Challah is a loaf of yeast-risen egg bread that is traditionally eaten by Jews on Shabbat, on ceremonial occasions and during festival holidays. The word "challah" is also used to refer to the portion of dough that is traditionally separated from the rest of the dough before baking. The plural of "challah" is "challot."
Challah Shapes and Symbols
Challah is often braided using anywhere between two to six strands of dough. According to author Gil Marks, until the 15th century most Ashkenazim used their weekday rectangular loaves or round loaves for Shabbat. Eventually, however, German Jews began making a "new form of Sabbath bread, an oval, braided loaf modeled on a popular Teutonic bread" ("The World of Jewish Cooking," 276). Over time this shape became the most commonly used in Ashkenazi culture, though many Middle Eastern and Sephardic communities today still use either a round flat bread or plain rectangular loaves for their challot.
Less common challah shapes include spirals, keys, books and flowers. On Rosh HaShanah, for instance, challah is baked into spiral rounds (symbolizing the continuity of creation), braided rounds (symbolizing the ascent to heaven) or crowns (symbolizing God as the King of the Universe). Bird shapes are derived from Isaiah 31:5, which states: "As hovering birds, so will the Lord of hosts shield Jerusalem." When eaten during the meal before Yom Kippur, a bird shape can also represent the idea that one's prayers will soar to heaven. (Marks, Gil. "The World of Jewish Cooking," 278).
Seeds (poppy, sesame, coriander) are sometimes sprinkled on challot just before baking. Some say the seeds symbolize the manna that fell from heaven while the Israelites wandered in the desert following their Exodus from Egypt. Sweeteners like honey can also be added to loaves, likewise representing the sweetness of manna.
Challah in Jewish Ritual
Two loaves of challah (challot) are placed on the Sabbath and holiday table. Two loaves are used in commemoration of the double portion of manna that was provided on Friday to the Israelites in the desert following the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 16:4-30). The two loaves remind Jews that God will provide for their material needs, even if they refrain from working on the Sabbath day. The loaves are usually covered with a decorative cloth, which reminds us how when manna fell from the sky it was protected by layers of dew.
A blessing known as HaMotzi is recited over the bread before it is eaten:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha'olam, hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz.Following the blessing the challah can either be sliced with a knife or broken apart by hand. Pieces of the bread are then distributed for all to eat. In Sephardic communities the pieces of bread are sometimes tossed to people instead of handed, representing how food ultimately comes from God, not the host of the dinner.
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
The term "challah" also refers to a small piece of dough that is traditionally separated from the rest of the dough before baking. This piece of dough is separated in memory of the portion of dough that was set aside as a tithe for the Jewish priests (Kohanim) in biblical times.