Shabbat Challot

A Workshop Guide by Sue Zakar

[Note: I originally prepared this guide for a challah workshop I gave a few years ago at Temple Solel in Bowie, Maryland. We had 23 participants, men and women, up to the elbows in dough, most making challah for the first time. This is a slightly revised version of that guide.]

There is something truly special about the loaves of challah that grace the Shabbat table. For many years I had been baking such loaves, varying the recipe this way or that, but it was only recently that I understood the "soul" of Shabbat Challot. I hope this workshop will help you understand it, too.

There is a recipe below that tells you the ingredients and mixing instructions for making challah. If you follow it you will likely come up with a good loaf of challah, but that is not the real point of this workshop...

This workshop is also about kavanah.

Kavanah means attention, concentration and spirit of devotion, it involves the intention which lies behind our deeds. It can be the key which gives meaning to this (or any) experience. If you follow the recipe intending to receive compliments for your work, you will likely end up with very pretty loaves made of dough twisted and bound up in themselves. And you will find yourself being twisted and bound up similarly with the compliments you intended.

Yet, if you prepare the loaves with the intention of doing it for the sake of G-d, of doing it as a mitzvah that will help make the Shabbat meal a blessing, you will end up with Shabbat Challot. You will find yourself bound up in the twists of their meaning, and a greater sense of the power and holiness of Shabbat. The time you spend making challah is a good time to pray, to allow yourself to explore the "deeper meanings" hidden within the process, and to become more aware of G-d's presence.

So, before you even begin look at the recipe, think of kavanah. Take a break from the cleaning and chores to pray, read a psalm, sing a Hebrew song, read some Torah, or contemplate the meaning of Shabbat and its symbols. At first this might even seem awkward. Most of us have learned all too well how to push our spiritual needs aside to accomodate the rest of our hectic lives. In the process, we have ignored our own need for ritual, for prayer and attachment to G-d. The time you spend making challah is a time you can rediscover some of those treasures. Set your intention on the Holy, and remember that your challot will provide the opportunity for a blessing to G-d as you recite the HaMotzi at your Shabbat table.

As you prepare the Challot, let yourself find meaning in the process.

Perhaps you will see the analogy to a human life. As you mix the ingredients, you might see that the flour is like the dust from which we "were created". As you knead it, see how soft and smooth it becomes. It is like a baby's skin. As it rises, and is beaten down, it becomes stronger and tougher. After it has passed through the heat, the loaf is hard but at its most beautiful for all the experiences.

You will see that the dough must rest, if it is to rise and grow. Without that time, the loaves will be flat and formless. Is that, perhaps, part of the importance of Shabbat rest for us? Do we also need a time of quiet and rest to grow? Without it will our lives also be flat and less fulfilling than they might otherwise be?

Before baking, you will remove a small piece of the dough and burn it in the oven as you say a blessing.** This "separation" reminds us of the challah that we can no longer give, a mitzvah that we cannot fully complete. As we burn it we sense our incomplete joy because of the destruction of the Temple, and yearn for its rebuilding. Perhaps it will bring to mind other thoughts: Can our joy be complete while others are hungry and homeless? Is our own happiness also incomplete when we shut G-d out of our lives? You will undoubtedly find more.

The dough is flattened, and prepared to be formed into loaves. It is like life. We strive and achieve and rise but suddenly life can beat us down. We feel let down, stretched beyond our limits, torn into pieces, thinking, perhaps, that we have lost everything. It is then we must realize that it is only now that we can be truly molded and formed into what our Creator has planned for us. Without all of those ups and downs, the rising and falling, we could not have matured and grown strong, and become who we are, who G-d intended us to be all along.

As you form the dough into braids, consider the possible meaning of the three strands. Perhaps they are symbolic of how Israel is bound up with G-d and Torah. If any of the strands of dough are not present, the Challah will just be bread. If Israel is not bound up with G-d and Torah, it is just another people. Perhaps the three strands of dough represent the three things on which the world stands, "...on the Torah, and on worship, and on deeds of kindness." You may find other meanings. Be open to them. Or, you can also use this time in other special ways: Each time one strand is passed over another, say a prayer or read a line of a favorite Psalm of praise.

The Shabbat Challot will bring all your senses into play. You will feel the dough, see it, say and hear the blessings, smell it as it bakes and finally, on Shabbat, taste it. Let each be a deliberate experience, and the Shabbat Challot will involve your whole, body, mind and soul in the service of the Holy. Once you have found the soul in the Challot, you will never want to make just plain bread for Shabbat again.

A Challah Recipe (makes 4 large loaves)

(It takes about 4 hours to make Challah. Plan ahead.)

Dissolve 1/4 cup dry yeast (or 6 envelopes) into 1 cup of warm water to which 2 t. of sugar has been added. (If you bake every week, it is a very good idea to buy yeast in 1-2 lb. bulk packages --it's much more economical).

Use a two cup container for this. The water should be as warm as a warm bath. Set this aside for now.

Measure the following into a large bowl. 5 lbs bread flour
1+ 1/2 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons salt
1/2 cup corn oil
5 eggs
3 to 4 cups very warm water. (start with 3 and add more if needed)

The yeast mixture should be bubbly by now. That's how you know the yeast was good and the water was the right temperature. If it's not getting bubbly, you should probably try making the yeast mixture again.

Put the rest of the ingredients into a very large bowl, and add the yeast mixture to it. Stir everything together into a ball of dough. Add more warm water (or flour) as necessary. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for about 15 minutes. The dough should be smooth and soft like a baby's skin. If it is too sticky, add a little more flour. If it is too dry add a little warm water, then knead it some more.

After kneading, remember to separate the challah.** Then put the dough in a large oiled bowl. Rotate the dough so it is coated with the oil. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and set it in a warm place to rise. Let it rise about 1 hour, then punch it down and knead it a couple of times. Let it rise a second time. Keep the dough away from drafts while it is rising.

After the second rising, punch the dough down and dump it onto a lightly floured surface. Divide it into 6 equal parts. Cut 4 of these parts into 3 pieces each and the other 2 parts into six pieces. Form a rope out of each. ( For a smooth texture, flatten each piece into a long rectangle with a rolling pin, then flip it over and roll it up,jelly-roll style, into a long strand, smooth side out. Pinch the seam shut.) You should have 12 large strands, at least 12 inches long, and 12 smaller strands of about the same length. Using three large strands for each loaf, pinch the tops together, braid them, then pinch the bottom of the strands together and tuck under the loaf. Use the six smaller strands to make to thinner braids. Place one thin braid on top of each large braid to form a "crown."

Place the completed loaves on a large greased cookie sheets (2 per sheet). Let the loaves rise for about 45 minutes. The loaves will at least double in size. Then brush them with a beaten egg. This gives them the characteristic shine. Bake the loaves at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes. Remove them to a cooling rack.

Challah tastes best fresh, but it can also be wrapped tightly in foil after it has cooled and frozen for up to two weeks. Of course you can always give a couple of loaves to a friend!

**To separate the challah: Say the blessing: "Baruch atah HASHEM melech haolam, asher kiddishanu b'mitzvosav v'tzivanu l'hafrish challah."[Blessed are You HASHEM, King of the Universe Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to separate challah. ] Then take a piece of dough the size of a large olive, and burn it in your oven, under the broiler, or over the flame of a gas stove. (Don't burn it in the oven at the same time you are baking bread.)