Hafrashat Challah, a woman’s Mitzvah, and learning by watching — a Shelach Dvar Torah

As we get older, every once in a while we are reminded of things that gave us guidance and ultimately wisdom. They are examples from our youth that helped mold us into someone better than what would have been, could have been, were we not witness to a few simple acts.

In this week’s Parshat Shelach, the Torah portion of Shelach, it says, “Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them, When you arrive in the land to which I am bringing you, and it shall be when you eat from the bread of the land, you shall set aside a gift for the Lord… From the first portion of your dough you shall give unto the Lord a portion for a gift throughout your generations.” (Numbers, 15:18-21)

The preeminent Jewish medieval commentator, Rashi, explains that the word used for “arrival” with this Mitzvah, commandment, of Hafrashat Challah, setting aside or separating away a portion of dough when making Challah, is different than other similar words for other obligations upon the people’s arrival to the Land of Israel. Why? Those commandments were not to be observed until all was settled. Hafrashat Challah was to be performed as soon as one bakes bread – a representation of sustenance and well-being – in the new land.

During the time of the Temple in Israel, the separated piece was made into a loaf and given to the Kohanim, the Priests, who were busy with public service Temple duty. After the Second Temple was destroyed, the Rabbis declared the commandment continue to be performed, even outside Israel, so that it would not be forgotten, but a small piece is symbolically separated out. Because this small piece of Challah is holy – in fact a blessing is recited, it is not simply tossed out, it is burned.

According to our Rabbis, Hafrashat Challah is one of a few commandments uniquely given to women.

Now cooking and baking can be done, and are done, by men and women, of course, and I remember when I was younger both my parents, of blessed memory, took on kitchen cooking duty. Baking, however, was my mother’s expertise, her chocolate and cinnamon cakes and rugelach well-renowned throughout the community. So when it came to anything with dough, my father wisely stayed out of the way.

I can still see my mother, an Auschwitz survivor, making Challah on Erev Shabbat, Friday afternoon before the Sabbath, and before holidays, and I remember her taking away a small piece, wrapping it in aluminum foil, and placing it in the oven to burn up.

My very busy mother could have bought the Challot (plural for Challah) she needed from the bakery, but she didn’t. Was it because she wanted our family and friends to taste homemade fresh Challah? I am sure that was part of it.

Was it also because our Rabbis have told us, even though it is certainly acceptable for people, especially when they are busy, to purchase Challot, that it is praiseworthy to personally make Challot? I am sure that was part of it as well.

Could it also have been because she wanted to do what it took to perform the Mitzvah of Hafrashat Challah, the commandment that was given to her, the commandment that represented her own very personal way of providing Shabbat and holiday sustenance, and even more to her family? After all, the Rabbis do point out what it says in Yechezkal, Ezekiel 40:30, “… the first out of your kneading-troughs shall you give to the priest, to bring enduring blessing into your home.” Was it this too?

I think it was all of the above. It was a combination Mitzvah. And I believe my sisters feel the same way as they carry on the tradition.

One of the benefits I have had of going to my Bar and Bat Mitzvah students’ homes on a Friday afternoon for many years for a lesson was seeing (and smelling) food that was being made for Shabbat. And sometimes, when I walked into the kitchen to tell the mom about how her child was doing, I could not help but see one freshly baked Challah after another neatly organized on the kitchen counter, like Shabbat soldiers awaiting their holy mission.

To this day, the memories return. The legendary Jewish supermom, the “Woman of Valor” – as King Solomon called her (Proverbs, 31:10), the anchor of the home in homes worldwide, who somehow keeps it all together, juggles the kids and the commitments to lovingly add into an impossible schedule the additional task of making dough and kneading dough and baking dough, and yes, doing that simple act of removing a small piece of Challah in performance of a biblical precept.

I have always been in awe of the supermom who seems in constant dizzying motion trying to get it all done, inside and outside the home, in a week that races by in a whirl, before everything that is more than just family stops and the welcome day of rest begins at evening. And as Shabbat approaches, many of these tireless heroines fit in one more thing, making fresh Challah, and doing one more Mitzvah, Hafrashat Challah.

I learned long ago from my mother what the desire to do a simple act for her favorite day of the week could generate – the effort to do that much more, to make things just a little more special, making things a lot more special. What a wonderful lesson!

I can’t say I know what goes on in the minds of those who zip around the kitchen creating and checking each Shabbat meal ingredient, stirring and tasting and adding the finishing touches until all is finally done. But I think I can guess.

As the children watch, the supermom, hands on her hips, a bit of flour over her brow where she had earlier brushed aside a wisp of her hair, looks down at the warm Challot, and takes a moment, but no longer than that, mind you – there just isn’t enough time, to take well-deserved satisfaction in making Shabbat that much more special for her family. And for bringing lasting blessing to her home.

This oh so very brief moment, frozen for all time into a child’s memory, will be repeated again and again, before every Shabbat and holiday for as long as the woman of valor can raise her hands. Her children will one day understand what they have learned and marvel at the effort made and that simple accompanying act. And those to whom the Mitzvah belongs will from one generation to the next do what their mothers did.

“Emah! I can’t find my Shabbat shoes!”

Yes, for a very brief moment.

Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
Shia Altman who hails from Baltimore, MD, now lives in Los Angeles. His Jewish studies, aerospace, and business and marketing background includes a BA from the University of Maryland and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. When not dabbling in Internet Marketing, Shia tutors Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and Judaic and Biblical Studies to both young and old.
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