The Multiple Significances of Challah: a Historical and Religious Analysis

My family has a weekly bread tradition, honed through the years: we buy a challah, sweet and fresh, from Zaro’s bakery in Grand Central Terminal. The practice of consuming challah on the Jewish sabbath is braided, for most American Jews, with several strands of heritage: the biblical significance, the history of the bread itself, and the uniquely American way in which challah bread connects us weekly with our roots. Each of these aspects contribute to the continuing significance of challah. Unsurprisingly, the stories behind them are representative of the Jewish experience. Few breads are as meaningful in design and tradition as challah.

Challah itself is not originally a Jewish bread. The sweet, braided loaf seen all over New York City on Friday evenings was original called barches (some recipes still refer to it as such).  Barches were Medieval Germanic breads, which were used by German Christians as their own sabbath bread. According to Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg in “Inside the Jewish Bakery”, “Jews in places like Nuremberg, Regensburg, Rothenberg, and Speyer” adopted challah as their own in the early 1500s. Thus, the custom of using challah as a Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) bread became engrained in traditional Yiddishkeit (Jewish life).

Traditional barches were made, like all breads pre-1850, with a natural starter. Barches, and later challah, were always made with a finer flour than everyday bread. Most breads before industrialization were baked with whole grains, since refining flour was very expensive, time-consuming, and wasteful. But the sabbath warranted a sweet, white, airy bread no matter the cost.

But why did the Jews of Medieval Europe need a bread for their sabbath? The answer lies in the Torah. A passage from Numbers states: “Of the first of your dough you shall lift up a cake as an offering” (The Hebrew word for “cake” is challah). Many Observant Jews take a small piece of their challah dough and burn it on Fridays, representing the traditional burnt offering. Other biblical elements still govern the traditions of challah. Two challot are served on Friday evenings, representing the double portion of manna that would fall to the Israelites in the desert (this also explains the use of honey in the loaves). The two loaves are braided with six strands each; the twelve strands represent the tribes of Israel. In addition, challah is baked without the addition of dairy, unlike the original Germanic breads, so that it can be served with meat and still be kosher.

Mass migrations of Jews to the New World from 1850 through 1930 forced the traditions, techniques, and even recipes of challah to change. Challah could no longer be baked at home. The women who would bake challah in the shtetls now worked long hours for meagre pay. They didn’t have hours to knead and braid loaves. So by necessity, challah was baked in bakeries. In America, eggs were cheap, and bakeries used lots of them to bake challah. In fact, many Jewish bakeries in New York City used only eggs yolks to produce a sweet, rich bread. Other changes were made due to the excesses of America. White cane sugar replaced honey. Soft, fine, white wheat flour replaced the coarser wheat, rye, and barley of Europe. Fast-acting and less-acidic tasting commercial yeast replaced the sourdough starter. And since sweet, rich, Russian-style challah was most popular variety of the bread, many bakeries baked it exclusively. Other immigrant groups which settled in America around the same time period experienced a similar watering down and homogenization of their culture, and in particular of their food. The fine ragus of Italy, for example, became spaghetti and meatballs. The bakery challah was the Americanized version of the traditional European Jewish sabbath bread.

A kosher bakery on the Lwer East Side
A kosher bakery on the Lwer East Side

That doesn’t mean that it’s any less deserving of either consumption or historical analysis: the bakery challah summons nostalgic feelings for generations of American Jews. “Inside the Jewish Bakery” includes five different recipes for challot, including traditional sourdough barches, and American bakery challot. Pick one and try it. You don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy a bread rich in history.

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I baked the “Rich Sourdough Barches” from “Inside the Jewish Bakery” by Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg. Here’s the recipe:

Rich Sourdough Barches – Corrected
Volume, Ingredient, Ounces, Grams
1 2/3 cups Bread Flour, unsifted 8.2 230
1 cup Water 8.2 230
4 Tbs Sourdough starter 2.0 60
5 cups Bread Flour, unsifted 25.0 710
2¼ cups Sourdough starter 18.0 510
¾ cup Water 6.0 170                                                                                                                                                              ¾ cup +1Tbs Egg, large 6.8 195
3¼ tsp Table salt 0.7 20
4¾ tsp Granulated sugar 0.7 20
2 tsp Instant yeast 0.3 10
1/3 cup Vegetable oil 90
1.00 Egg, large 1.75 50

Combine 6 ounces of bread flour, 6 of water, and the sourdough starter in a medium bowl. Cover and let ferment at room temperature overnight until puffed and bubbly.

Combine remaining flour, salt, sugar, and yeast in a mixing bowl. Add the pre-fermented starter, eggs and vegetable oil. Mix for about 2 minutes, until a dough comes together.

Knead in a mixer with a dough hook for 10 minutes, until a smooth, glossy ball forms. Alternatively, knead by hand for 12-14 minutes.

Roll into a ball, and place in a greased bowl. Cover and allow to ferment until doubled, about 1 hour. Place into the refridgerator for 8-12 hours.

Divide the dough into as many pieces as you need for braiding. I make a large braid with 2/3 of the dough, a small braid with 1/3, and then place the small braid on top of the large, forming a more elaborate design.

Put the loaf on parchment, and proof for 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat your oven with a baking stone to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Brush loaf with a beaten egg, and slide onto the stone. It should take about 1 hour for the loaf to become golden brown.

Cool on a wire rack for 1 hour, then slice and enjoy.

2 thoughts on “The Multiple Significances of Challah: a Historical and Religious Analysis

  1. Fascinating. I have never made a challah, and suspect I never will! The best I ever tasted is from a kosher food store near us, on 72nd St. — Fischer Bros. & Leslie. The challah comes in the form of raw, frozen dough. You defrost it, let it rise at room temp, then bake (the process takes several hours). It is extraordinarily good — crispy crust, pillowy interior. Must get one for you. By the way, did you know that on holidays, challahs have to be round? Symbolic of the life cycle, I think, but there are probably more explanations. In Judaisim, there always are! Do you leave tomorrow? Have a great summer, and let me know if you hear from the agent. Love, Joyce

    Sent from my iPad



  2. I’ve made many challahs over the years – some with eggs, some without, some with honey, rye flour, sourdough, etc.

    I;m a bit confuse here – are there two different versions of this recipe – one without eggs or are the bread flour and sourdough starter added twice. You also add yeast – the sourdough breads I’ve made used the starter instead of yeast.


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