What’s So Special About Separating Challah?

In the past, separating ‘challah’ was the basic and most frequent gift given to the Kohanim, strengthening the connection between them and the rest of Israel * Bread is man’s unique food, because it requires labor and creativity * By separating ‘challah’, one is reminded to channel his creative powers to ‘Tikkun Olam’ * Our Sages expanded the mitzvah to apply outside of the Land of Israel as well, but from the Torah, the revelation of holiness in creative life is in the Land of Israel * In our days the mitzvah is of rabbinic status, and since Kohanim are impure, the ‘challah’ separated is rendered inedible instead of giving it to a Kohen * Nevertheless, the mitzvah continues to remind us of our calling, thus drawing blessing into one’s home

Q: Rabbi, what’s so special about the mitzvah of ‘hafrashat challah’ (the separating of ‘challah‘), to the point where some say it is a ‘segulah’ (a charm superseding logic) for blessings, and even women who do not observe all the mitzvoth meticulously, adorn the mitzvah of separating ‘challah’?

A: Upon explaining the mitzvah, the matter will become clear. ‘Challah‘ is one of the twenty-four gifts that Jews were commanded to give to the Kohanim (priests), so they could fulfill their sacred mission of educating the people of Israel to Torah, mitzvoth, and good behavior. The ‘challah‘ was given from dough intended for baking bread or cakes. Thus, the gift of ‘challah‘ held special importance, because from it, the Kohanim prepared the greater part of their food. In addition, by means of the mitzvah of ‘challah’, a constant connection was created between the Israelites and the Kohanim. Unlike ‘trumot‘ and ‘ma’asrot‘ (agricultural tithes) from fruits and grain, which field owner’s distributed several times a year in large quantities, ‘challah‘ from dough was given daily from every Jewish woman to her neighbor a Kohenet (mother, daughter, or wife of a Kohen). In this way all of Israel was connected on a daily basis while preparing their bread for a holy purpose, since from their very own bread they would give a part to the Kohanim who served in the roles of rabbis, counselors, and educators.

‘Challah’ does not have a ‘shiur‘ (a prescribed measurement to be given) from the Torah, however our Sages determined that every person should separate at the very least 1/24th of his dough, and a baker who makes a living from baking bread should give at least 1/48th (Mishna Challah 1:9). Thus, it turns out that twenty-four families of Israelites provided the bread needed for one family of Kohanim, and in urban localities with bakers, the amount they prepared for forty-eight families, supported one family of Kohanim.

The Sanctity of ‘Challah‘, and Strengthening Ties among the People

Once ‘challah‘ is separated it becomes sanctified as ‘terumah‘ (a tithing obligation), which Israelites are forbidden to eat, and the Kohanim must be careful to eat in purity. Therefore, Israelites must be careful not to defile the ‘challah‘, for if they do, it would be forbidden to be eaten. This posed a difficulty because the general rule is that fruits can be defiled only after they became wet from water meant to rinse them, or to be prepared for food or the like, but fruits that had not yet become wet cannot be defiled; therefore, there is no problem for Israelites to separate ‘terumot’ from fruits, because it is separated from fruits that had not yet become wet. But in regards to the mitzvah of ‘challah‘, one is obligated only after the flour was mixed with water and made into dough, and if someone who prepared the dough was impure, the dough becomes defiled with his hands, causing the ‘challah’ to become impure, and thereby rendering it inedible. Therefore, in a case where a woman who kneaded the dough was impure because of ‘niddah‘ (menstruation) or other impurities, she would ask her neighbor, the Kohenet, to knead the dough for her; the Israelite would recite the blessing of ‘hafrashat challah’, and the Kohenet would take her ‘challah’ and return home (Jerusalem Talmud 3: 1). In this way, the relationship between the Israelite women and the Kohenot (plural) would be greatly strengthened.

