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Got Dough?

Got Dough?

The mystical dimension of challah


A curious 18-month-old was once playing with a nickel, and started to choke on it. His 4-year-old brother observed how their frantic mother administered the Heimlich maneuver in a desperate attempt to pump the nickel out. Their father hurried to dial for an ambulance, but to everyone’s great relief, the nickel miraculously came out. The next morning, the 4-year-old approached his mother with his blue eyes misting and a serious expression on his face. He said, “Don’t worry, Mommy, I don’t mind giving up candy or any other treats. I promise not to ask for money ever again.”

His mother was perplexed, and wondered what prompted him to make such a strange statement. He explained, “I saw how worried you were about getting back that nickel—that you pressed on the baby’s stomach, and Daddy immediately called for an ambulance. So don’t worry, I won’t ask you for money!”Each saw reality from a different perspective

Both the child and his mother observed the identical scene, but each saw reality from a different perspective. To the child, it all boiled down to a nickel. To the mother, it was about life itself. We, too, see a big world out there—how do we perceive it? Does it boil down to dollars and cents? Is it all a matter of materialism and physicality? Or are we cognizant of the G‑dly life force behind everything?

The opening words of the Torah are Bereishit bara Elokim, “In the beginning, G‑d created the world.” The Midrash1 explains that this can also be interpreted to mean that G‑d created the world in the merit of the mitzvot that are referred to as reishit, first. One such mitzvah is the mitzvah of “separating challah,” a commandment to reserve part of the bread dough for kohanim (click here for details on how this mitzvah is observed today). The portion of dough which is separated from the rest is described in the Torah as reishit arisoteichem, the first of your dough.2

What could possibly be so important about separating a piece of dough that the Midrash states that it is the purpose of creation?

In addition, Torah is well-known for its brevity. Many commandments are derived from just a single verse or even word. In contrast, five verses in the Torah portion of Shelach are devoted to the topic of separating challah.3 Why does this mitzvah warrant such great elaboration?

To add another puzzling dimension to this picture, there is another Midrash4 that notes that the mitzvah of separating challah in the Torah is followed by the prohibition of idol worship. The juxtaposition of these two laws teaches us that “one who fulfills the mitzvah of separating challah, it is as if he has nullified the worship of idols; while one who does not fulfill the mitzvah of separating challah, it is as if he sustains the worship of idols.”5 What association can there be between the simple act of separating challah and idol worship, which goes against the most basic tenets of Judaism?This act signifies her recognition that the dough is a gift from G‑d

There are many preliminary steps that go into the process that results in separating that elastic piece of dough in the comfort of our kitchens. One must plow the soil, plant the grains, water them meticulously, cut the crops, sift the kernels . . . and the list goes on and on. After investing intensive time and effort, the farmer may come to the erroneous conclusion that it was his great exertion, with the help of “Mother Nature,” that led to his success.

On a broader scale, bread, also known as the “staff of life,” is a metaphor for all of physicality and materialism. In many cultures, the term “dough” is slang for money (as in “got dough?”). This is because money enables us to buy our “dough”—our sustenance, as well as all our material needs. It is also why one who earns an income for the home is called the “breadwinner.” Just as the farmer can mistakenly conclude that it was his talent and effort that resulted in his dough, it is all too easy for a person to attribute his “dough” (his material success) to his brilliance, beauty, creativity or charisma.

This is where the mitzvah of separating challah comes in. The ingredients have skillfully been mixed together, and pliable dough has been formed. Amid the delicious aroma that has begun to envelop the kitchen, the woman of the home pauses for an introspective moment. She separates a portion of the dough and says the blessing. She then lifts it up and says, “This is challah.” This conscious act signifies her recognition that the dough, and by extension, all of our material success, is not simply a result of human effort, but is a gift from G‑d.

How does this mitzvah, and the concept it represents, negate—or, G‑d forbid, sustain—the worship of idols? Idol worship can take many forms. The crudest form of idol worship of bygone eras was prostrating in front of figurines of wood and stone. Today, with equally passionate enthusiasm, we worship the idols of wealth, power, beauty and success. There are other, more subtle forms of idol worship as well. There is, for example, the mistaken notion that after G‑d created the sun, moon, and all of nature, He invested in them individual power, when in truth, nothing in this world has individual power; it is all controlled by G‑d.6 To take this a step further, if someone believes that anything in this world even exists independently of G‑d, that too, on some level, is idol worship. This is the opposite of what we, as human beings, perceive. The world seems to cry out “I exist,” when in reality, the real and only true existence is G‑dliness, something that we cannot see but have to deeply contemplate.

