kohen.
However, in remembrance of this gift and in anticipation of the future redemption and rebuilding of the Holy Temple, we still observe the mitzvah of separating the challah portion. We remove the piece of dough, but instead of eating it, we burn it, as its sacredness prohibits using it in any way.
The mitzvah of separating challah is incumbent on every Jew. Traditionally, however, this has been one of the special mitzvot entrusted to the Jewish woman. As the akeret ha-bayit(foundation of the home), the woman not only prepares the physical sustenance for the family, but by observing this mitzvah, she nourishes it spiritually as well.
The woman, so influential in shaping the values and attitudes of her family, brings blessings upon her home through this mitzvah and instills faith in G‑dwithin those around her. The mitzvah of separating challah is symbolic of the entire practice of keeping kosher–in which the woman of the home plays the pivotal role–with its emphasis on elevating the physical and mundane to the realm of holiness.
Jewish women have traditionally baked their own challah loaves in preparation for the Shabbat, treasuring the opportunity to perform this special mitzvah.
- The Flour: Challah is separated when the dough is made of one or more of the following five grains: wheat, rye, barley, oat or spelt.
- The Liquid: Any liquid content of the dough qualifies to require separating Challah (e.g. water, oil, juice, eggs etc.). However, in order to definitely be able to recite the blessing, some of the liquid content should be water. Therefore, when baking a recipe that does not call for water, it is advisable to nevertheless add a little water into the mix.
- The Dough: Challah is not separated from some loose batters and sweet pastries (as opposed to a heavy batter/dough, like that of bread or babka).. Therefore, when baking cakes and pastries in quantities large enough to warrant challah being taken, consult with a competent rabbinic authority.
- The Quantity: In order to separate challah and recite the blessing, the dough should contain at least 59 ounces of flour (i.e. 3 lbs. 11 oz., or 1 and 2/3 kilograms). If the amount of flour is between 43 and 59 ounces (1.230 to 1.666 kilograms), challah should be separated without a blessing. But if the dough contains less than 43 ounces of flour, challah is not separated.
Challah is separated after the flour and liquid are well mixed together, while the dough is still whole, before it has been divided and shaped into loaves. If the dough has been kneaded in several batches, combine it all in a single bowl.
If the conditions for reciting the blessing are met, recite the following (if you do not understand the Hebrew, you can recite the blessing in English, or in any other language you understand):
BA-RUCH A-TAH A-DO-NOI ELO-HAI-NU ME-LECH HA-O-LAM A-SHER KID-SHA-NU B’MITZ-VO-TAV V’TZI-VA-NU L’HAF-RISH CHAL-LAH
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.
Separate a small piece of dough, approximately one ounce, and say: “This is challah.”
Burn the challah by wrapping it in a piece of silver foil and placing it in the broiler, or by any other method. (If burning it inside the oven, there should be no other food baking in the oven at the same time.)