Zoe’s book, She Rises Above All, is aimed at brides as they prepare to get married. Part memoir and part Torah, Zoe writes about the experience of becoming a Jewish bride in a way that reflects on big ideas in Judaism and invites women to think about the kind of Jewish life they want the rest of their lives to be.
The following essay is excerpted from her chapter about taking challah, one of the three mitzvahs that a Jewish woman might take upon herself once she is married.
I learned to bake challah by watching YouTube videos. The internet is full of tutorials, and each recipe is slightly different. But one pattern does emerge from the various clips: nearly all of the people making challah are women. And when I watched these videos, I could tell that their intended audience was other women challah bakers, too. Those videos were talking to me.
Anyone can bake a loaf of bread, but baking challah is often associated with women in particular. This association derives not from the bread itself, but from the ritual that accompanies the baking process. This ritual is called hafrashat challah,“taking challah,” and it is one of the three mitzvot, or ritual obligations, that many Jewish women have traditionally taken upon themselves once they are married. And because married Jewish women are obligated to take challah, the entire bread-baking process is usually done by women, too.
For anyone not familiar with “taking challah,” the act is surprising, and even counter-intuitive. It goes like this: after carefully mixing and laboriously kneading her dough, the baker “takes” one section of the dough and separates it. She then blesses the “taken” portion, and burns it. Yes, burns it! This blessed-and-burned portion of dough is the part that is actually called “challah.” The bread we know and love is not named for its recipe, nor for its shape; it is named after the portion that is separated and burned as a part of the ritual of taking challah.
There is one challah tutorial video I’ve never forgotten. Jamie Geller, a chef and kosher recipe tester, stands in her kitchen with two of her friends. Geller talks the other women through the steps as she demonstrates the challah-making process. Geller’s dough comes together as the women schmooze and swap stories. When Geller arrives at the step that requires kneading, she pauses the chatter to make an important point. She reveals the secret to making her challah: kneading the dough for ten whole minutes. “This is it! Hands!” she jokes. And then she continues:
“A lot of people use a machine for their challah. You know I am the biggest shortcut queen, right? But, for challah… this is the time that you actually knead your challah and you can daven, pray for your family and for your children. And for people who need a shidduch, a match. Or who need a refuah, to be healed from being sick. I use this opportunity of kneading the challah to pray. I don’t have time to daven in my regular life. But this is a wonderful opportunity erev shabbos to knead my challah, and to infuse my love, and to daven for my family.”
I tensed when I first heard her description of the kneading process. Jamie Geller makes the scarcity of thinking-time for a mother so unremittingly clear. It was a startlingly honest confession and I related to it. There is so little quiet time in my day allocated to reflection.
But Geller isn’t upset or complaining. Jamie Geller is, somehow, expressing gratitude. She gets TEN! WHOLE! MINUTES! To think! To pray! To infuse her challah with her prayers!
As I build my own home, I have come to recognize the secret Mom-code that Jamie Geller’s gratitude invokes. Amid the never-ending chaos of running a household, of parenting and partnering at the same time, it is paradoxically a relief to find yourself tasked with kneading. How often does a mom actually have the chance to stay in one place for ten whole minutes in front of a familiar, sweet-smelling mission? Kneading the bread serves as a time-out. It is a chance to stand still. To think. My kitchen becomes my sanctuary.
During these ten minutes of kneading, the conditions are just right to collect my thoughts. What happened this week? What will our Shabbat be like? What does my family need tonight? As these wishes appear in my mind, I channel them into the bread. I speak my prayers into the dough. I know that other Jewish women baking challah are doing the same. Across the Jewish world, at this moment, there is a particular language being spoken by women. As we bake bread for our families, we speak the language of blessings.
These blessings can be private and personal, or they can be communal and universal. Jewish women often gather to bake challah together at events called “challah bakes,” where the language of blessings expands as our words are uttered in unison with other women and on behalf of the larger community. These women’s challah bakes are opportunities to gather, to make blessings together, and, of course, to learn each other’s challah tricks.
During one such women’s challah bake- this one on Zoom, featuring Jewish women chefs, religious leaders, and social media influencers from around the world- I watched Jewish cookbook author Danielle Renov demonstrate her challah recipe. As Renov added each ingredient to the mixing bowl, she narrated to the hundreds of women watching what each component symbolizes. She explained:
“Yeast – the possibility of life itself;
Water – the symbol for Torah, our tool for creating meaning from the world around us;
Sugar – the chance to see sweetness in what we receive;
Egg – the way to create life ourselves;
Oil – the Jewish responsibility to anoint ourselves as royal beings;
Flour – the partnership between human and divine which transforms raw materials into resources.”
