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Knowing What Comes First

Knowing What Comes First

Lessons from Challah

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As far back as I can remember, my mother always wrote lists. She was organized and believed that the surest way to get to things done was by approaching them clearly and systematically. I think this habitual tendency was rooted deeply within her personality, coming from her ingrained sense of priorities. She was a mother who never lost focus of her purpose and mission in this world. Order was a natural result of knowing what was most important, what needed to be dealt with first, second and so forth.

Her first responsibility was to her childrenBefore my mother set out as a Jewish outreach pioneer at the age of twenty, she and my father had a private audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. During that meeting, the Rebbe told my mother that although they were embarking on such a vital mission to educate Jews about their Judaism, she should remember that her first responsibility was to her children. The Rebbe then said that the underlying accomplishment of all her efforts would be to raise children in the path of Torah and Chassidism!

Though my mother regarded us as her first responsibility, she somehow managed to be the driving force behind every Chabad function, taking care of all the organizational and technical aspects. She also started the Jewish day school, serving as both teacher and principal. I remember vividly how carefully she scrutinized every aspect of the Jewish curriculum making sure that only the finest and purest materials were taught in the most professional manner.

My mother was also renowned as a great cook and baker, often sharing her skills and recipes in public forums, such as offering traditional food classes in a supermarket and catering for the many Chabad functions. But most often she taught women how to make challah because it is one of the unique commandments, mitzvot, addressed to women. Her challah classes drew in many people and served as a catalyst for Jewish women to learn and grow in Judaism.

I can’t think of a more apt mitzvah that so encapsulates what my mother stood for and how her deeds personified the meaning and symbolism of the mitzvah of challah.

The commandment of taking challah (a portion of consecrated dough) is derived from the following passages: “And it will be when you eat of the bread of the land, you should bring an offering to G‑d. The first of your kneading bowl you shall donate to G‑d as an offering…” (Numbers 15:19,20)

One of the things that strike a perceptive reader is how the verses seem to be placed in the wrong order. It seems that the commandment to take, “from the first of your kneading bowl,” should come before the verse that speaks about eating from “the bread of the land.” Obviously, one first prepares the dough and then eats it. However, every detail in the Torah is exact and there is a beautiful message to be learned from this sequence.

The person is able to refine and elevate the bread further The Torah is not only outlining the laws of challah, but is informing us of the objective of challah, which is not the dough, but the eating of the baked bread. Although the laws of challah apply to the dough before it becomes edible, the purpose of the mitzvah is that through consecrating the dough, by taking off the portion of “challah,” it will cause the dough to be elevated. Then when the dough is baked into bread the person is able to refine and elevate the bread further and in turn be elevated by it.

Eating is not regarded as a mundane exercise but as an important battle. This association is noted from the Hebrew words for bread, “Lechem” and the word for battle “Milchama,” since both of these words share the same root word implying an inherent connection between the two.

The Chassidic masters explain that it is not only the physical bread that keeps us alive but the spiritual energies invested in the bread that nourish our soul! Actually, the source of the Divine energies that are invested in “food” stem from a higher level than the person consuming the food. It is precisely for this reason that the food is able to nurture the person.

The food a person eats becomes part of his very being. When the person utilizes the physical energy he derived from the food for a meaningful and spiritual purpose, to serve his Creator, he uncovers the spiritual energies invested in the food and elevates it. When the food becomes unified with the person who is serving G‑d, the food’s higher spiritual energies uplift and empower the person’s soul. On the flipside, if a person eats and uses the energy gained from the food for selfish or negative purposes, then he degrades the food.

The Torah then prescribes the remedy for insuring that the person will be victorious while eating. He must take the first portion of his kneading bowl as an offering to G‑d.

Chassidic teachings examine the Hebrew word, “arissa,” for “kneading bowl” and point out that this word has a few meanings: it can mean a kneading bowl, as well as a baby’s cradle or bed. The Torah is written most tersely, and every letter is accounted for. A shorter Hebrew word, “your dough,” relates more directly to the commandment of taking a portion of dough, yet the Torah uses the term “kneading bowl.” This choice of words alludes to the strategy, the means by which one will be able to elevate his food and his own soul.

When the Torah uses the term, “arissa,” it informs us how we can accomplish the goal of fusing the spiritual and physical together. This can be achieved through prioritizing and beginning the right way from “arissa - the first of your kneading bowl.” Our focus must be directed appropriately from the beginning, when the baby is still in the cradle. Even at this young age, it is crucial to invest in our children’s spiritual education. From the beginning we have to be properly guided and nurtured. The key to the future begins at infancy.

The physical and spiritual are not to be viewed as opposing factors The laws of challah instruct us that when beginning an activity, the first thing is to consciously remember to acknowledge our Creator, to realize that whatever we do should be infused with the purpose of drawing us closer to Him. This law pertains to dough/bread, but it symbolizes how we must deal with food and all materialism. We are instructed to view even the simple and mundane, our physical properties and experiences, as vehicles employed in our service in this world. The physical and spiritual are not to be viewed as opposing factors - rather the physical must be permeated by the spiritual and transformed into something holy.

