This week’s Torah reading is Shlach, most famous for recounting the incident of the spies. One distinguished member of each of Israel’s twelve tribes was appointed to scout the land of Israel in preparation for the Jewish people’s conquest and habitation of the Holy Land. After forty days, the twelve returned, with ten of them giving over a less-than-positive report that frightened the nation. Despite God’s promise that Israel belonged to the Jewish people and they would be able to settle it effortlessly, the people’s faithlessness caused them to fear and err, resulting in their own banishment from the Holy Land. They were condemned to forty years in the wilderness, over which time all of the adult males that came out of Egypt (and participated in the sin of the spies) would pass away.
“Return of the Spies from the Land of Promise” by Gustave Doré
Following this account, a number of Torah laws are introduced. One of these is that of challah, the portion of every large quantity of prepared dough that was separated and donated to the priests (Numbers 15:20). Rashi tells us that this was a portion equivalent to an omer. An omer was a tenth of an ephah (Exodus 16:36), which is defined by Chazal as equal to the weight and volume of 432 eggs. So, whenever a Jew prepares around 43 eggs’ worth of dough (or more), they must separate a small portion as a donation. The exact mass and volume of an egg are in dispute. Today, it is customary to separate challah when preparing about 8 cups of flour or more. Because of the uncertainty of the measurements, however, a blessing is only recited when preparing at least 12 cups, and some say at least 16 cups. Rashi tells us that a person at home should separate 1/24th, while a baker separates 1/48th of the total amount.
Challah and Shabbat
Although challah strictly refers to the separated portion that was donated to the priests, today it is associated with the special loaves of bread baked for Shabbat and holidays. Some connect challah to the Sabbath by the fact that it typically has seven ingredients: flour, water, yeast, eggs, sugar, salt, and sesame seeds sprinkled on top. Others point out that the mispar katan mispari, the “reduced” numerical value, of the word challah (חלה) in Hebrew is seven: ח is 8, ל is 30, and ה is 5. Together, that makes 43, where the digits themselves add up to 7 (ie. 4 + 3).
This happens to be a peculiar pattern with a number of other Shabbat-related things. The meal starts with Kiddush wine, yayin (יין), where each י is 10 and ן is 50, making a total of 70, which once again sums to 7. After the challah, the first course is fish, dag (דג), where ד is 4 and ג is 3, making 7. The main course is meat, bassar (בשר), where ב is 2, ש is 300, and ר is 200, totalling 502, with the digits again adding up to 7.
One important question to ask is: why must the entire Sabbath meal start with challah? Moreover, why does any meal typically start with bread? In Jewish law, the blessing on the bread covers all the other foods on the table. This isn’t so when one eats other things, in which case the person would have to say a separate blessing for each type of food. Yet bread somehow includes all the foods within it. What is so special about bread?
The Quintessential Human Food
Before the modern industrial age, food was quite simple. People typically ate fruits and nuts, legumes and vegetables, meat, milk, and bread. One will notice that all of these are also consumed by animals – except for bread. Producing bread is a long and complicated process, starting with hard, inedible stalks of wheat. These have to be harvested, threshed, winnowed, milled, carefully combined with other ingredients, and baked. Such a complex procedure requires a higher intellect; no other organism is capable of such a feat.
For this reason, bread is a potent symbol of humanity as a whole. It is symbolic of man’s higher spiritual condition, and greater intelligence. Bread represents our divine mission in this world: taking the raw material that God has prepared for us, and perfecting it into an elevated state. It reminds us that we are not just animals eating to satisfy a physical need. Bread is human food, and carries a far more powerful spiritual potential, including within it all other “lesser” forms of food. And so, we begin each meal with bread, and every Sabbath meal with challah.