Renov invited the women watching her demonstration to meditate on each of these symbols as we dumped the ingredients into our bowls. With each component, more awareness of the (often invisible or ignored) blessings of our lives was added to the mix. And, Renov continued: it is not until kneading that these disparate elements begin to come together to form a unity, a dough that symbolizes the way that each of life’s blessings work together.
I remember looking into my bowl at the sticky mass in my hands. My mix was gloppy. It wasn’t holding a shape. There is anxiety in this moment of the process for me. Even now, each week when I make challah. Baking is a science, after all, and any experiment requires that each step go just right. The ingredients, the measurements, the ratios and the timing have to come together. This is the moment in the process when I feel out of control. Did I do everything right? If not, too late! There’s nothing left for me to do but trust that an invisible process has been set in motion. Now what I must do is knead.
I’ve learned from Jamie Geller, and from Danielle Renov, and from the many other women challah bakers in my life, that these are ten minutes of my week that I just have to let go. I have to trust that the dough is going to form and it is going to rise. My own reasonable sense doesn’t understand how this gloppy, gluey mass will turn into a soft, pillowy dough. But as I knead, the dough will form. It always does.
Something else I’ve begun to realize is that trusting in this kneading process is a portal into trusting other invisible processes, too. Trusting this process is akin to trusting in all that cannot be seen. But miracles can be made manifest; just look at what is happening in your own hands! Jewish women around the world are practicing their faith each week when we knead challah dough for our families. If my kneading will turn flour into actual dough I can eat, then perhaps my kneading can turn blessings into actual real life gifts, too. I take this time to speak my requests, to ask for my family’s needs, to pray for my loved ones’ healing. I infuse my baking with these words, giving my prayers a chance to come to life along with the dough.
The dough comes together. It is soft to the touch, and it lovingly bounces back when I press into it. Now comes the final step in the process. Right before it goes into the oven, I separate one little piece of the dough and roll it into a ball. Holding the ball tight in my palm, I repeat the words being recited by Jewish women all over the world:
ברון אתה ה אלוהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציוונו להפריש חלה מין העיסה
Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who sanctified us with mitzvahs and commanded us to separate Challah from the dough.
Then I throw my challah into the oven, and let it burn.
Why is burning a piece of challah part of this bread-making process? Why, oh why, would we destroy a piece of what we so laboriously crafted?
Taking challah is a recreation of an ancient religious practice. The ritual is first narrated in the Torah:
These verses first introduce the term “challah.” Challah is a designated loaf - one portion separated from the rest of a person’s baking yield. This one loaf would have been set aside as a gift, and donated to the ancient Temple priests. This donation was part of an elaborate and well-choreographed system of donations, a calendar year’s worth of fruits and baked goods given to the priests.
Since the Roman Empire’s destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, there are no more Jewish priests. The Jewish calendar is no longer filled with rituals of donation. But we haven’t completely forsaken the original message of this Biblical passage; indeed, Jews do still separate a portion of our baking! We can’t donate this portion, of course, so we burn it, instead.
In burning the separated portion of dough, the challah ritual becomes an homage to the entire system of ancient Temple worship which was not only based on donations but also included burnt sacrifices. I imagine the thought of burning sacrifices, especially animal sacrifices, might make a lot of people squeamish. But ancient Jewish ritual systems had their own beautiful logic. The burnt offerings of the ancient Jewish days were believed to have an effect in the real human world. The smoke of the burnt offerings would rise upward toward the Heavens, and the scent enticed God’s senses. God would smell the scent and feel appeased. (Think of the word “incense” in English -- the same word is used to describe our sense of smell and for describing an emotion we’d want to appease!) When God smelled the smoke of the burnt offerings, He calmed. God would then reply accordingly, blessing His world in response.
It is easy to understand why Jews wouldn’t want to lose these old rituals even in a world without Temples and priests. The sacrifices and donations were our efforts to give a little of what we have in order to get a whole lot back. The prophet Ezekiel spells it out:
The Biblical system was clear: a collection of gifts was donated to the priests. Choice fruit, for example. On top of this, a portion of baked goods. In this verse from Ezekiel, though, we find an important extra piece of information: the donation of baked goods was met with a response: the bakers’ homes are rewarded with blessings. Through separating a portion of our weekly baking, a challah-maker today upholds the old system. In so doing, she and her home merit the same blessings that the Biblical offerings would have elicited.
