Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Secret of Challah & the Feminine Tikun (Rectification)

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Shelach Lecha
The Spiritual Revival of Women’s Mitzvah of Challah
Challah Braiding at B'erot
This week’s Torah portion includes the mitzvah of separating challah. This same parasha opens with a recount of the negative speech of the spies who were afraid to conquer the Land of Israel, This caused the Jewish people to wander for forty years in the desert rather than proceed directly into the Land of Israel. As the primary rectification for the nation of Israel’s abandonment of their Land, Hashem grants us the mitzvah of taking challah. It is so beautiful that in the Torah whenever we miss the mark, Hashem gives us an opportunity to amend through additional mitzvot.

Therefore, this week’s parasha offers three new mitzvot to rectify the spies’ lack of faith. Parashat Shelach Lecha concludes with the mitzvah of wine libation, challah offering and tzitzit all in the Book of Bamidbar, chapter 15. The wine libation is an atonement for the nation as a whole since Israel is compared to the grapevine (Hoshea 9:10). Whereas the mitzvah of tzitzit is the primary rectification for the men’s role in abandoning the Land of Israel, challah is one of the three mitzvot dedicated for women to rectify not only the sin of the spies but even eating from the Tree of Knowledge by the very first woman in the Garden of Eden. Since we live in the times of redemption, we are already in the process of rectifying the sins of the Garden. Therefore, it is not surprising that the mitzvah of baking and separating challah has received a spiritual revival in our time. Women, the world over and especially in Eretz Yisrael, bake their own challah for Shabbat. Many even organize groups of 40 women to bake challah as a segula (spiritual empowerment) for a friend to receive healing, find her soul-mate, or conceive. More and more women participate in this important mitzvah, which help speed up our redemption process.

Personally, I am in my 35th year of baking my own Shabbat challah. I have treasured this holy mitzvah since the beginning of our marriage. I once heard Rabbi Lazer Brody say, at one of his lectures at Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin, that a woman who bakes her own challah in honor of Shabbat is empowered to remain married. This statement was naturally refuted by one of the participants: a divorced woman who had always been meticulous about baking her own challah. Rabbi Lazer didn’t intend that we take his statement literally to that degree. Reality has many components. However, baking our own challah is an important connection component. It connects us to ourselves, to our husbands and to the Land of Israel. One of the meanings of the word challah from the word chila (mechale) is to soften, sooth and sweeten. We can sweeten the judgment through the awareness that everything emanates from Hashem. The purpose of the mitzvah of challah is to recognize Hashem, even when preoccupied with material abundance, by separating the first of our challah as an offering. Challah is the only mitzvah among those, which are dependent on the Land that we keep even in exile, outside of the Land. Perhaps the mitzvah of challah comes to sweeten the darkness and judgment of exile, and pave the way for redemption. This fits in with the meaning of the word that Rabbi Nachman attributes to challah, namely that of hope and awaiting for salvation (Rabbi Natan of Breslau, Likutei Halachot, Hilchot Pidyon Bechor, Halacha 5). I hope to encourage and strengthen all of us to continue to bake and separate challah by sharing some spiritual insights of why this mitzvah is so important for women.

Challah – A Bridge between Holy and Mundane
ספר במדבר פרק טו
יז) וַיְדַבֵּר הָשֵׁם אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: יח) דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם בֹאֲכֶם אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה: יט) וְהָיָה בַּאֲכָלְכֶם מִלֶּחֶם הָאָרֶץ תָּרִימוּ תְרוּמָה לַהָשֵׁם: כ) רֵאשִׁית עֲרִסֹתֵכֶם חַלָּה תָּרִימוּ תְרוּמָה כִּתְרוּמַת גֹּרֶן כֵּן תָּרִימוּ אֹתָהּ: כא) מֵרֵאשִׁית עֲרִסֹתֵיכֶם תִּתְּנוּ לַהָשֵׁם תְּרוּמָה לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם

“Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: “As you come into the land into which I am bringing you there. When you eat of the bread of the land, you shall offer up a gift (terumah) to Hashem. [From] the first of your kneading bowl, you shall offer up a challah as a gift (terumah); like the gift of the threshing-floor, so you shall offer it up. From the first of your kneading bowl, you shall give to Hashem an offering, throughout your generations” (Bamidbar 15:17-21).

