The braided challah, which is made with eggs, is the Jewish Sabbath‑and‑holiday bread. It is surrounded by folklore and tradition and loaded with symbolism. On festive occasions a blessing is said over two loaves, symbolizing the two portions of the manna that was distributed on Fridays to the children of Israel during their Exodus from Egypt. The breads are covered on the table by a decorative challah cover or a white napkin, which represents the dew that collected on the manna in the morning. Poppy and sesame seeds sprinkled on the bread also symbolize the manna that fell from heaven.
Challah is made in various sizes and shapes, all of which have a meaning. Braided ones, which may have three, four, or six strands, are the most common, and because they look like arms intertwined, symbolize love. Three braids symbolize truth, peace, and justice. Twelve humps from two small or one large braided bread recall the miracle of the 12 loaves for the 12 tribes of Israel. Round loaves, “where there is no beginning and no end,” are baked for Rosh Hashanah to symbolize continuity. Ladder and hand shapes are served at the meal before the fast of Yom Kippur—the ladder signifying that we should ascend to great heights, the hand that we may be inscribed for a good year. On Purim, small triangular loaves symbolize Haman’s ears; at Shavuot, two oblongs side by side represent the Tablets of the Law. The bulkah is a segmented rectangular challah. Sweet challahs with honey or raisins are baked during the festive season to bring joy and happiness.
The name “challah” is derived from the Hebrew word used for “portion” in the Biblical commandment “of the first of your dough you shall give unto the Lord a portion for a gift throughout your generations.” Jews were biblically commanded to separate from their doughs one twenty‑fourth and give it to the kohanim (priests) every Sabbath. In post-Temple times the rabbis ordained that a challah (portion), which had to be at least the size of an olive, must be separated from the dough and burned. It is still a tradition for Jewish bakers and observant houswives to tear a tiny lump of risen dough from any type of bread and to “burn” it (usually wrapped in foil) in the oven or fire while making a blessing.
The name “challah” was given to a bread in South Germany in the Middle Ages, when it was adopted by Jews for the Sabbath. It was the traditional local Sunday loaf, and its various shapes and designs were in the local tradition of decorative breads. John Cooper (Eat and Be Satisfied) notes that the first mention of the bread was in the fifteenth century and that the term was coined in Austria. Before that the bread was called “berches,” a name that is still used by Jews in some parts today. The bread became the Jewish ritual bread in Germany, Austria, and Bohemia and was taken to Poland, Eastern Europe, and Russia when the Jews migrated east. Housewives kneaded the dough on Thursday, let it rise overnight, and got up early on Friday to bake it. They often baked all the bread for the week at the same time, so as not to waste fuel. The distinctive smell which emanates from the oven and fills the house when it is baked is the Sabbath aroma that pervades the memories of the old Yiddish‑speaking world.
Make your own challah, round or braided.
Categories:Bread, Classics, Vegetarian, Shabbat
2 Tablespoons dry yeast
2 1/4 cups (500 ml) lukewarm water
1/2 cup (100g) sugar
4 eggs, beaten, plus 2 yolks or 1 whole egg for glazing
1 Tablespoon salt
9 1/4 cups (125 ml) flour
Poppy or sesame seeds (optional)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Dissolve the yeast in the water with 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Beat well and leave 10 minutes, until it froths.
In a very large bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Then add the salt, sugar, and oil and beat again. Add the frothy yeast mixture and beat well. Now add the flour gradually, and just enough to make a soft dough that holds together, mixing well, first with a large spoon, then working it in with your hands. Knead vigorously for about 15 minutes, until it is very smooth and elastic, adding flour if the dough is too sticky. Pour a little oil in the bowl and turn the dough, so that it is greased all over. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in a warm place to rise for 2‑3 hours, or until it has doubled in bulk. Punch the dough down and knead again, then divide into four pieces to make 4 loaves.
To make round challah: Take 1 piece of dough, roll it between your palms, and pull it out into a long fat rope about 18 inches (46 cm) long and 2 inches (5 cm) thick – a little fatter at one end. Take the fatter end and put it in the middle of an oiled baking sheet, then coil the rest of the rope around it like a snail. Continue with the remaining 3 pieces.
To make braided challah with 3 strands: Divide 1 piece of the dough into 3. Roll each piece between your palms and pull into long thin ropes about 18 inches (46 cm) long and 1 1/4 inches (3 cm) wide. Pinch 1 end of all the strands together and plait them: bring the rope on the right over the middle one, then bring the one on the left over it and continue to the end. Pinch the ends together and tuck them under the loaf. You may find it, easier to begin plaiting in the middle of the 3 strands and plait towards the 2 ends. Continue with the remaining 3 pieces.
Place the 4 loaves on well‑oiled baking sheets, leaving plenty of room for them to expand, then leave to rise for 1 hour, or until doubled in bulk. Now brush gently with the beaten egg yolks or if you want to sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds, brush first with the whole beaten egg (the seeds stick better if the white is there too). Bake in a preheated 350F (180C) oven for 30‑40 minutes or until the loaves are beautifully golden-brown. They are done if they sound hollow when you tap the bottoms.
Variations for Sweet Challahs:
Add 1/2 cup (125 ml) honey to the beaten eggs.
Add 3/4 cup (100 g) raisins and knead them into the dough after it has risen and been punched down.