The key to future happiness may be inside your challah. Seriously, carb loaders beware, there could have been an extra ingredient in your bread last week.
For generations, on the first Shabbat after Passover, many Jewish bakers have traditionally placed keys inside their loaves. This practice of making shlissel challah (schlüssel is key in German) dates back hundreds of years, and while various explanations are offered as to why a baker would deposit metal into dough, one common understanding is that the act is considered a portent of prosperity, as the key symbolizes a mechanism for unlocking heaven’s gates and bringing future blessing, explained Chani Altein, co-director of Chabad of Squirrel Hill.
As a child, Altein was introduced to the shlissel challah practice from her mother. Since then, Altein has continued to not only make these special key challahs for the Shabbat after Passover, but host regular challah baking events throughout the year. Often joining Altein at the scheduled get-togethers is Sue Berman Kress, a challah baker and shaper whose talents were recently feted in the Great Temple Sinai Bake-Off (Berman Kress was one of eight bakers to compete in the March 26 event).
For the past several years, Berman Kress’ and Altein’s programs have followed a particular recipe: Berman Kress offers instruction on how to design a particular challah shape and Altein shares insights and ideas on the parsha or upcoming holiday. When mixed together, the two ingredients yield successful (and tasty) outcomes.
For Rosh Hashanah, Berman Kress and Altein collaborated on making round loaves, which symbolize the year’s circular nature. For Purim, they partnered on making loaves with chocolate chips tucked inside — the idea being that just like God is present in the Purim story but God’s name is absent from the Megillah, “you make a challah with something inside that you can’t see, that’s kind of a secret, that’s hidden,” said Berman Kress — and for Shavuot, they made flower-shaped breads to represent the springtime festival.
Whether it is making something special for Yom Kippur break fast or a turkey-shaped challah for Thanksgiving, a new twist on your bread baking can be really fun, explained Berman Kress.
Other benefits can rise from the experience as well.
Baking bread every week “is not really creative,” said Berman Kress. “But if you start learning different ways of making it or different ways of what you put in it, or what you put on it, or what shapes you braid” it can become a “creative outlet, it’s like a form of art.”
There can also be a sweet social element of making challah, noted Altein.
Twice a month, “I will invite one or two or three friends to come over and we have this nice couple of hours of bonding and catching up,” she said.
Berman Kress agreed and described the therapeutic advantages afforded.
“Kneading the dough, rolling it out, doing the shaping and then baking it and kind of seeing that outcome, it’s very zen, you know. There’s a start and a finish. The kneading and the rolling are very meditative,” she said.
Overall, it is a “fulfilling” activity, but of all the reasons to make challah “on the top of the list is it’s a really nice Jewish tradition and mitzvah,” added Berman Kress. “Some mitzvahs you do them because you are supposed to do them, or you do them because they’re the right thing to do but they’re hard or they are not convenient. … This is just a really joyous mitzvah where you get to produce something and then everybody else gets to eat it and enjoy it at the end of the mitzvah.”
When Berman Kress began baking challahs a decade ago, she did not anticipate crafting cornucopia bread (she made that for Thanksgivukkah), secret stuffed loaves or even breads baked to resemble keys (the latter is another means of creating a shlissel challah).
What got her into challah baking was the desire to “add a Jewish tradition into my world,” she said. “It’s a feel-good mitzvah: It smells good, it feels good to handle the dough, people enjoy eating it, and when you’re done making it, it’s sort of a gift that you give to your Shabbos table. It’s kind of an all good.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.