My mother showed us how even the seemingly mundane parts of life are part and parcel of our spiritual service. Eating breakfast to be healthy, doing household chores to create a clean environment, fixing the plumbing or discarding a dead mouse while setting up a school building were all important and spiritual because that was what needed to be done. There was nothing too mundane that could not be incorporated into the spiritual.

Another interesting characteristic of the mitzvah of challah that captures a beautiful element of my mother’s conduct is the following lesson: In the details pertaining to taking off a portion of dough, the law stipulates that the flour and water have to be properly kneaded so that it is a single dough. The portion cannot be separated while the batter is still loose, leaving the necessary flour still attached to the edges of the bowl. The Rebbe commented on this particular detail, noting that there is a lesson to be learned.

The flour most commonly used for bread is derived from wheat, a grain that symbolizes independence. Each granule has its own compartment separated from the rest, and even the stalk stands tall with almost a crown on its head, pointing upwards with self-confidence. In fact there are commentaries that argue that the "fruit” of the tree of knowledge was wheat! It was the Tree of Knowledge that brought man to feel as an “independent” being, looking for self-gratification and fulfillment, where his reliance on G‑d would be concealed from his psyche.

Independence and self-reliance are not necessarily negative traits unless they become a source of arrogance, an unhealthy ego. But we do not eat the wheat as is - it is refined and processed until it becomes flour. The external superficial trappings of ego are crushed allowing the beneficial parts to remain.

She wanted Judaism to be experienced with joy and laughterThe other main ingredient in dough is water. Water is a unifier, it binds things together, and its purpose is to bring life and nourishment to everything. Our daily bread is symbolic of the need to reach out and help people discover their own individual shining souls, the need to connect with others in order to bring them within our community. Just as the dough is not ready for the portion of “challah dough” to be given as an offering until the flour and water are kneaded together well, a person can not rest comfortably in their own environment and imagine that things are fine while there are others that are left outside and not included in the community.

My mother personified this aspect of the inner meaning of challah as well. She reached out to others by dedicating her life to bringing Judaism wherever she could in the most enjoyable way she could imagine. She was relentless in acquiring the best educational materials while exploring the most interesting interactive activities, fairs or trips to incorporate into the learning experience.

There was always a feeling of anticipation for the upcoming holidays because of the preparations we did as a family for the university students and community at large. My mother was always thinking of creative projects to do or how to improve and be more innovative. Although very disciplined, she was fun loving and wanted Judaism to be experienced with joy and laughter. Her life’s goal was bringing Jews to appreciate their Jewishness.

My mother was able to accomplish so much in her short lifetime because her priorities were so clear and a part of her. She knew what came first and she taught her children and everyone who knew her how to make every action and every moment purposeful, fulfilling and holy, just like challah.

Dedicated to my mother, Rebbetzin Tziviah Miriam Gurary, who served as the Chabad emissary in Buffalo, NY for approximately thirty five years.

Esther and her husband are Chabad emissaries in Chautauqua, N.Y., where they work with the Jewish community. Esther, an educator for more than a decade, also teaches young women at the Institute for Higher Jewish Learning. She is the proud mother of seven children.
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gittel May 26, 2013

It was actaully more like 32 years ago and Esther was in my class! Reply

Gittel North Miami Beach, Florida May 26, 2013

I was preparing a lesson plan on challah (parsha Shelach) for my EC-4 class and I came upon this beautiful article. When I reached the end, I realized it was about Miriam Gurary, our amazing, gentle, smiling rebbitizen in Buffalo and my first principal 37 years ago when I began teaching. Thank you for the article! Her wise influence continues. Reply

Valerie Kendall in Miami, Fl December 16, 2012

Thank you As a beliver, searching for the connection of the Jewish roots of Christianity, I actually understand this. Thank you for making it plain. Reply

cj LA, CA September 1, 2010

inspiring thank for taking time to write this and share it. lovely to read. Reply

nat laval, canada March 25, 2009

dedication touching and uplifting. to honor our parents is a beautiful commandemant. keeping one piece of dough aside can do for us Reply

Rebbeca Pikesville, MD December 11, 2008

This essay kept me thinking all day. I hope I can internalize the message in a real way! You tied so many meaningful concepts together beautifully. Keep more coming! Reply

Chani December 8, 2008

Excellent article! It's written with such clarity!! deep concepts but is written so well that it's understood. Thank you so much! Reply

Anonymous Lisbon, Portugal April 7, 2008

A special Thank You from Portugal! Such an moment I lived with this article! Love through the giving itself to others!
Thank you Esther for sharing... Reply

rivky Baltimore, NY July 1, 2007

This was a terrific message! Very articulate and inspiring. Thank you for the high quality and in depth article. Reply

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