What’s Challah Doing on My Passover Matzah Carton?
It happened every Passover during my decades as a congregational rabbi. A curious small-print-reading synagogue member would ask why their recently purchased, certified for Passover matzah box said: “Challah Is Taken.”
Odd. Everyone knows (and many complain) that leavened foods such as Shabbat challah are prohibited during the festival. Exacting requirements to prevent fermentation–the growing of the grain, the time allowed for baking, the exposure to possible contaminants, the specialized tools–occupy and pre-occupy Jews around the world.
Even a name for the weeklong observance of Passover highlights matzah, the Festival of Matzah, Chag HaMatzot (Ex 34:18). So why is yeasty challah mentioned right there in caps, as if compounding the loss of our yeasty treats?
There are, of course, many explanations for avoiding leaven through the week of Passover and for the requirement of eating matzah at Seder meals. A popular explanation of the basic Hebrew root of the word matzah, which means compress or extract, suggests the quickened baking time as well as the hurried departure from Egypt of the ancient Hebrews (Exodus 12:17, 39; Deuteronomy 16:4).
This becomes the bread of affliction or poor bread lechem oni associated with the ancient Hebrew refugees and now with distressed people everywhere.
The Bible decrees a harsh punishment for eating leavened products during Passover, karet, total exclusion from the community. Some would argue that the threat of the community’s store of newly harvested grain through contact with leavening warranted such a response. Rabbinic interpretations associate leaven with pride and other evil inclinations of the heart.
It is also possible that the Jewish antipathy to leavening at Passover lies in the particular expertise of ancient Egyptians with leavened breads. Archaeological evidence of murals, molds, ovens, and remnants of actual breads illuminate such skills. Maybe that is why the baker is a focus of attention in the Joseph narratives. Jewish prohibitions against leavened breads pertained not just at Passover but in most cultic practices at the Jewish altar of the sanctuaries (desert Tabernacle and Jerusalem Temple).
The shewbreads that were prepared and displayed weekly at the altar and ultimately consumed by the ancient priests (kohanim) were also unleavened. This aversion to leaven may really be about pure allegiance to Jewish observance in contrast to Egypt’s pagan polytheism and enslavement of the ancient Hebrews. Thus, the ideal for Judaism became unleavened breads in the ancient sanctuaries and at Passover because Egypt excelled at leavened breads.
When the ancient Jewish Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the early rabbis sought to memorialize the priestly rituals through the requirement of hafrashat challah or separating challah dough. Based on biblical admonitions, a blessing for separating a bit of dough from a bread batch, whether leavened or not, recalls the sustenance for the priests and expresses mourning for the ancient Temple. Since the dough cannot be given to priests today, it is tossed into the oven for burning. And, this also applies to matzah dough, due to its grain and quantity in the batch. Thus “Challah Is Taken.”
In a broader sense, the phrase “Challah Is Taken” on a box of matzah recalls that not everything belongs to us. We are called upon by our history to provide for others. Of course, many adhere to this observance while others may prefer not to focus on the ancient priestly cult or the exacting details of the ritual or the gender specific obligation that falls to women to observe the mitzvah of “taking challah.” Therefore, consider some modifications of “hafrashat challah:”
Give a freshly baked loaf or rolls to homeless people if you live in an urban area or if your food pantry accepts home baked goods.
Break off pieces of the dough for children to design their own mini-challot.
Whether you create your own version of “taking challah” or you observe the tradition as is, you are sharing from your bounty, protesting the hard heartedness of all Pharoahs throughout time, and elevating bread making toward the sacred.
More challah tidbits:
- Biblical statements about “taking challah” from your dough as a gift to God appear in Numbers 15:17-21 and Numbers 18:11.
- The code of the Mishna (Shabbat 2:6) makes the mitzvah of “taking challah” incumbent on women.
- Batches of bread dough of at least 12 ¾ or 16 ½ cups of flour, depending on custom, require “taking challah” with a blessing. If you are baking between that and 8 ⅔ cups you “take challah” without a blessing. Less, no need to “take challah” at all.
- The first record of the word challah applied to leavened Sabbath bread comes from 1488 in Leket Yosher by Joseph ben Moses of Austria relating the customs of his teacher Israel Isserlein.
- Use of the word challah to refer to braided bread for Shabbat may be a pun on the German Holle bread, a 17th c. braided loaf.
- Rabbis of small towns in Lithuania sold yeast to supplement their incomes
- Sephardi custom does not require taking challah if the dough contains no eggs or sugar.
Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz lectures about chocolate and Judaism around the world based on stories from her book, “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao” (second edition, Jewish Lights) . She co-curated the exhibit “Semi[te] Sweet: On Jews and Chocolate” for Temple Emanu-El’s Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum, New York City, now available to travel to your community. She recently launched the #chocolatebabkaproject.
John Cooper, Eat and Be
Gil Marks, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food