It’s interesting to note the choice of wording that the Midrash uses. It says: “One who fulfills the mitzvah of separating challah, it is as if he nullifies the worship of idols; while one who does not fulfill the mitzvah of separating challah, it is as if he sustains the worship of idols.” This implies that there is an idol that is currently in existence whose validation or nullification is tied to the mitzvah of challah. The idol we are referring to is the entire universe. It acts as one big “idol” by presenting a façade that it exists independent of G‑d. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains7 that, in truth, G‑d is constantly recreating the world every second; and if He were to stop, the entire universe would instantly cease to exist. So despite the facade that the world presents, it all amounts to “nothing” without the G‑dly life-force that is energizing it.

So separating a portion of the dough shatters that idol of independent existence. This, albeit small, act reflects our great awareness that despite its veneer, the entire world is G‑d incognito.8It reflects a desire to connect with the One above

Interestingly, this idea is also reflected in the actual word “challah.” It begins with the Hebrew letter chet, which is closed on the top as well as on both of its sides. There remains only an opening from below. This is symbolic of one who is tempted by the negative impulses from “below”—the base, animalistic desires, and the temptations of the material world. “Challah” concludes with the Hebrew letter hei, which is very similar in shape to the chet. It, too, is also almost entirely closed on all three sides, with an opening at the bottom. But, in contrast to the letter chet, the inner leg of the hei has a small opening at the top. Despite the gaping hole at the bottom, which is one’s natural inclination to be drawn after materialism, the additional opening at the top reflects an awareness of, and desire to connect with, the One above.9

According to Kabbalah,10 the word “challah” can be divided into two words, chol hei, meaning “place the hei.” The world that we inhabit appears to be like the initial letter chet; it is a world where we are inclined towards the corporeal, and G‑dliness seems to be out of the picture. The purpose of our existence is to “place the hei” in the picture of life: to tap into the miniscule opening at the top, and become cognizant of the divinity in all of creation.

One time, the son of the famed Maggid of Mezeritch came to his father in tears. He explained that he had been playing “hide and seek” with his friends, and it had been his turn to hide. “So what happened?” his father gently asked him. “No one found me,” he responded. Said his father, “That’s wonderful—that means you won the game.” “No,” he responded sadly, “my friends simply stopped looking for me.” At this point, the Maggid, too, started to cry, as he raised his eyes heavenward and said: “G‑d feels the same way. He concealed Himself in the universe and wants us to seek Him out. He, too, cries when we stop searching for Him.”

Challah is our steadfast commitment not to give up in the middle of the game.

Bereishit Rabbah 1:4.
The actual term “challah” refers to the portion that is separated. However, over time, people have come to refer to the bread that we eat on Shabbat as challah.
Vayikra Rabbah 15:6.
The mitzvah is not to actually bake challah. But when one does make a dough using the required amount of flour, and a drop of water (or honey, wine, grape juice, olive oil or milk), it then becomes a requirement to separate a portion for G‑d, and to recite the blessing.
Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idol Worship 1:1 and 2:1.
Tanya, Shaar ha-Yichud veha-Emunah, chs. 1–2.
On the other hand, if one mistakenly forgets to separate challah, he is by default “upholding idol worship,” by giving credence to the erroneous belief that the world exists without G‑d’s constant second-to-second involvement. (Likkutei Sichot, vol. 18, pp. 183–185)
This concept is explained in connection with the words chametz (leavened bread) and matzah (unleavened bread). Both words share two identical letters, mem and tzaddik. The only difference is that the word chametz contains the letter chet, whereas matzah contains the letter hei. Chametz, dough that rises, represents arrogance. Just as the dough is “puffed up,” it is symbolic of a person who is full of himself. He is compared to the chet, because he is influenced by the material; and like the chet, which has no opening at the top, he is closed to the possibility for self-transcendence because he is so full of himself. In contrast, matzah, which is flat, symbolizes humility. A person who possesses this trait is like the hei which has the opening above, suggestive of the possibility to connect to G‑d, which stems from humility. (Likkutei Sichot, vol. 1, pp. 129–132)
Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 16; Ohr ha-Torah, p. 541.
Chana Slavaticki has been an educator for over a decade, and lectures at various adult education institutes and Chabad centers. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband and three children.
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Anonymous O.C June 10, 2014

