The Origins of Shabbat Challah
This past Shabbat my wife asked “Since when have Jews called the bread that we eat on Shabbat ḥallah (חלה)?” I had no idea what was the answer, so during the past few days I did a little searching and this is what I came up with.
Many people associate Shabbat ḥallah with the ḥallah that is separated from dough when baking. The problem with this is that in Talmudic literature the term ḥallah is never used in connection with the bread that is eaten on Shabbat. On Shabbat 117b it is written:
אמר רבי אבא: בשבת חייב אדם לבצוע על שתי ככרות, דכתיב לחם משנה.
Rabbi Abbah said: On Shabbat a person is obligated to have a meal with two loaves of bread as it is written “A double portion of bread.”
The term שתי ככרות, “two loaves of bread,” is used in rabbinic literature throughout most of the Middle Ages. See e.g. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Blessings 7:4:
מצוה מן המובחר לבצוע ככר שלימה, אם היתה שם שלימה של שעורים ופרוסה של חטים מניח שלימה בתוך פרוסה ובוצע משתיהן כדי שיבצע מחטים ומשלימה, בשבתות ובימים טובים חייב לבצוע על שתי ככרות נוטל שתיהן בידו ה ובוצע אחת מהן.
The earliest apparent source for using the term ḥallah in connection with the bread that is eaten on Shabbat can be found in the 15th c. German work Leket Yosher (p. 49) [See John Cooper’s Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food]:
וזכורני שבכל ע”ש עושין לו ג’ חלות דקות הנילושות בביצים ושמן ומעט מים. וחלה האמצעית נתן בלילה על השלחן באמצע שלחנו, כי שלחנו היה מרבע, על המפה האמצעית. ותחת החלה היה ככר גדול שהוא שלם, אע”פ שהוא שחור ולא על לחם לבן קטן גלוסקא שהוא זעמל. ובשחרית נתן החלה הגדולה וככר גדול על השלחן כמו בלילה. ולסעודה ג’ לקח החלה הקטנה ולחם שלם.
I remember that on every Friday afternoon they would make three thin ḥallot that were kneaded with eggs, oil, and a little bit of water. In the evening, since the table was square, the middle ḥallah was put in the middle of the table on the middle tablecloth. Under the ḥallah was a large whole loaf…In the morning the large ḥallah and a large loaf were put on the table like in the evening. For the third meal the small ḥallah and a small bread was taken.
Not only is the use of ḥallah in the context of Shabbat relatively late, but it also wasn’t uniform. The following is from a Philologos column that discussed the use by South African Jews of the word “kitke” to describe the bread eaten on Shabbat:
Mr. Cole can find the answer to his question in Volume III of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry, in which no fewer than nine pages, complete with linguistic maps and charts, are devoted to the various words by which Sabbath and festival breads were known to the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Although “challah” has taken over completely among the Jews of the United States, effacing all its rivals, a look at Ashkenazic Europe from Alsace in the West to Belarus and Ukraine in the East reveals, in addition to Western and Eastern Yiddish khale, five other words for such a bread: berkhes, dacher, koylatsh, shtritsl and — the word asked about by Mr. Cole — kitke.
Khale was by far the most widespread of these words, thus explaining its predominance in America. It derives from Hebrew h.allah, which has the meaning in the Bible of a flat cake, baked on coals, that constituted the simplest and most inexpensive of sacrifices that could be offered on the altar. (Its association with sacred ritual was very likely the reason that h.allah later became attached to Sabbath and holiday breads.) Apart from much of Germany, Czechoslovakia and Transylvania, khale was used in almost every part of Ashkenazic Europe, often in conjunction with other terms. Sometimes but not always, khale was the general term for a Sabbath and holiday bread while another word designated to a local variety, or else khale, referred to a plain bread as opposed to a fancier one. Thus, for instance, the word koylatsh was used widely throughout Poland and Russia to denote, in some areas, a braided challah; in others, a decorated challah baked for weddings and celebrations, and in still others, any braided roll, braided yeast cake, or even filled cake or pastry. (The word koylatsh itself, though its ultimate etymology is unclear, already was in use among French Jews in the lifetime of renowned 11th-century rabbinic commentator Rashi; he speaks of a coilush as a kind of long, thin bread, like a baguette.) Shtritsl (apparently from medieval German Struz, a swelling — as of dough with yeast? — or a protuberance) had much the same range of meanings as koylatsh but was more restricted in its geographical range and was used occasionally to designate a festive Christian bread rather than a Jewish one.
I mentioned this to my colleague Rabbi Jill Hammer, and she suggested that I look into the connection between ḥallah and goddess worship. Not really knowing what to expect, I found the following in The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (p. 482):
The braided bread loaves of Germanic tradition were invented by the women of Teutonic tribes, who used to make offerings of their own hair to their Goddess. Eventually they learned to preserve their braids by substituting the imitative loaf, which was called Berchisbrod or Perchisbrod, bread offered to the Goddess Berchta, or Perchta. The name of the braided Sabbath loaf among German Jews, Berches or Barches, was copied from this tradition.
Could it be that those nice braids that my wife makes when she bakes ḥallah really have their source in pagan goddess worship? The linguist Paul Wexler thinks that the original name was actually the German Holle which was
the name of a pagan Germanic goddess to whom braided bread was once given in offering. [The German] Holle was replaced at a later date-under the pressure of Judaization-by the [Hebrew] ḥallah, which bore formal and semantic similarity. (See his book The Non-Jewish Origins of the Sephardic Jews, pp. 68-69 and numerous other places in his writings.)
Whatever its origins may be, I look forward to eating my wife’s braided ḥallah this Shabbat.