Jewish eating practice can serve a similar function. The way we eat, the foods we choose and the blessings that surround our meals can all be physical manifestations of the spiritual characteristics we value. For instance: Do we embrace kashrut (traditional dietary practices) to honor a dearly held, time-honored Jewish practice or to comply with Jewish law? Do we select foods that have been harvested by farm workers who are treated properly? Do we choose to eat in ways that respect the value of caring for our bodies?
This week, I am reminded that challah, one of our most popular Jewish foods, can also teach us about who we want to be. The mandate to "take challah" comes from this week's Torah portion, Shelach L'cha:
When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set aside some as a gift to God; as the first yield of your baking, you shall set aside a loaf (challah) as a gift....You shall make a gift to God from the first yield of your baking, throughout the ages." (Numbers 15:18-21)
In the Torah, challah refers to an offering to God set aside in gratitude for the yield of our grain harvest. Today when the loaves of challah we eat are prepared, many Traditional bakers take out a piece and burn it in memory of this offering. When we eat challah on Shabbat or holy days, we too can remember to exhibit this kind of gratitude for the gift of nourishment.
Moreover, Claudia Roden (author of The Book of Jewish Food) teaches us that the challah itself, its preparation and its design are rife with meaning. Many of us have heard that the two challot that grace our Shabbat tables are a direct reference to the double portion of manna God offered the Israelites while they were wandering in the wilderness. Two portions came on Friday so that Saturday, Shabbat, could be a true day of rest.
In addition, Roden writes: "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 10 commandments)... Sweet challahs with honey or raisins are baked during the festive season to bring joy and happiness."
Challah, like so many other elements of our Tradition, is much more than it appears to be. Reflecting on Roden's piece, the sweet scent may remind us of love, truth, justice and peace. As we braid the dough, we may reflect on past miracles and gain hope for the future. Pulling off a piece to eat, we might be inspired to reach higher than we have before and adding honey to our challah may make us think of the sweet joys life has offered us. However you enjoy your challah, may it help you enter this Shabbat with a renewed sense of the ideals you strive to uphold.