Hafrashat challah is one of the special mitzvahs entrusted to the Jewish woman. A man separates challah only when there is no woman in the home, or when the woman grants him permission to perform the mitzvah.
The first time that the mitzvah of hafrashat challah is referred to in the Torah is in connection with our Mothers Sarah and Rivkah. When the angels came to visit Avraham, he personally went to prepare a meal in their honor, as it is written: “Avraham ran to the cattle, took a calf, tender and good... He took cream and milk and the calf that he had prepared…” (Genesis 18:7-8). He did all this with tremendous love for the mitzvah of welcoming guests. The making of bread, however, he left to his wife, because that mitzvah belonged to her: “Avraham rushed to Sarah’s tent, and he said, ‘Quikly, get three se’ah of sifted flour, knead them and make loaves!’” (Genesis 18:6).
When Yitzhak brought Rivkah to the tent of his mother, Sarah, the three miracles that had been present during her lifetime, returned:
“‘Yitzhak brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother’ – She became like Sarah his mother, for as long as Sarah lived, the candle light burned from one Shabbat to the next, there was blessing in the dough, and a cloud hovered over her tent. When she died, the miracles ceased, but when Rivkah came, they returned.” (Genesis 24:67 and Rashi there)
The reappearance of these three signs proved to Yitzhak that Rivkah was fitting to continue the path of his mother, Sarah.
The three miracles in Sarah’s tent allude to the three mitzvahs unique to women. Through the fulfillment of these mitzvahs a woman merits to establish her home on the basis of a firm foundation, and to bring G-d’s blessing into it. The candle signifies the lighting of the Shabbat candles and the unique quality women are blessed with for bringing light, warmth and spiritual content into the home. The cloud atop the tent symbolizes the Divine presence that rests on a home where the laws of family purity are observed. The blessing in the dough alludes to the mitzvah of hafrashat challah, as it says: “You shall give the first yield of your dough to the kohen to make a blessing rest upon your home” (Ezekiel 44:30).
The Woman's Central Role
The mitzvah of hafrashat challah has the unique ability to bring G-d’s blessing into the Jewish home. The baking of bread is symbolic of the woman’s central role as a homemaker. When she performs the mitzvah of hafrashat challah, she shows her recognition and awareness of G-d’s intervention in all of her daily activities and actions.
Sometimes the never-ending occupation with housework can bring about a sense of emptiness and meaninglessness. What personal or spiritual growth is there in washing dishes, cleaning the floor, or preparing supper? We may think: have my efforts added anything significant or meaningful to the world?
An answer can be found in the commandments related to keeping kosher (observing Jewish dietary laws). These mitzvahs provide us with the opportunity to conduct our homes in accordance with the Divine will and to put a mark of holiness on the food we prepare for our families. When a woman checks rice for insects, sifts flour, or is very careful regarding the separation of meat and milk, she is fulfilling G-d’s will that we eat kosher foods. Reflecting on that aspect may provide us with renewed energies and meaning to the preparation of food.
It is for a good reason that in Hebrew the woman of the house is referred to as the akeret habayit – “the foundation of the home.” The various labors that she performs, like her spiritual work, are carried out within the walls of her home. A woman is compared to a kohen working in the Holy Temple. It may seem that the kohen is doing work of a very material nature, such as slaughtering animals, sprinkling blood, and other physical tasks in the Temple, however, all of his actions are carried out with the intention of fulfilling the will of the Holy One Blessed be He. Just as G-d chose to have His presence dwell in the Holy Temple, which was merely a structure of wood and stone made by man, so too, His presence dwells in every Jewish home. The woman’s role in the home empowers her with the ability to make her home into a vessel for receiving and emanating G-d’s blessing.
Here, in the sanctuary of her home, the woman is graced with the special capacity to converse with her Creator, and the chance to add her personal touch of love and faith to the bread, the sustenance, that she serves to her family.