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The feminine pull to challah bakes

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ELIANA CLINE

Wedged in between women I have never met, I feel completely at home. The walls between us crumble as my hands mix the sticky dough and I am transported back to generations of women before me.

I was taken back to a time, long before ready-made stoneground rye challah and sugar-free challah and pesto-flavoured challah, could be bought in every supermarket.  

In the sophisticated world we occupy, our lives as women bear little similarity to the women who came before us. We juggle demanding professions with even more demanding mothering; both of which present challenges never experienced in bygone centuries. Our lives are fast and frenzied and convenience is king.

The modern setting of this recent challah bake gathering would be unrecognisable to our great-grandmothers. But the actions are identical. Mix flour and water and yeast. Knead. Knead. Punch. Knead.

If I close my eyes, I can imagine myself in a tiny kitchen in the shtetls of Europe. Knead, punch, poke. Is it dry? Add a bit of water. Like all things of value, you cannot rush making challah; the yeast needs time to make the dough rise.

A solemn quiet descends the animated room. The blessing over separating challah is recited, and a fervent amen is recited. Our eyes close in intense prayers, asking for G-d to grant healing, health and salvation for fellow Jews in need.

 

The mitzvah of challah

 

The commandment to separate challah, is one of the three uniquely feminine commandments; alongside Shabbat candles and the laws of family purity. While the commandment of separating challah applies to every Jew – man or woman –  this has been one of the special mitzvot entrusted to Jewish women.

When a person makes dough of 2,25 kilograms of flour or more, the obligation to separate off a piece of dough with a blessing comes into effect. Once the dough is ready, the blessing is recited and a small portion of the dough is separated and discarded. 

The power of the group 

Separating challah is a powerful act. This is a sacred time, where a woman can offer her prayers for herself, her family or anyone else she may have in mind.

A widespread custom is for 40 women to do the mitzvah of challah on the same day, all having in mind a particular person (people) in need of blessings for health, fertility and well-being. Interestingly enough, traditional sources do not site this now-popular custom.

In recent years, the popularity of challah bakes – groups of 40 or more women gathering together to perform the commandment of separating challah – have exploded.

Performing this timeless activity, provides women with a connection to our past, and a connection to each other in a fragmented world. It’s this search for deeper connection that draws women globally.

“It was very moving to see all Jewish women unite as one, doing a mitzvah on behalf of another person. It’s very inspiring,” says Tammy K.

“There is a tremendous sense of unity and energy when women come together to make challah. I love the fact that no matter what our backgrounds, we all share a common goal, whether it be to daven for a sick person or to celebrate a simcha.

“For me it’s also a time to reflect, to express gratitude and to ask myself what area in my life can I improve on. It is my special time with Hashem,”  says Bernice.

“I think they are amazing! They are so powerful and uplifting. You would not think that most of the women there are strangers to each other. There is such a sense of unity and togetherness. Such an incredible spiritual experience,” says Debbie G.

“It’s empowering and uplifting praying together and performing the mitzvah together,” says Jodi S.

“My mom and I went to a challah bake about five years ago and we try to bake together most weeks. As a result, we try to go to as many challah bakes as possible. It’s really a special and bonding experience for mother and daughter and for the community at large,” says Amy S.

Our sages teach that the commandment of separating challah reflects a woman’s ability to transform the mundane into meaningful; the material into spiritual. From participants’ reflection, it’s clear that challah bakes offer a meaningful experience with a long-lasting impact on all who attend.

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