In most houses that I have been to for a Shabbat meal, the host slices the challah with a knife. However, there are some who tear it by hand instead. Is that a thing? Why is that?


While most slice, there are indeed some who rip (such as Bukharian Jews). And some used to have the custom to always cut the bread with a knife except for on Friday day (before Shabbat), when they made a point to rip apart by hand and not cut.

If that got you confused, just stick with the custom of your family or community and you'll be OK.

Here are the reasons behind the various customs:

Slicing is Default

The most common custom is to slice the challah bread with a knife. This is also implied by the various sources that discuss the custom of lightly marking the bread with a knife before the hamotzi blessing.1

Additionally, the sages instruct us to refrain from ripping off hunks of food with our hands, as this can appear to be gluttonous.2 (This does not necessarily apply on Shabbat, when taking delight in Shabbat with gusto is a positive thing.3)

The Angel of Livelihood

There are also mystical reasons for specifically using a knife.

The Kabbalists explain that chatach (חתך), which means “cut,” is the name of the angel in charge of livelihood.

This is reflected in the High Holiday prayer, which refers to G‑d as החותך חיים לכל חי, “He who cuts (apportions) life to all living beings.”

It is also reflected in the verse from Psalms that we recite multiple times daily in Ashrei: פּוֹתֵ֥חַ אֶת־יָדֶ֑ךָ וּמַשְׂבִּ֖יעַ לְכָל־חַ֣י רָצֽוֹן, “You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing [with] its desire.” Take the final letters of the opening three words of this verse and you get chatach, חתך.

Furthermore, the fourth word, וּמַשְׂבִּ֖יעַ, which means "and satisfy," has the numerical value of 428, the same value as the word chatach.

Based on this, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz (1726–1791) had the custom to specifically cut the bread, symbolic of our sustenance, with a knife.4

(Incidentally, this is also the reason for the custom of purchasing a new knife for Rosh Hashanah.5 )

Not on Fridays and Passover

As mentioned above, some had the custom that on Friday (before Shabbat) they would tear their bread instead of slicing it. This differentiated between the mundane bread of Friday and the mitzvah bread they would eat that night. It was also a reminder that one is not supposed to eat a “satiating” meal on Friday before Shabbat,6 since as mentioned, the word וּמַשְׂבִּ֖יעַ (“satiate”) has the same numerical value as חתך (“cut”).7

Interestingly, on Passover when we eat matzah, the “poor man's bread,” we use our hands to break the matzah instead of slicing it with a knife, which alludes to satisfaction and plenty.8

Violent Knives

How about those who do have the custom to tear the challah? Why do they do so? Here is one explanation:

Our tables reflect the Altar of the Holy Temple,9 about which it is written: “Do not raise an iron [blade] upon them.”10 This, the sages explain, is because iron shortens man’s lifespan, while the Altar prolongs it. Our tables also lengthen our lives and cause our sins to be forgiven because when we invite guests, G‑d’s presence dwells among us.

Since the main part of the meal is the bread, upon which the blessing is recited, some are careful not to cut it with a life-shortening knife.11

(This is also the reason for covering metal knives that are on the table during the blessings of Birkat Hamazon after the meal. However, many have the custom to specifically not cover the knives on the table on Shabbat and holidays because on these holy days, the power of Esau and the forces of evil are weakened and need not be negated.12 This dovetails with the widespread custom to use the knife to cut the Shabbat bread without compunction.)

May we merit the arrival of Moshiach, who will usher in the “day that is all Sabbat”13 when “they will beat their swords into ploughshares”14 and iron will no longer be used to make weapons, but only for constructive purposes. Amen!