The Jewish people first became obligated to perform the mitzvah of separating challah (hafrashat challah) when they entered the Land of Israel. The mitzvah requires a person to set aside a portion of the dough that is to be baked into bread. This portion of dough is given to the kohanim (priests who served in the Temple), allowing them to live honorably and to fullfil their holy tasks in comfort. Since bread is man’s primary source of sustenance, separating challah is a commandment that is applicable at all times, and it brings blessing into our daily lives.
When the majority of Jews are living in the Land of Israel, hafrashat challah is a Torah obligation. The Torah does not specify exactly how much dough must be separated, but our Sages have determined that someone who bakes bread at home must separate 1/24 of the dough, and a commercial baker is obligated to separate 1/48 of his dough.
When the majority of Jews are not living in the Land of Israel, hafrashat challah is a mitzvah derabbanan, a precept of rabbinic rather than Torah origin. The Sages established that the separated piece of dough be the size of a kazayit (literally, “the size of an olive”), practically speaking, 28 grams (about an ounce), or the size of a ping-pong ball. Hafrashat challah is observed in Eretz Israel and everywhere outside it, so that the mitzvah of challah will not be forgotten.
The piece of dough that is separated is called “challah.” The word for the bread we eat on Shabbat is taken from this term. The separated piece of dough may be eaten only by kohanim who are ritually pure. Today, as long as the Temple is not rebuilt, everyone is considered impure, including the kohanim, and our challah too is impure. We may not give it to a kohen, nor may we eat it or derive benefit from it. We must therefore ensure that the separated challah will be rendered inedible. It should be burned or disposed of respectfully, since it contains an element of holiness.
Every moment of every day, we eagerly await the arrival of Mashiach (The True Redeemer) and the return of all the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. We will then, once again, be able to perform the mitzvah of hafrashat challah fully, and in sanctity.
Divine Providence in the Kitchen
What a wonderful aroma fills the house when our home baked bread comes out of the oven, all the effort we put into it feels worthwhile. We have sifted the flour, added ingredients according to the recipe and a little according to our intuitions, kneaded the dough, waited for it to rise, and finally have placed the braided dough into the oven.
When we hear the praise for the beautiful challahs we have made, feelings of pride and satisfaction may steal their way into our hearts. It is natural to attribute this success to the recipe that we received from a neighbor, or to a special spice or ingredient that we added, or to the many years of experience we have with baking.
Amid the mixing bowls and sifted flour, the egg for glazing and sprinkling of sesame seeds to add just the right touch, we should remember the source of our success and perform the mitzvah of hafrashat challah.
The Torah commands us to separate a portion of the dough we have put so much effort into making, and to dedicate it to the Holy One Blessed be He. We must remember that it is more than just our talents and skills that have produced these challahs. G-d’s blessing and Divine Providence are present in everything we do, as well as in the challahs that we make.
The wheat farmer, too, is commanded to separate a portion of his crop. Like the homemaker with her bread, the farmer invests much energy and effort in his field. He plows, plants, and is gratified when he sees his hard labor bear fruit. The farmer, though, is also constantly aware of his dependence on G-d’s benevolent kindness for the success of his crop. He humbly faces the forces of nature, and prays to G-d for the blessing of rain. Finally, when the crops grow and ripen, the farmer takes the fruits of his labor and tithes a portion of it (terumah and ma’aser).
The mitzvah of hafrashat challah reminds us that Divine Providence goes beyond G-d’s dominance over the forces of nature. Divine Providence continues to guide us as we knead dough in the kitchen, as it does in everything we do. That is why challah is separated from the dough, which we ourselves have prepared, and not from the flour in its raw form. This is our way of expressing the recognition that the Creator oversees every detail of our lives, and it is He who blesses the fruits of our labors.