A Portion of Challah for Every Parsha
Challah (Vanessa Harper)
What started as a one-time experiment to shape a challah to reflect the Torah portion about Noah has grown into a two-year project of creating thematic challot. Rising fourth year rabbinical student Vanessa Harper calls it “Lechlechallah,” punning on “Lech L’cha,” the Torah portion in which God instructs Abraham to venture to the unknown promised land.
Harper’s foray into crafting a stunning challah each week grew from her personal study. Each loaf brought a Torah passage into focus, along with Harper’s insights, occasional charges, and sometimes brief blessings. Though the challot have been eaten, her Instagram feed has each one captured.
She explained to me that “Bread is my interpretive medium; it offers opportunities to study Torah with my hands … It’s less about how it looks at the end and more about the process of doing it. It is good for my soul, too!” Challah making has become an important aspect of her sacred time.
To mark the agricultural aspects of the counting of the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, Harper crafted a challah loaf shaped as a sheaf of barley. Recognizing the lead up to the revelation of Torah and the complexities of covenant, she prompted her followers to consider, “What aspect of yourself do you wish to strengthen as we prepare to reaffirm our people’s covenant with God?”
For the Torah portion in which Moses ignores God’s commandment, hitting the rock to bring water to sustain the thirsty Hebrews in the desert (Parshat Chukat) rather than speaking to it, Harper teaches about anger. In this case she invokes the prophet Amos (5:24) who equates water with justice to encourage us to righteous indignation: “Let justice well up like water, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Harper renders the scribal shin, the shape of the first Hebrew letter of the emblematic Shema prayer as it appears in Torah scrolls for the Torah portion that contains the text, Vaetchanan. Since the Shema encapsulates the centrality of Judaism’s monotheism, she prods us to consider our life’s principles.
Challah (Vanessa Harper)
Last spring, I attended Harper’s class, “Challah Dough as an Interpretive Medium” to learn from her in person. She enthusiastically and very patiently guided participants through basic bread shapes using Play-Doh at first, followed by the trickier bread dough. Harper reminded us that “the beauty of working with challah as an interpretive medium is that you can build your midrash (interpretation of biblical passages) visually and flavorfully.”
For her, bread dough is a living substance, “a microcosm of life,” and working with it is “an act of co-creation, a balance between your imagination and the dough’s capabilities.” And, it yields Torah, too.
Although not a professional, Harper has been baking since childhood. Bread was not part of the repertoire, however. Only recently has Harper mastered these impressive bread skills. Her muse has taken her beyond the traditional seasonal challah expressions such as a round challah for the High Holidays.
Some of us may find the very thought of challah baking intimidating, as I did. Or, perhaps challah baking is part of your weekly routine. Whether midrashic interpretations through challah become your custom or not, Harper hopes that her “Lechlechallah” project will “inspire and empower others to take ownership of Jewish learning for themselves, in whatever way most speaks to them.” After all, as Pirkei Avot 3:17 notes, sustenance, flour, and bread are deeply kneaded together with Torah.
Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz lectures about chocolate and Judaism around the world based on 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. Most recently she has launched the #chocolatebabkaproject, an exploration of celebratory breads.
An earlier version of this piece originally appeared at Reformjudaism.org.