Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Best Thing Since Sliced Challah

Every week, when I bake my challah, my kitchen transforms into a spa. Well, a messy spa, but it becomes a glorious, therapeutic, tranquil place of calmness, lightly sprinkled with flour. And, if you listen closely, you can even hear a soft melody emanating from somewhere. I´m still not sure where it comes from, but I know I can count on it every week. 
The odd thing is, there are no flutes or violins when I bake a chocolate cake or when I roast potatoes. Only when I bake challah. 
Why? What is it about those fragrant loaves that cause that transformation?
Baking challah for Shabbos is an entirely different experience than just baking bread or roasting chicken. It is more than just a culinary or gastronomical pleasure- it´s spiritual. Shabbos is the day that connects our bodies and souls; bonding our physical and spiritual selves. And when baking challah with an understanding of that, the entire process becomes elevated and holy.

But holiness and spiritual pleasures aren´t gratis; they require us to actively create them within the physical world. 
And that is what the message of challah on Shabbos is all about.

From each batch of dough that we make, the Torah directs us to remove a small piece to set aside for God, and it refers to that act as the mitzvah of challah.

Why is this necessary? Why can't I have my whole bread for myself? And why am I specifically offering up dough and not, say, chocolate? If I were God, I´d definitely prefer that you give me chocolate.

Contrary to common belief, the word challah does not actually mean bread. Nor does it mean dough.  The root of the word challah is Chol, which means ´ordinary´, or ´regular´.

When the original sin took place in the world, it caused a lot more damage to humanity than just initiating the concept of clothing. 
Oh, wait. Is wearing clothing a bad thing? After Adam and Chava sinned, they went from a state of nudity, to a state of modesty. Between you and me, I´m kinda happy about that, especially after having gone through multiple pregnancies and births...

But, the concept goes much deeper than that. 
The reason they were unclothed in the first place, was because they were living in such a refined state that they recognized each other as spiritual beings, without even taking notice of the physical. 
By Chava convincing Adam to eat from the forbidden tree, and by him listening, thereby going against the Divine will, they lowered the spiritual level in the world, bringing humans to become more involved with the external than with the internal.

So, suddenly, there they were- barefoot and naked, and felt an abrupt need to cover up their bodies.

Human being, though created last chronologically, is the epitome of creation. There is no creation in the universe with greater understanding, expression, or any type of potential than a human being.

A person can reasonably live on bread and water alone. Bread is the epitome, the choicest of nourishment. Therefore, when the choicest of creation sins, and wants to find a way to correct the sin, the two must connect in some way.

Contrary to all the beautiful, romantic paintings of the first man and woman, and all the story books from that time period where we´re shown a man and woman in need of a body sculpting class, with overgrown hair and long noses, wrapped up in leaves and delicately biting into an apple, the gemora explains that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, was actually not an apple, but a grain of wheat!

So the way to perfect the wrongdoing of the epitome of mankind is through the epitome of mankind´s sustenance. Through bread.

Making and baking the challah is a mitzvah specifically for women, since woman is the one who takes the blame for enticing her husband to taste from the tree (insert chauvinist jokes here), and therefore the correction of the wrong must come from her. By perfecting the fault, every week, woman is refining the world and bringing blessing and goodness into it through this mitzvah.

 The point of removing a piece of dough and separating it as something holy by using it as a sacrifice to God, is to teach us that everything in the physical world is created for our benefit and for our pleasure.

Not to take advantage of the beauty in life goes against the Torah philosophy. 
But, beauty for the sake of beauty, or pleasure for the sake of pleasure, does not have long lasting benefits. The enjoyment is fleeting. The only way to have true happiness through the physical is by turning it into something holy, something real. Taking something that´s Chol, ordinary, and making it great.

 Taking the most basic piece of physicality, bread, but using it to connect to God, is a metaphor for all the other areas in our lives where we can turn some of our habits into ones which can be more spiritually focused.

 When we recite the bracha and remove the piece of challah, we experience a special moment of connection with God, and it´s at that moment that many women choose to pray to Him. But really, the entire process of challah baking is one in which we can be praying to God for the well-being of our families. I´m going to share with you the concentration I have and the things I pray for while pouring each ingredient into the bowl.

There are seven basic ingredients in challah. We´ll discuss the significance of that soon. Below is a very basic outline of my tefillos, purposely leaving it open and broad to allow anyone reading this to interpret them and integrate them in their own personal way.

Flour. Flour needs to be sifted since it may contain insect eggs or wood. We do that to keep the good and sift out the bad.

I ask God to please keep all the goodness in my life, and sift out the bad. Any negative influences- both internal and external, any toxic people or situations should be removed from my life so that I can fully experience the goodness.

Salt. This is something extra that we add to food in order to enhance the flavor. It´s not a necessity, but a luxury. Also, salt needs to be balanced out perfectly, within proper boundaries.

I ask God to please provide me with not only necessities in my life, but luxuries, too. Small things, details, that can add extra special flavor to my life.

I also pray that everything I do should have the proper balance. Like with chessed, and other mitzvos, I should have the clarity to be able to do them with proper boundaries; on God´s terms, and not on my own.

