Although I no longer consider myself orthodox in the literal sense of the word, making challah at home is something I am choosing to do this week. Once upon a time when we lived in a place where kosher challah was not readily available, it was a job I happily took on every single week. Where we live now we can buy challah on every corner but this Shabbat is different.
Our family is traditional, we keep kosher at home but definitely don’t follow all of the mitzvot anymore. It doesn’t mean that we have chosen a G-dless existence, but that we have found the path that is right for us. Friday night is still full of blessings and song and our heritage is seen in every mezuzah on our doors and through the pictures on the walls. There are kippot everywhere but not always on our heads.
The Shabbat after Pesach has a widespread tradition where Ashkenazi women bake their challot in the shape of a key. Some people are even known to put an actual key inside the dough, though I personally wouldn’t recommend it. The belief behind the Shlissel Challah as it is known, is that we are symbolically opening the door for livelihood and good fortune.
There are a number of reasons given for Shlissel Challah, there are references in Shir Hashirim (traditionally read on Pesach) and even the fact that the Manna stopped falling on Pesach. Although it is an Ashkenazi custom, Sephardim also believe there is a connection between the end of Pesach and income. Sephardic communities have traditions such as Mimouna, that they carry out after Pesach as a sign that they want G-d to give them livelihood. In Syria and Turkey they put wheat kernels in all four corners of the house as a sign of prosperity for the coming year.
The other end of the scale, says that making our Challah in the shape of a key, or putting a key inside, or even sprinkling seeds on top in the shape of a key are all versions of Idol Worship. Are we expecting miracles from the Challah?
There is even an argument that the foundation of baking your bread in the shape of a key comes from Christian culture. One old Irish source tells how when a town was under attack, the men said that the women-folk should be instructed in the art of baking cakes containing keys.
In those days keys were traditionally made in the form of a cross, the symbol of Christianity. On Easter they would bake this symbol into or onto a rising loaf. This was not only a religious gesture, but the bread was a special holiday treat. Sometimes these breads were in the shape of a cross or alternatively the shape of a cross was made out of dough and applied on top. In the context of historically baking a key into bread – the key itself, was an intrinsic symbol of Christianity.
This tradition is found today in Jewish homes across a wide spectrum of observance. Amongst Chassidic, Modern Orthodox and even vaguely traditional families you will find people baking a Shlissel Challah in the hope of a good omen (a segula) for a year of healthy livelihood.
Currently living in Israel, my kids are in the regular school system and we no longer have to search for kosher food in the supermarket. They don’t have to look for the signs of their Judaism and in many ways that makes it harder. Our Jewish practice becomes a soft hum in the background, with the flags already up for Yom Haatzmaut and the pop songs with lyrics based on prayers playing on the radio.
Do I believe that baking a challah in the shape of a key will guarantee us a good financial year? I have to say that logically, that doesn’t speak to my intellect. Although I do believe in G-d, I also believe that we need to take responsibility for many outcomes in our lives including financial. We cannot expect to rub a rabbits paw and suddenly everything will be ok.
But in my heart, the opportunity to make challah with my children this Friday and talk about the days when we had to search for kosher food in a town with few Jews is priceless. As we don’t make challah at home very often, it will be exciting, fun, a family activity and most importantly, an experience when we remember that we are Jews above all else.
And that is why am I baking my Challah in the shape of a key this week.