Bakeries in various countries that have or had large Jewish communities make special breads that are called “challah” or something similar, and represent the kind of ceremonial bread that was called “challah” by the respective Jewish community – generally a braided, twisted bread, sometimes sweetened. Often “challah” is then translated or explained as simply a “braided bread”.
But the true meaning of the Hebrew word hallåh is quite far from “braided bread”.
The braided bread is actual made a hallåh by what it isn’t, what was taken from it.
The person making the bread, traditionally the mother of the household or a local baker, removes a symbolic portion of the dough while reciting a blessing, and then burns the dough that was removed in the fire. That symbolic piece of dough that was offered is actually the hallåh, and this ceremony is what gave its name colloquially to the bread that was then made from the dough, particularly for Shabbat and holidays. (The braiding isn’t essential to the hallåh, and is simply a tradition for preparing the bread for Shabbat. For the Rosh Ha-Shanah holiday, for instance, the hallåh bread is traditionally made as a round form, not necessarily braided. And two pitot or other bread loaves can be used instead for the Shabbat meal blessing, since kosher bakery bread is in any event made after separating and burning the symbolic piece of dough, the hallåh. Domestic daily bread-baking using a small quantity of dough is exempted from the requirement to separate and burn the hallåh.)
The origin of the ceremony is in the Torah itself (Bemidbar / Numbers 15:18-21), where bread that is made from the grain of the Land of Israel is subject to a donation of part of the dough to the Kohen priesthood, as an offering to the Creator. “[…] the first of your doughs, you shall contribute [as] a hallåh contribution, as the contribution of [the] threshing floor (ki-trumát góren כִּתְרוּמַת גֹּרֶן), so shall you contribute it from the first of your doughs, you shall give it to H’ as a contribution for [all] your generations.” (The small piece of dough burnt is no longer given to Kohanīm since there is no longer a functioning Temple in Jerusalem.)
A tradition preserved in Mishnah tractate Shabbat (2:6) attests to the ancient connection between hafrashat hallåh and preparations for Shabbat, and stressed the importance of carrying out this modest household offering for the mother of the household, warning that lack of observance in the matter was considered one of the reasons that women would die during childbirth.
The prophet Yehezqēl /Ezekiel had a more positive view (44:30), encouraging carrying out the ceremony and giving “the first of your doughs to the Kohen […] to place a blessing (lehaniah beråkhåh להניח ברכה) unto your home”. And indeed, women across the Jewish world kept the tradition alive over the generations with love and hope for their families, often using it as an occasion to make special prayers for a beråkhåh.
There have been rather crazy folk theories as to the linguistic origin of the hallåh, including even that it comes from the name of a Germanic grain goddess, mostly stemming from ignorance of the wider context and a focus on the braided bread loaf often carrying the name.
The Hebrew word hallåh is used in the Torah for both the dough offering to the Kohens, and for cakes or thick loaves used in offerings, whether leavened or unleavened, as seen in Vayiqra / Leviticus 2:4 and 7:12. But what does the word actually mean?
The ancient Semitic root of the word, h-l-l, covers a vast array of meaning, as seen in the Hebrew and Arabic words that derive from it. Ernest Klein believed the word hallåh to originally have meant a “perforated cake”, deriving from one meaning of the root “to perforate, pierce, wound”. But a more basic overall meaning of the root seems to be “to untie, undo, take apart”, as seen in Arabic. This is at the root of the Hebrew verb lehallēl (לחלל) as well, which means to profane or defile, separating the object from holiness or proper use.
In Arabic, one finds the opposite meaning, whereby something that is halāl (حلال) is “allowed” for consumption, or set aside for proper use. Whereas in Arabic someone who is halāl is of legitimate parentage, and is considered to be wholesome and of a good background, in Hebrew a nearly identical word, hålål (חלל), designates someone of illegitimate parentage, or specifically someone of Kohen descent who has been disqualified from the priesthood (profaned) due to illegitimate parentage (and also someone who has been wounded or fallen in battle, via the other meaning noted by Klein).
An object in Arabic can also be “occupied”, muhtall (محتلّ), “captured”, or “taken for use” by a group of people, using the same root. (The Israeli “Occupation” is referred to as the ihtilāl الإحتلال, which then does have a negative connotation – taken for use by someone else; Islamic conquests on the other hand are referred to in Arabic as futūhāt فتوحات , via the Semitic root f-t-h, meaning “to open” in both Hebrew and Arabic, and meaning that they are seen as “opening up” the lands conquered for one’s own use.)
Other important Arabic words based on the h-l-l root are hall (حَلّ), meaning “solution” (both to a problem, and physically with water), “analysis”, “breaking down”, or “dissolution” (of a parliament, for instance), and mahall (مَحَلّ), meaning “place” – again apparently relating originally to a place set aside in terms of ownership or use, perhaps similarly to the sense development of the English word “property”. This last word is most famous as the second element in the name of India’s iconic Taj Mahal, whose name means literally “Crown Place”, via Indo-European syntax (in actual Arabic this would be Mahall ut-Tāj مَحَلُّ التاَجِ, “Place of the Crown”).*
The Hebrew word hallåh (חַלָּה) then would seem to derive from the neutral or more positive way of seeing the verb, which became dominant in Arabic and less common in Hebrew, and refer to the action of taking apart the dough, and actively setting the hallåh apart for proper use by the Kohanīm (and perhaps more generally, to breaking a large amount of dough into smaller pieces to prepare the proper loaves or units).
You can see an Israeli housewife showing how she does hafrashat hallåh (“separation of the hallåh”) in this video, including a glimpse of some of her handwritten personal wishes and prayers. It also looks like a good hallåh recipe to try!