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The Spiritual Aspect of Baking Challah

My older children enjoy cooking, and I often try to include them in my weekly challah baking. It was only fairly recently, I discovered the depths of baking challah, and I continue to struggle with maintaining the presence of mind to get more out of it than merely delicious bread. It becomes much more difficult when my children are participating with me.

When I prepared to start baking last week, my three-year old wanted to help. How could I say no? But, how could I embrace the spiritual experience of baking challah if I wasn’t participating in the task alone? Why shouldn’t challah baking with a toddler be transformational? Isn’t this a true test of my patience and my ability to pour out love in the midst of a potentially frustrating situation? And, so, we dove in.

The Talmud tells us that the mitzvah around challah is one of three commandments given specifically to women. The word “challah” actually means portion, representing the amount of bread the Jews gave to the Kohanim each week. A Kohen is a male directly descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses. The Kohanim had and still have specific functions within Jewish life. The mitzvah of separating a portion of dough remains today.

The two loaves of bread at our table during Shabbat meals symbolize the two manna which fell from the sky each week when we were traveling in the desert. Making HaMotzi (the prayer over bread) is the first step toward elevating our Shabbat meals and separating them from ordinary weekday meals. But, the loftiness of challah does not begin with eating it; it begins when making it.

When one bakes challah, a gate opens, providing a direct path to G-d. It is an opportunity to daven (pray) to G-d on behalf of your children, your friends, your family and yourself. Each cup of flour that I put into my bowl is dedicated to one of my children. Not only do I pray for their success at overcoming personal difficulties but I pray for my own patience and understanding when tending to them and their individual needs.

The rising loaves of challah remind us that there is a fullness in our lives, that we have the ability to rise from difficult situations and that there is a hint of sweetness to be found in everything. The salt we dip our challah in at the meal is a reminder of the destruction of the Temple and alludes to the bitterness of our losses throughout history. It is a paradox of sweet and sour that is interwoven throughout life. Somehow, my own personal struggle to have a spiritual moment while baking with children seems fitting.

Isaac dumps in cups of flour faster than I can think. “Let me think about Ellie,” I say to him feeling the impatience swelling but trying to accept the moment as it is, “I want to do this right.”

And, then, I just let it go and I start talking as Isaac continues dumping. I answer his non-stop talking and occasional question. I yell to Aaron to come and join us. And I keep talking as Isaac decides to wipe his hands off on my arms. He does not like being dirty, yet truly enjoys sticking his hands in the bucket of flour. Due to his texture issues, I am overjoyed he wants to stick his hands in the flour, and I don’t mind the flour being rubbed up and down my arms.

We cover the challah dough to let it rise as we run out the door to pick up my oldest son from school. I don’t have time to wipe my arms off – they are a dusty white – but that’s ok. I have a symbol from the cherished moment I have just spent with my children.

*****

Here are some suggestions you may want to incorporate if you’d like to transform your challah baking practices.

1. Create the right environment: If you have the opportunity for quiet – dim your lights, light candles, put on quiet music – seize the moment.

2. Contemplate the steps of the bread baking process: Measuring, mixing, punching down the dough – what are the symbolic meanings behind each step? Think about contemplation, community, and humility.

3. As you knead your dough, focus your thoughts on the people you care about. Use the time to pray if prayer is a part of life. Or just send your thoughts out to the people in your life who need them.

4. Friday night, when you serve your fresh baked bread – watch as your family and guests devour your challah. Sometimes, that is all my children eat (I should find a way to put some veggies in there).

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