Just what I needed. Thank you so very much for this article it really helped me and blessed me a lot because I was in the point where I felt like giving up until I read this, and it touched my heart and made me feel much better and thankful and grateful that I have the privilege to Fulfill the mitzvah of challah now I have Simchas and looking forward to this Shabbos to bake my challah. Again Todah rabbah. Reply

Yitzchak Chaim May 1, 2014

I personally found G-d through my pursuit in science. I would like to address the idol worship mentioned in the article of acknowledging elements in the universe as powerful and controlling. Modern science has reached a point to realize that we know practically nothing at all. Dark matter makes up over 95 percent of the observed universe. Scientists call it "dark" because it cannot be measured aside from noticing that gravity patterns don't make sense with what telescopes do see. On a small scale, every particle is made up of well over 99 percent empty space. Physicists have run into an ultimate wall in their research in high energy labs--an illusive meta-physical entity that has been shown to govern the entire fabric of the universe. They actually call it "the G-d particle" ! The time has come when any skeptic has only himself to blame for rejecting the Almighty. I love that Adonai has blessed me with life during this time. Reply

Rochel Chein for May 29, 2013

Re: The burnt portion of the Challah The piece of dough is separated after the kneading and before the shaping, either before or after the dough rises.

The piece should be burned until it is no longer edible, and then wrapped and discarded.

See our Challah Wizard at for more information. Reply

Shalhevet Oregon May 29, 2013

Beautiful and inspiring article...thank you! What are the requirements for gluten free challah? How much oats? How much water and other liquids? What is the status of almond or soy it mostly water and therefore their content is considered as water?
Thanks much Reply

N May 28, 2013

The burnt portion of the Challah Could I have some information on the following:
(1)What is done with the burnt portion of the challa dough in the end?
(2) is the portion for offering made after the 1st round of proofing has completed ?
This is probably a strange question to ask, but I would like to know how it is
discarded properly.

Thank you Reply

Anonymous Far Rockaway, NY July 4, 2012

Answer to Irene Back when there was a Holy Temple, portions of meat and vegetables were given to G-d as sacrificial offerings. Now that the Holy Temple has been destroyed and the prescribed sacrifices are no longer brought, the sole remnant left to us the command to separate a small part of the Challah dough. This is not meant to imply that meat and vegetables are eaten freely and unthinkingly. Meat must be Glatt Kosher and soaked and salted before eating; depending on the food, even some veggies require Kosher supervision. Plus we say Blessings before and after eating. All of these commands are found in the Written and Oral Torah that was presented to the Jewish people by G-d to make us into a Holy Nation: we are exalted people who do not just shovel food into our mouths without first expressing appreciation to the One Who gives sustenance to the entire world. Reply

Irene Glen Burnie, MD USA June 15, 2012

The Mystical dimension of Challah A very interesting article well written.

Question: Could you please tell me if this is also done with meat and veg. Taking a portion of it and giving it to G-d. If so is it burned like the Challah piece dedicated to G-d? I know this sounds silly, but I would still like to know. I was wondering if the men dedicated the meat and vegs the same way as the women who bake the bread. Thank you for sharing this article. Reply

Lorna February 9, 2012

The Mystical Dimension of Challah Thank you Chana ... Beautiful and inspires me to bake mine own. Reply

Mushka NY November 20, 2011

BRILLIANT! Thank-you Cousin Chana for an inspiring article about a beautiful Mitzva. Reply

Shterna G NY, usa June 19, 2009

Thanks for this rich article. I've shared it with so many people who have so much appreciated it. Reply

Pessy Sao Paulo, Brazil June 18, 2009

Thanks! Great inspiration and intro for my challah baking class tonight...Thanks Reply

Anonymous June 17, 2009

Beautiful Reply

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