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"You are to take flour and are to bake it (into) twelve loaves, two tenth-measures shall be the one loaf" (Leviticus 24:5). God instructed Moses to place these round loavestwo rows of six challot eachon a table before Him in the tent of meeting: "Sabbath day (by) Sabbath day he is to arrange it before the presence of God, regularly, from the Children of Israel as a covenant for the ages" (Leviticus 24:8).
After the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 c.e., the home table became a metaphor for God's table; it was likened to the altar in the Temple. And the Sabbath bread became a sacred offering from every family.
By the eighteenth century, when twisted breads had come into vogue in Central and Eastern Europe, the twelve round loaves of bread in Leviticus became two loaves with at least six humps from the braids in each. Some bakers still carefully braid the challah dough so that six humps will show in each of the two traditional loaves used on the Sabbath. There are several explanations for the two loaves. One is that they represent the double portion of manna that the Lord provided on the sixth day in the wilderness during the forty years of wandering, so there would be enough for the Sabbath and the Israelites would not need to collect it on the day of rest (Exodus 16:22-23). Another is that the two loaves represent two different versions of the Fourth Commandment. In Exodus 20:8, the words are to "remember the Sabbath day, to hallow it." In Deuteronomy 5:15, in the repetition of the Ten Commandments, the Jews are reminded that they were slaves in Egypt, but that "God took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm;therefore your God commands you to observe the day of Sabbath."
The Sabbath bread closest to that of the ancient Israelites is baked by Iraqi and many Sephardic Jews. It is a flat bread, more like pita, sometimes in a larger size than that of everyday bread. In many Israeli homes today, this Iraqi, Yemenite, or Kurdish flat bread sits side by side with the European sweet challah, and the breads are blessed together. The sweetened loaf, developed much later, was not just a Jewish phenomenon. The Greeks have an egg-rich braided bread at Easter; so do the Portuguese and the Russians.
Berches, possibly a corruption of the Hebrew word for "blessing" (b'rachah), is the savory German Jewish Sabbath loaf of two layers of three-braided strands. My father ate a potato-based berches as a child in Augsburg, Germany. So did Jews I've met who lived as far away as Budapest.
The changes continued . . . A round challah at Rosh Hashanah became a symbol of long life. Some people added saffron and raisins to it. Others added more symbolism. In certain Russian towns, the bread was imprinted with the shape of a ladder, symbolizing the ascent to God on high. (A midrash, or explanatory story, states that on Rosh Hashanah the "Holy One, blessed be He, sits and erects ladders; on them God lowers one person and elevates another.") In Ukraine, perhaps in Kulikow, a town known for breads, Rosh Hashanah challah was baked in the form of a bird, symbolizing the protection of God's people, as stated in Isaiah 31:5: "As birds hovering (over their fledglings), so will the Lord of hosts protect Jerusalem." Jews from Lithuania baked challah topped with a crown, in accordance with the words of the great liturgical poet Eleazar Kalir: "Let all crown God." And the food impresario George Lang recalls his mother's regular Friday night challah from Hungary"elaborate . . . a bird with peppercorn eyes, grapes. It was wonderful, mellow, and had a slightly sweet dough."
Many challah traditions were lost as a result of the Holocaust and Soviet religious suppression. When I visited the Soviet Union a few years before its breakup, I kept searching for a sweet Russian challah. In Tbilisi, at the home of a chazzan (cantor) from one of the few remaining synagogues, I tasted a homemade round white loaf, with no sweetening. In Moscow, contrary to my expectations, I found no challah. Nor did I see any in Vilnius. But someone translated a small item for me from a Lithuanian newspaper. "Remember that challah bread," it read. "How we used to like it. Perhaps now that there is perestroika some bakery will bake it again for us." They did not. The Jewish bakers of Lithuania are no more.Recently I attended kiddush after Sabbath services at Aitz Hayim, a synagogue "Without Walls" located in a community center in Highland Park, Illinois. The lay leader placed a three-pound challah in the middle of the group, where a number of people held it. Then, after he said the blessings, he asked the gathering (about sixty of us) to chant the motzi, the traditional prayer over the bread, together while either holding the challah or touching someone who was. The idea is to connectto provide an unbroken physical and spiritual chain within the group, bridging the secular and the spiritual with joy. We then tore the challah apart, all participating equally, saying, "Raise the challah when you say the blessings. Elevate it."
"People touching each other creates a wonderful connectedness," said Andra Tunick Karnofsky, one of the congregants and the baker of the whole-wheat challah. "By the time we eat, we are physically close together and can continue the spirit of the blessings, the service, and Shabbos."
Andra, a psychologist, has been supplying her synagogue and many local stores with her Heavenly Challah since 1991. "I always loved cooking," she said. "As the eldest child with a grandmother who was a great cook, the legacy was handed down to me."