Eggs. These are what hold the dough together. They stabilize a dough. Or a cake. Eggs are also very versatile. You can cook or bake them in so many different and creative ways. They´re flexible and adjust easily.

I ask God to please bless me with stability, creativity and flexibility in my life.

Yeast. This is what causes the dough to elevate, and to expand.

I ask God to elevate my soul, and to allow me to make mature decisions. I also ask for expanded consciousness, to be able to focus on the big picture in life, and to save me from falling into retracted consciousness, closed-mindedness, which leads to negativity and depression.

Oil. When pouring into any other liquid, it always rises to the top. It separates and goes up. It never mixes with other liquids.

I ask God that I should be successful in everything I do, and rise to the top. That I shouldn´t settle for mediocrity. I ask Him to give me the motivation and inspiration to be all that I can be. And, that I should keep challenging myself in healthy ways to step out of my comfort zone in order to get the most pleasure out of life by reaching those highest possible heights.

I also ask that I should have the confidence to stand up for my beliefs, to live with my convictions, without falling down into societal pressure. 

Sugar. This is an ingredient that is there for one purpose only: To sweeten our food. To make it tempting and cause us to desire it.

I ask God to make my life a sweet one, and to always give me reason to desire it and live it. And, that I should have the emotional health to recognize its sweetness and be grateful for it.

I also pray that I should have the confidence and self esteem needed to always recognize the sweetness in other people and be able to judge them favorably and love them unconditionally.

Water. Water is what turns the lump of ingredients into a dough.

I ask God to always give me the strength to take all the little ¨lumps¨ in my life and to turn them into something substantial.

To allow me to take all the unwanted or painful circumstances in my life and to teach me how to make them positive. To improve that which I cannot remove.

Each ingredient must be measured proportionately to each other, or else the product won´t have a successful result. This is also the balance in life; whether in working on self awareness, personal growth, working on a marriage, raising children...We need to have an even balance of every aspect of ourselves or of the person in it. 
We must evenly weigh the physical state, emotional state, intellectual state, spiritual state, financial state, situational state, and mental capacity. Seven different aspects of a person, understanding how much salt they need, how much sugar, when they can be an egg, when they need to sift their flour...etc...

The seven aspects defining a human being are not the only time we see the number seven here.

The challah that we bake is generally to be eaten on Shabbos. It´s very significant and relevant that Shabbos is the seventh day of the week, because according to kabbala the number seven represents physical completion, symbolized by the completion of the physical world on the seventh day. There are many customs that we carry out on Shabbos connected to the number seven. I thought of these one day while trying to figure out what the word ´cholent´ means.

I know. Don´t even ask.

On Shabbos, before even making kiddush, after inviting God and the angels to come sit with us, we start off the Shabbos meal with the song of Eishes Chayil. This beautiful poem about the value and valor of a Jewish woman was written by Shlomo Hamelech, whose name means Shalem= completion. He wrote it for his mother, whose name was Bat-sheva= the daughter of seven. And the poem itself is written in order of the Hebrew alphabet, using every single letter, making the poem all-encompassing, covering every aspect of life, showing the completion of the potential of the woman.

Let´s continue with some of the mitzvos of Shabbos and their gematrias , and we will use gematria ketana, which is when we add up the sum to get to its final, single numerical value.

נר= 50+ 200=250=7 

יין= 10+10+50=70=7




The mitzvos of Shabbos- candles, wine, challah, fish, and meat, all equal the number seven.

I noticed that there are also seven main ingredients in cholent! (which by the way, actually comes from the word ´nonchalant´. I told you not to ask.)

Onion, potato, beans, barley, meat, water and salt. 

Anything else you add in is extra, according to your taste. 

This, of course, brings us back to the seven ingredients in challah and the reason we eat it on Shabbos. 

Shabbos is the holiest day of the week. So, it seems strange that for a day so spiritual and sanctified, we put so much emphasis on the physical. 

For example, the very first thing we do is drink a cup of wine. Wine is as physical a thing that exists! The gemora warns us to stay away from wine because it leads to sin! But yet, we start off the holiest day of the week with it?

And then we have the food. THE FOOD! We cook the most luxurious, tantalizing dishes, spending more money and time on them than on any weekday, then serve it in ginormous quantities, in a minimum of three courses.

And then...there's the clothing. And shoes. And shabbos wigs. Expensive and gorgeous, impeccable and immaculate. 

Then of course, we take a leisurely Shabbos nap...or two...which of course makes sense, since the gematria of ענג is we naturally need that extra nap...´cuz מנוחה equals it takes two naps to reach seven :)

So, isn't it contradictory to spend the most spiritual day of the week so completely absorbed in materialism?

No. Because there is no contradiction between the physical and spiritual. They go hand in hand. Our job is to take the physical, elevate it with a spiritual action, and then enjoy every piece of it. 

And that's why, even though we start off Shabbos with a cup of wine, first we make kiddush on it. We are mekadesh it. We make it holy. 

And that´s exactly what we´re doing by the mitzva of Hafrashas Challah.

May we indeed be worthy of refining the world through our mitzvah of challah. We, the women, are the ones who knead this mundane, physical dough, but while doing so we elevate it, thereby combining the physical and spiritual worlds.