On Challah

Two non-identical Challah

by Tanya Tolchin

Most Fridays, I bake two loaves of challah for Shabbat dinner.  Sometimes I have no other plans for dinner beyond the challah, and we need to scramble to add something to complete the meal. I use a standard recipe, which varies based on how much whole wheat flour I add, whether there are raisins on hand, how much time there is for rising, and the temperature and humidity of the kitchen.  They come out differently each week and even between the two loaves on the same week there is often variation, one dough compliant and neatly braided, the second straining against the twists and curves.

These days I bake with my three year old son, my daughter watching from her high chair or toddling around the kitchen floor.  My son loves the routine. He knows all of the ingredients and can turn on the mixer, add ingredients and even (in recent news) break the eggs.  He can sense when more flour is needed and when the dough is the right consistency to be left alone to rise.

Jewish men have 613 commandments to keep and Jewish women have only three. One of the three is baking challah or more specifically separating the dough. According to tradition, I take off a piece of dough before braiding and declare “this is Challah” and add a less traditional dramatic hand movement for the audience of my children.  As I understand, it is the moment that the intention for the dough is declared that the dough actually becomes challah.  Before that, it could be on its way to becoming a bagel, or roll, or pita or whatever.   The actual blessing, which I say occasionally, is only required if you are making many loaves.

This is where I get a little stuck. I have read you are supposed to burn the offering in the oven, but it seems a bit wasteful to begin preheating so far in advance, and in my experience it takes a long time for it to actually burn instead of brown.   I sometimes burn the symbolic piece and sometimes toss it directly into the compost. Unless I am completely distracted I always set it aside before baking.

At this point I veer entirely from tradition.  I take a second piece of dough out for my son to play with.  He loves this part and the dough can keep him occupied at the table for a long time.  I remember a teacher once telling me that if you want to calm down children, give them dough or clay.  Recently while watching him engrossed in playing with the dough, I thought that I  would like to add a new brucha to my challah tradition – one that expresses gratitude for the blessing that children learn through play.   How truly awesome that it is through joyful, giggly and focused play that children engage in the world and learn.

So my Hebrew isn’t great (maybe clita aleph plus on a good day).  I could use a hand with the blessing something along the lines of,  “Thank You G-d,  for creating a world where children learn through joy and play.”  Anyone out there who can help me craft this brucha, any parents out there who will join me in saying it?


  1. Right on, Tanya! An even more radical and yet less wasteful twist I hadn’t considered before: what if “challah is taken” and given directly to the kid/s (who have ‘energy to burn’), then composted when done? Jewish ritual meets parental ritual meets a strict standard of ‘bal tashchit’ (the mitzvah of not wasting — though of course traditional folks who burn their pinch of challah are still putting it to spiritual use)…

    Anyway, two possibilities (in transliteration) for ““Thank You G-d, for creating a world where children learn through joy and play.”” The first is pretty literal: Modim anakhu lakh, boreh olam k’sh’yeladim lomdim derekh gila u’miskhak.”

    Or, redoing the English slightly to pick up on more Hebrew subtleties from liturgy and scripture: Modim anakhu lakh, sh’ata hu lifnei amarnu ‘na’aseh v’shishma’, boreh olam maleh limud derekh gila rina achva u’miskhak (lit: “We are grateful to You, the One before Whom we once said ‘we will do and [then] we will hear/understand’ (Ex 24:7), Creator of a world filled with learning through joy, gladness, togetherness, and play.”)

    Many blessings with your blessings!

  2. I cannot speak or understand Hebrew, but I hear a beautiful language. I think of Fiddler on the roof, to life, La chaim – when I look at our Chaim Soutine rose. Growing up in South Africa, to me these plaited loaves are challah, but to my Swiss mother-in-law they were Zopf, out of her tradition. I much enjoyed listening to your sung blessing on an earlier post!

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