And so: when a challah baker prepares bread for her family and blesses her household during her kneading, there is real reason for her to believe that her prayed-upon dough will serve as a direct conduit to fulfill her blessings. The Bible tells us that this is how it works! With this inherited tradition in mind, a woman will knead and pray, knead and pray, knead and pray. Then she remembers what the Torah tells her to offer: one portion of her baking. She separates the challah. And then she burns this portion, creating smoke, sealing the deal with God.
Every Friday, from my oven, the smell of burning dough mixes with the smell of baking bread. As the aromas spread through my house, the smell of bread works its unique magic on me too. I feel better, calmer. This bread will satisfy. What a blessing.
Why bread, why dough, why challah? What is it about baking bread and taking challah that merits our receiving such blessings?
And dare I ask: why women?
To answer “why bread?” one doesn’t have to search very far. Bread is, we all know, the stuff of life. This isn’t just a riff on the slogan for Wonder Bread. It is an ancient idea. As the Psalmist writes:
Bread is our most basic food. Bread is what we need to survive. And so the Jewish woman bakes bread for her family.
But we do not, as Deuteronomy reminds, “live on bread alone.” A good life requires more than mere sustenance for basic survival. Bread is the necessary first step, certainly. But once we are fed, a better life becomes possible. In this way, bread holds a special power: it offers the possibility of a life that extends beyond “bread alone.”
One quality of a good life is a life of plenty, having enough resources to live a life shared with others. Here too, bread plays a role. Think of the etymology of the word “companionship:” com-pain, with-bread. Bread brings people together, and it is meant to be shared with companions. But think, then, of the opposite scenario: if bread is a sign of friendship, then there can be great enmity when bread becomes scarce. The Hebrew word for “war,” milchama, comes from the root letters lamed, chet, mem. These three letters together spell bread. Famine, hunger, and lack of food are reasons to wage war.
With bread, we come together. Without bread, we risk a world torn apart. Humans bake bread not only as the basic building block for living; humans bake bread to build a world worth living in. And so a Jewish woman bakes bread for her family, to create a world in which her family can not only survive, but actually thrive.
Bread is a symbol that one’s safety and security are not under threat and that a person’s basic needs are taken care of. Having bread leads the way toward working for a better life, and therefore, can and must be representative of an existence that is productive, generative, and creative. In baking bread, humans create the substance that allows us to enact our unique potential to be empowered, to contribute to improving the quality of our own lives.
The relationship between bread and human creativity is woven into the very core of the Jewish attitude toward bread. Consider for example, the prayer recited before eating bread:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who extracts bread from the land.
This blessing is so familiar to many Jews that one might miss the formula’s strange idea. Does God actually extract bread from the land? Definitely not! God provides the raw materials, sure. God might have created the wheat. But human effort is required in order to transform wheat into flour, flour into dough, dough into bread. Bread making is a process with many steps, most of which are not performed by God at all. Our crediting God with “extracting” bread, is in fact, not the whole story, and we know it.
Bread is necessarily a partnership between human and divine. In making bread, humans act in the divine image - being creators along with God to bring life into the world: transforming wheat into flour, making flour rise into dough, baking dough into bread.
Consider the effort required to bring forth bread from the ground. The human role in “extracting bread from the land” requires a whole assembly line of participating people. There is the planter, the harvester, the separator, grinder. Not to mention that in today’s world, there is also the packager, the truck driver, the shipper, the shelf-stocker. It takes several steps of human-action to get from God’s creation of wheat to the challah on the table.
It isn’t a far flung guess, either, to imagine that most of the people in this chain are men. Farming, factory work, and transportation are usually understood as a male realm of labor. There is, though, still one part of the process that, traditionally, Jewish women have claimed: the baking.
Jewish texts have long described bread-baking as a labor designated for women in particular. As far back as the Talmud, bread baking was portrayed as women’s work. The Talmud records:
This Talmudic adage describes the division of responsibilities between women and men: men bring wheat from the field; women turn wheat into bread. There is one way of reading this description that could appear belittling: “In what manner does a woman help a man?” sounds like women are second fiddle to the primary labor performed by men. But I don’t believe that the Talmud’s narrative is condescending at all. Indeed, the opposite! Bread baking is the action which “lights up his eyes and stands him on his feet,” implying: she made the work vital! Her bread-making is the productive, generative, and creative part of the process. She is responsible for the step that transforms their life from mere existence to something better. To something more blessed.
