Challah (hallah) (Hebrew:חלה) also known as khale (eastern Yiddish), barches (German and western Yiddish), berches (Swabian), barkis (Gothenburg), bergis (Stockholm), and kitke (South Africa), is a special braided bread eaten by Ashkenazi and by some groups of Sephardic Jews on the Sabbath and holidays.
According to Jewish tradition, Sabbath and holiday meals begin with a blessing over two loaves of bread. This "double loaf" (in Hebrew: lechem mishneh) commemorates the manna that fell from the heavens when the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years after the Exodus from Egypt. The manna did not fall on the Sabbath or holidays; instead, a double portion fell before the Sabbath and holidays. It is these loaves, recognizable by their traditional braided style, that are commonly referred to as challah.
Traditional challah recipes use a large number of eggs, white flour, and sugar. Modern recipes may use fewer eggs (there are also "eggless" versions) and replace white flour with whole wheat, oat, or spelt flour. Sometimes honey or molasses is substituted as a sweetener. The dough is rolled into rope-shaped pieces which are braided before baking. Poppy or sesame seeds are often sprinkled on the bread before baking; the seeds are said to symbolize the manna eaten by the Israelites during their 40-year sojourn in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. The dough is brushed with egg yolk before baking to add a golden sheen. Sometimes raisins are added. Challah is usually parve, unlike brioche and other enriched European breads, which contain butter or milk.
The term challah also refers to a small piece of dough that is traditionally separated from the rest of the dough before braiding. In biblical times, this portion of dough was set aside as a tithe for the Jewish priesthood, or kohanim (Numbers 15:17-21). In Hebrew, the ritual is called "hafrashat challah."
Today, this commandment applies more to professional bakers than the home cook, as it involves batches of challah using more than 2 kilos of flour.
The Bible does not specify how much dough is required for challah, but this issue is discussed in the Talmud. The rabbis said that 1 part in 24 was allocated to the priest in the case of private individuals, and 1 part in 48 in the case of a baker. If the baker forgets to set aside challah, it is permissible to set aside the same portion of bread.
According to the Talmud, the requirement to separate challah from the dough was imposed on the owner of the dough, not on the person who kneaded it; hence if the owner was not Jewish, even if the kneader was, hafrashat challah was not mandatory. The requirement did not apply to quantities of less than one omer in size, to bread prepared as animal feed; to dough prepared from a flour derived from anything other than wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye. Although the Biblical expression when you eat of the bread of the land might be understood as applying only to bread eaten in the Land of Israel, classical rabbinical sources argue that hafrashat challah should be observed in the Diaspora.
Since the destruction of the Temple, no one is considered ritually pure. The idea of "priestly descent" still exists, and the title of "cohen" is passed down from father to son, but there are no rites comparable to those practiced in the Temple. Hence the custom of separating "challah" is a symbolic act, with a blessing recited before the dough is separated and thrown into the fire or discarded.
Challah was a means of sustenance for the kohanim, who had no income of their own. This is a point upon which rabbinical sources and modern scholars agree. The Priestly Code, containing the law of challah, is believed by textual scholars to be a series of accretions to the earlier priestly source, and to postdate the law codes in the Torah, Thus the instruction concerning challah is believed to be a later development, perhaps reflecting the emergence of a full-time professional priesthood.
Other insights on the symbolism of challah appear in Midrashic and Kabbalistic literature. The mitzvah of separating challah is traditionally regarded as one of the three mitzvot performed especially by women (the others are lighting the Shabbat candles and family purity).
After kiddush over a cup of wine, the head of the household recites the blessing over bread: Replace "HaShem" and "Elokeinu" with the appropriate pronunciation. "Baruch atah HaShem, elokeinu melech ha'olam, hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz" (translation: "Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth").
Shabbat Challah rolls, known as a bilkele or bulkele or bilkel or bulkel (plural: bilkelekh; Yiddish: בילקעלע) is an Ashkenazi Jewish bread roll made with eggs, similar to a challah bun. It is often used as the bread for Shabbat meals or for meals during the festive Jewish holidays when a larger challah is not required or needed.
Mizrahi Jews have no tradition of using a braided loaf. Instead, the Middle Eastern Mizrahis use a flat bread resembling pitta. In some traditions twelve pitta breads are used, to represent the twelve loaves of showbread in the Temple. They are arranged in two layers in the formation :••:, with the central two breads of the upper layer used for the blessing. Mizrahis of Central Asian-Bukharian descent eat a bread called leeposhka.
For the Shabbat after Passover, some families have a tradition of baking "shlissel challah," with the impression of key on top or an actual key baked inside. This is supposed to be a segula for one's livelihood.
In a list of differences between the customs of Babylonia and Eretz Yisrael in Geonic times (8th-10th centuries CE), only one loaf was used in Eretz Yisrael as opposed to two in Babylonia. The Babylonian usage is the one that prevails today.