Her particular passion for baking challah began fifteen years ago, when her husband, Keith, was a Hillel rabbi at the University of Rhode Island. "We invited students for Shabbos," she said. "It was in the early Eighties, and I wanted my foods to be natural. When I made cookies, I put in whole-wheat grains and wheat germ, so when I made challah, it seemed sad to be serving an all-white bread. I decided to enrich it with whole-wheat flour." Later, in Boston, St. Louis, and Chico, Californiawherever the rabbinate took Andra and her husbandshe still baked challah and invited people over for the Sabbath. "People liked the challah and encouraged me to sell it," she said. "One of the appeals of baking for me is that it is a transformation. You take a variety of elements in their natural form and you create something completely new and
different. It has little grains but becomes part of the greater whole. And so the love you put into the dough is incorporated into the bread."
One special addition to Andra's challah is her team of baker's helpers. As a behavioral specialist at Lambs Farm, a community for retarded adults in Libertyville, Illinois, she contracts with Lambs Farm to make her bread at the farm's bakery on Wednesdays and Fridays with the assistance of from five to fifteen of the adults. "So it's a double mitzvah."Heavenly Whole-wheat Challah
from Andra Tunick Karnofsky
"When I first started making challah, people either loved it or were offended by the whole wheat," Andra said. "It was supposed to be white." She sees it this way: "My grandmother made white challah, but she didn't have the bleached white flour we just buy in a bag. It had to be sifted; it was expensive, a treat for the Sabbath. Today you buy the flour for the bread and it is white. It takes more effort to incorporate other ingredients, which is what makes whole-wheat challah special today. In our society, it is a reversal because of our American eating habits."
If you like, you can substitute all egg whites for the whole eggs. But then add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil so the bread won't be too dry.
1 cup plus 1 teaspoon warm water
2 scant tablespoons (2 packages) active dry yeast
3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour, preferably stone-ground
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter or parve margarine, at room
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons poppy or sesame seeds for sprinkling
1. In a large bowl, mix together 1 cup of the water, the yeast, 1 cup of the all-purpose flour, and 1/4 cup of the sugar. Set aside for 20-30 minutesAndra feels that making this "sponge" helps the yeast add an extra tangy flavor to the bread.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook, place the sponge mixture and 2 more cups of the all-purpose flour, the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, the whole-wheat flour, and the salt. Mix well at a low speed. Gradually add the butter or margarine and 2 of the eggs, 1 at a time. Adding the remaining 1/2 cup all-purpose flour as needed, gradually increase the speed of the mixer and continue mixing about 10 minutes, until the dough becomes smooth and elastic.
3. Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl and turn so all the sides are coated with oil. Cover with a cloth and let the dough rise 1 - 2 hours, until doubled in size. You can also refrigerate the dough and let it rise slowly overnight. Punch it down, remove it to a floured board, and knead until the air pockets are pushed out.
Braiding and baking the challah:
4. Divide the dough in half. Set aside one half and divide the other into 4 equal portions. Roll each piece with your hands into an even strand about 15 inches long and place the 4 strands side by side. Pinch the upper ends firmly together to connect them. Beginning from the right and working toward the left, take the outside strand and weave it over the adjacent strand, under the next strand, and over the last strand on the left. Proceed in the same over-under fashion, moving downward row by row, always weaving from right to left, until the ends are reached. Connect the ends by pinching them together as you did in the beginning and tuck them under the braided loaf. Form the second loaf the same way. Place both on a greased cookie sheet 2 inches apart.
5. In a small bowl, beat together the remaining egg with the teaspoon water. Brush the braided loaves with the egg wash.
6. Cover the loaves loosely with a towel or plastic wrap and let them rise for 1 hour more, or until doubled in size.
7. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the loaves again with the egg wash and sprinkle with the poppy or sesame seeds.
8. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 35 - 45 minutes, or until golden. The loaves are done if they sound hollow when tapped.
Yield: 2 loaves (D or P)
Knead the following ingredients into the dough during step 2, after adding the eggs. Owing to the moisture found in some of the ingredients, more flour may be needed.
Thanksgiving and fall: 1 cup frozen cranberries tossed in 2 tablespoons sugar, or 1 cup peeled and diced apples sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.
Winter: 1 cup diced dried apricots or golden raisins plumped in hot water for 10 minutes, then drained and dried.
February, for Washington's Birthday: 1 cup frozen whole Bing cherries, coarsely chopped.
Spring and summer: 1 cup frozen blueberries or diced fresh peaches.
As an optional glaze for challah with fruit, melt 1/4 cup apricot jam with 1 tablespoon water. Brush the melted jam mixture over the baked challah.
From the Hardcover edition.