The chain of events goes like this: God creates raw material. Man turns that raw material into something of use. But, then, there is a possible standstill, a vulnerable moment in the process. God has created the wheat, and man has extracted it from the ground, and now what? Without the next step in the process, there will be no bread at all. In this crucial moment, Jewish tradition nominates women; women are uniquely qualified to complete the act. She completes the process of bread-making that began long before she stands here now in her kitchen, but which would have been for naught if not for her final act of effort.
In many contemporary homes, the gendered division of how bread and clothes are made may be different from the Talmud’s description of these labors. Furthermore, in today’s world, we are more removed than ever from the long chain of events that gives us access to raw materials. (In case it wasn’t obvious, my husband does not bring home wheat for me! I buy flour at the supermarket!) Nonetheless, the Talmudic description of the gender roles is still instructive today: it teaches that “completion” is the woman’s unique contribution to her family’s life building efforts.
Baking bread represents a woman’s ability (and, therefore, her responsibility!) to bring into existence that which would otherwise remain inert. She is the one who finishes the process; she can accomplish goals, make stuff happen, bring things to life.
In assigning women the ritual of challah-taking, Judaism has offered women the opportunity to exercise this unique capability on a regular basis. She need not wait for pregnancy to demonstrate her life-creating powers; she is invited to take challah, and to transform flour into living dough on a weekly basis. Indeed, while there are certainly many processes brought to completion by women in our homes, only bread-baking is marked with an obligatory ritual. It is not another mundane task on a woman’s to-do list; it is a weekly reminder of a woman’s power to bring to life exactly what is needed, to bring blessings into existence.
When women assume the obligation of taking challah, we make clear that we understand that this bread will complete a process that results in blessings made manifest. When I take challah and burn a portion of the dough, I am saying: “This is different. This is about more than just our material needs. This bread holds possibility. I will make an offering, and turn that possibility into reality. I will manifest blessings here for us.”
A woman baking bread and taking challah is responsible for the important last step in a long process that began with God creating produce, and continued with man bringing produce into the home. Now it is through a woman’s participation that the magic can happen: flour becomes the dough that becomes bread. This is arguably the riskiest step of the process. One mistake might ruin the dough and send it to the trash! But nonetheless, she kneads. She trusts. She blesses. She takes challah.
And when it works: oh, how wonderfully it works!
I’ve become pretty good at making challah by now. I know the recipe that my family prefers. I know that my husband likes an egg wash with extra honey, and that my sons love challahs folded into unexpected shapes. To make these varieties, I bought a huge metal bowl, one big enough to knead my dough with room to spare. I love making them bread. I know that not only am I feeding my family a food that brings them joy, but I am baking a bread that has my blessings absorbed into its dough. It is said that food made with love tastes better. Challah is full of my blessings of love for them, and it tastes so good.
I love that challah is such a beautiful loaf of bread. It is long and puffy, it is golden and glossy. And it is braided. As is the tradition for many, I braid a three-strand challah. The strands are formed after the dough has risen, and the vulnerable moment has passed by. I split the risen dough into pieces - this one, I will burn, and these others, I will weave. My prayers have already been whispered, but I do still have one final chance to think about what I have accomplished, completed. While I braid the dough I think of the various realms of my life that I strive to bring together: Couple, family, house. Or the various realms of myself that I hope to hold in unity: woman, wife, mother. The bread takes shape, all the strands joined together in one finished loaf. It might look like bread, but I know that it stands for so much more.
My family waits for my challah every week. As each finished loaf of bread emerges from the oven, the smell wafts through the house like the smoke of the ancient burnt offerings would have wafted up to God. Just as a burnt offering would have renewed a person’s relationship to God, so too the relationships in the house are renewed: we gather around the table. I place the challah in the middle of the table for my whole family to see. My husband raises the loaf and looks at me. He knows: his eye contact acknowledges that I did my part to bring blessings into this home again this week.
My husband says the blessing: Hamotzi Lechem Min HaAretz. He rips the loaf and passes the bread around. We all eat the same thing at the same time. We are satisfied. That satisfied feeling is a reminder that the process worked, start to finish. Look what I made: a bread that shows not only that our family has been sustained, but a bread that aspires to bring us closer to a life that is blessed.
About Zoe Fertik
Zoe Fertik is Associate Director of Jewish Content at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California. Her position is in partnership with BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change. Zoe previously lived in Tel Aviv, where she founded a beit midrash program for secular Torah study in English at BINA's Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv. Zoe is a proud alumna of many amazing Jewish programs that have shaped her along the way, including, EIE, Kivunim, Yeshivat Hadar, Pardes, The Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and ROI. She has a BA in Religion from Wesleyan University and a Masters in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. Zoe currently lives in Palo Alto with her husband and their sons.