Torah Musings: The Truth about Challah


Sara Pachter

Each week, I look forward to spending Shabbat with my family and friends. One of my favorite parts of the Shabbat preparations is making challah.

Truth be told, I have never tasted my challah. At the age of 18, I discovered that I have a gluten allergy.

I am reminded of one positive aspect of this allergy every year at Passover. During the holiday, we embark on a week-long marathon of not eating bread. For most Jews, Passover feels like “bread restriction.” But for me, with my allergy, Passover is an eating fest! All doors open wide for me as most menu items at restaurants in business for the holiday are gluten-free.

However, for the most part, being gluten-free is challenging. Week after week, people ask me why I go through the trouble of making challah that I cannot even enjoy. I always give them my standard answer: “I like doing the mitzvah of hafrashat challah – separating the dough before baking.”

Contrary to popular belief, the term challah does not refer to the actual loaves of bread but rather to the act of separating a portion of the dough. While nowadays we simply separate the dough and burn it (or dispose of it in a dignified fashion under the guidance of a rabbi), during the Temple period, this dough would have been given to Kohanim (members of the priestly family).

I did not fully understand the depth behind the mitzvah…until I did some research.

Unbeknownst to me, this mitzvah is quintessential to Judaism at large. Not only is it one of the three main mitzvot given to women, but the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 15) teaches us that challah is one of the three things for which G-d created the world. Many mitzvot are derived from one word or even one letter in the Torah. Yet, this mitzvah has five whole sentences devoted to it (Parshat Shelach 15: 17-21)! What makes challah so important in Hashem’s eyes?

Bread is a staple food, and therefore represents our sustenance. In our society, money truly controls much of our actions. People are are willing to work long, hard hours, even overtime, for money. As a nation, we are willing to trade just about anything for pieces of paper. Initially, in the 1800s, U.S. money was backed by gold and silver. However, that is no longer the case. Money today is merely pieces of paper, or plastic, even numbers on a screen transferring from one account to another.

In truth, money is powerful and valuable because it represents potential. And the secret to tapping into our potential can be found in the mitzvah of hafrashat challah. G-d does not tell us to set aside half of the dough, or even a quarter – just a small piece, about the size of a ping-pong ball. It is noteworthy to point out that it is only a tiny quantity. Who we are, and who we become, is not made by the huge decisions in our lives. It is rather, the small decisions that are truly impactful and lasting.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller discusses this very point. During World War II, Jews would knock on the home of a gentile begging to hide them and their family. The gentile would open the door, see a trembling Jewish family before them, and had moments to decide whether or not to take them in.

That enormous decision was not made right then on the spot, but rather years prior. Every time that gentile gave their seat to a pregnant woman, or smiled at a stranger, they strengthened their overall trait of kindness. All of these acts flexed and built their spiritual kindness muscles. It is no wonder that when the time came for them to take in a Jewish family knocking on their door, that they did not vacillate at all.

After the war, these righteous gentiles were interviewed. People asked them, “How did you gather the strength to hide these Jewish families?”

They replied as though the answer was clear, easy, and obvious. “How could we not?”

The BIG decision was formed by their lifelong smaller decisions, creating the type of person who could say yes to such a request.

So, too, we all slowly transform through the choices we make in our daily lives. One can not go to the gym and pick up 100 lbs to begin bench-pressing with ease. Rather, the ability to become strong is a process. It comes from the numerous times you pick up smaller increments of weight. And only after mastering 1 lb, 2 lb, and 5 lbs, does the body become strong enough to pick up 100 lbs.

Who we are today and who we become tomorrow is determined by the small choices that we make. The world was created for this tiny piece of challah precisely because the whole world was created for us to reach our potential. Challah shows us how. It is not about being big. It is about making the right decisions when it comes to the small choices. It is when you have a choice to give a small amount of tzedaka. Or to pick up litter on the ground. Or to stand up for the elderly. It is not something you will even notice, but week after week of elevating something small in ourselves, we become the type of person we always wanted to be.

Practically speaking, why do these tiny, incremental changes work?

In 1948, during the war between Israel and Egypt, almost every plane that entered into Egyptian territory was shot down. On an emergency mission, Rabbi Shmuelevitz flew there and back despite the danger involved. After buckling up, he peered through the window as they took off. He realized they were flying through the air only 50 feet above ground level! This height is precisely what enabled them to land safely. This plane travelled below the radar screen, and therefore went undetected over Egyptian soil.

The radar system is exactly how the yetzer hara tries to stop us from soaring spiritually. We all have a yetzer hara and it is his job to prevent us from succeeding. If we take a small step, the yetzer hara does not even view it as a threat because it doesn’t register on his “radar screen.” With baby steps you can still fly spiritually. You will simply fly undetected!

When we try to take too much upon ourselves, the yetzer hara intervenes, and we can end up crashing. The small choices we take go unnoticed both by the yetzer hara and ourselves. Only when we look back do we realize how far we have flown.

Move in small steps. That is the key to big spiritual and physical success!