The word challah originally referred exclusively to the sanctified challah offering, which we set aside for the Kohen. This challah offering makes us worthy to receive a bracha in our home, as it states, “...You shall also give to the Kohen the first of your dough, that he may cause a blessing to rest on your home” (Yechezkiel 44:30). The mitzvah of challah is performed on all dough (of a minimal quantity), whether it is intended for baking for Shabbat or for a weekday. Today, however, the term challah has become synonymous with the bread baked specifically for Shabbat. Perhaps this is because Jewish women traditionally baked enough bread for Shabbat to be required to set aside challah. In the times of the Second Temple, even young unmarried daughters regarded this mitzvah as so important that they would spend their own money for baking enough bread to take challah every Shabbath eve (Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah 328).

Today, many women have adopted this minhag (custom). It is also possible that challah has evolved to refer to the bread permissible for all to eat (not just for the Kohen) because the name challah shares the root with the word chulin (mundane, ordinary, without sanctity). It is as if the word challah is a bridge between the profane (chol) and the holy. We can now understand why the term challah today specifically refers to the Shabbat bread, as its original meaning referring to the sanctity of the holy challah offering is retained by the fact that it now refers to the holy Shabbat bread. On Shabbat, we rise to a level similar to the Kohen, our table becomes a mizbeach (altar) and our food a korban (sacrifice). Through keeping the mitzvah of challah and partaking in the Shabbat challah, regularly, people lacking the special holiness of the Kohen, may receive a certain level of holiness too. In addition, challah as the staff of life symbolizes food in general and teaches that everything is in its essence holy – kodesh, and always will be. G-d gives us permission to use His world for a mundane, chol purpose, under one condition: that we preserve its holy essence.

From Cradle to Kneading Trough – Dedicating the First to Hashem
Challah is also related to the word הֲתְּחַלָּהּ/hatchala – beginning. The mitzvah of challah is hinted in the beginning of creation. The very first word of the Torah, בְּרֵאשִׁית/Bereishit – “At the beginning,” alludes to the mitzvah of separating challah, which also is called רֵאשִׁית/reishit – “beginning” in our Torah verse. From here we learn that G-d created the world for the sake of the challah (Bereishit Rabbah 1:4). Maharal points out that Hashem created the world for the sake of chesed (Tehillim 89:3). The mitzvah of separating challah is considered a great chesed for it is done equally to the poor and the rich. Chesed is, moreover, one of the three pillars upon which the world rests. Therefore, Hashem created the world for the sake of the mitzvah of challah (Maharal, Derech Chaim, Chapter 1, Mishnah 18). Setting aside challah indicates dedication to the Divine. This dedication takes place right at the start, as we take challah even before braiding it. The law of separating challah teaches us to dedicate the very beginning of everything to Hashem by expressing our recognition of G-d. The Hebrew term for kneading bowl is עֲרִסָה/arissa, which also means a child’s cradle. This alludes to the beginning of human life. From the very start of any pivotal moment of our lives, we must dedicate the first and best to Hashem.

Connection with the Land
The mitzvah of challah is the first terumah offering connected to the Land of Israel. It applied from the moment the Jewish people entered the Land, as we learn from the expression, בְּבֹאֲכֶם אֶל הָאָרֶץ – “When you come into the land” (Bamidbar 15:18). Upon entering the Holy Land, we were no longer spoon-fed manna, but required to earn our own keep by cultivating the land. Because of the tremendous human effort put into producing bread, one may be tempted to forget that without Hashem’s blessing we would not be able to lift even a finger. Therefore, especially while working hard for our living, we need to remember Hashem by separating off a piece of our dough as a challah offering. Since it is a greater challenge to remember Hashem while involved in the earthly pursuit of working the land rather than receiving manna directly from His heavenly hand, the mitzvah of separating challah symbolizes our superior relationship with Hashem that empowers us to assume ownership over the Land of Israel as Rabbi Nachman teaches:

ספר לקוטי עצות - ערך ארץ ישראל יב מצות חלה היא בחינת ירושת ארץ ישראל
The mitzvah of challah is the aspect of inheriting the Land (Likutei Eitzot, Eretz Yisrael).

Women & Challah
During our current Messianic era, we have begun to experience the unending beauty and excitement of discovering G-d even in the core physical experience of making bread. The more mindful we become the more we allow the spiritual light to break through, and reveal how the bread is a means of ‘holding’ that light and making its presence tangibly felt in our material world. Our matriarch Sarah achieved this level in her own lifetime. This is why her bread stayed fresh from one eve of Shabbat to the next (Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishit 24:109). The life force that she was able to identify – the Shechinah – did not depart. In her role as matriarch, Sarah laid the foundations for the future of every Jewish woman’s spiritual journey. Hashem let her experience a miracle week after week – leaving a permanent imprint not just on her, but on each of her future descendants. Sarah experienced the miraculous blessings of her tent, and not Abraham, because women elevate this world and raise it to reconnect with its Source. The direction of men is opposite. They bring down light from above to below, through learning Torah as an end in itself. When Sarah died; the miracle no longer took place – although the widowed Avraham continued to take challah from the dough. Today too, women are given precedence in performing this mitzvah. As life-givers, we can rectify the world by relating it to its Source – the Divine Presence. We are the ones who knead the dough, and feel how its components of flour and water – physical and spiritual – join (Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, http://www.aish.com/sh/t/rai/48970616.html).

Bread– The Perfection of Humanity
It is the woman who bakes challah just like it is her role to refine man. Baking bread is a microcosm of our spiritual refinement process – reflecting the many steps it takes to actualize our potential. It reflects becoming refined and transformed over and over until we become what were are meant to be. Bread is the ultimate hard-work food as it takes eleven steps to create it, from sowing the grains to baking the loaves. Since baking bread reflects the perfection of humanity, it brings us closer to Mashiach, the most perfect human being. Therefore, it is not by chance that Mashiach derives from Beit Lechem (the house of Bread). Mashiach will be a direct descendant of King David, who was born in Beit Lechem (I Shmuel 17:12).

The Braided Shabbat Challah – Unifying Our Fragmented World
Wheat used to be a tree, as Rabbi Yehuda taught that the Tree of Knowledge was wheat (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 40a). After the sin of eating from the Tree, the Tree fell and became dispersed into many sheaves of wheat and its status was lowered into a mere grain. When the first woman tempted man to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, she spoiled him, who was “the bread of the world.” Therefore, we have the opportunity to repair her transgression by baking enough bread to separate a challah offering. The braiding of the challah may reflect unifying the split consciousness caused by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. By braiding the challah, we symbolically unify the scattered sheaves and elevate them to once again become one unified entity braided together, like the Tree prior to its fall. Braiding with six could signify the unification of the physical realm with its six dimensions. The challah created from these six strands symbolizes the seventh dimension – the aspect of Shabbat – the holiness within the physical reality. The Mitzvah of challah braids together, Israel, the Land, the Woman and Hashem. Although in the Torah it refers strictly to the gift for the Kohen, naming it challah (from chulin) – food permissible for all to eat, Hashem encoded within it the evolvement to become what we call our Shabbat bread. The mitzvah of challah represents refinement and recreation of the perfect human being as a tikun for eating from the Tree. Therefore, this mitzvah is linked to Shabbat, which represents the perfected reality, מֵעֵין עוֹלָם הַבָּא – (A foretaste of the World to Come). The unifying quality of challah binds the physical to the spiritual by recognizing Hashem even within the most physical reality. This process will culminate with the Mashiach from Beit Lechem (House of Bread) – the most refined human being women can produce through sifting, kneading and baking. May it be our merit to see the unity and wholeness – that Challah so deeply represents – redefining the fragmented and wounded world in which we live!


  1. Wonderful!!! And the student's essay was a very important one too!

  2. Beautiful and so helpful for me.. thank you for sharing. Keep up your wonderful writing and publishing!