Bread and Man

And now to the specialness of the mitzvah: bread, which is man’s primary food, expresses to a great extent his character, namely, his ability to choose, create, and perfect. All animals eat natural foods such as herbs, leaves, grains, vegetables, fruits, and even meat; man, on the other hand, eats bread, whose preparation process is long, complex, and requires many tasks – plowing the earth, sowing the grain, harvesting the sheaves, separating the grains of wheat from the sheaves and waste by threshing, winnowing and sifting the grains, and grinding them into flour. Then comes the most complex stage – kneading the flour with water to make it into dough, and to bake it. Of all the foods man eats, the process of producing bread and cakes is the most complex and sophisticated.

The complex process of making bread is analogous to man himself: all the animals in the world instinctively and in a short time learn how to survive and reproduce, whereas man needs to learn how to obtain food, clothing, and shelter over the course of several years. While doing so, he learns to harness the enormous forces of nature in his service. The ability to learn, choose, create, and improve are expressions of the image of God in man. However, man is liable to use his forces detrimentally – to be egotistic, to lie and steal, to be corrupt and cheat others – all in order to increase his own desires and lust.

The Guidance and Blessing of the Mitzvah

By means of the prohibition of eating bread from which ‘challah‘ was not separated, a person remembers God who formed all his creative powers, and is careful not to use them for detrimental purposes. By way of the mitzvah to give the ‘challah’ to a Kohen, bread and its preparation process become linked to holiness, and those eating it are able to elevate themselves and direct their creative powers for good and blessing. This is the meaning of our Sages statement: “One who fulfills the mitzvah of separating ‘challah’, it is as if he nullifies the worship of idols; while one who does not fulfill the mitzvah of separating ‘challah‘, it is as if he sustains the worship of idols” (Leviticus Rabbah 15: 6). The broader meaning of the concept of idolatry is all the evil deeds a person does for the gods of his money, lust, and pride. When man connects his most sophisticated creative act to God, blessing spreads throughout all the work of his hands and in his home, as it is stated: “The first portion of all the first fruits of every kind and every offering of any kind is to be for the priests. You are to give the priest the first portion of your grain. As a result, a blessing will rest on your household” (Ezekiel 34:30).

Man – The ‘Challah‘ of the World

Our Sages also said that man himself is the “challah of the world”: God created the earth and all its elements, kneaded it in rain water; from the “dough” formed, He created all the vegetation and animals, and from the “dough”, He separated ‘challah‘ – and from it, created man in His image in order to lead the world for the better. When Adam Ha’Rishon (first man) sinned, he defiled himself, and the entire world. In order to repair his sin, Jews were commanded to separate ‘challah’ for the Kohanim, so they would remember their mission of ‘Tikkun Olam’ (to repair the world). This mitzvah is more suited to a woman, because she is more capable of directing the powers within man, and thus, to correct the sin (see, Bereshit Rabbah 14: 1, 17: 7, 8).

In Israel and Abroad

The mitzvah of ‘challah‘, like ‘terumot‘ and ma’asrot‘, is dependent on the Land of Israel (Numbers 15:18). The meaning of this is that the Land of Israel is special in that it is possible to reveal within it the holiness of physical life. There is, however, a difference between the mitzvoth dependent on the Land – for the mitzvoth of ‘terumot’ and ‘ma’asrot‘ obligate all fruits that grew in Israel – even if they are taken abroad; whereas the mitzvah of ‘challah’ is dependent on the kneading of the dough – for if the dough was kneaded in Israel, even if the flour is imported from abroad, it requires the separation of ‘challah‘, but if the dough is prepared outside the Land, even if the flour is imported from the Land of Israel, it is exempt from the mitzvah of ‘challah‘ (Jerusalem Talmud, Challah 2:1).

From this we can learn that there is a special value to the works of Jews created in Eretz Yisrael even when the materials are imported from abroad, and thus, they must be sanctified by the separating of ‘challah‘.

An additional stipulation of the mitzvah is that the majority of Jews live in the Land of Israel (Ketubot 25a). Seemingly, the ability to reveal holiness in a complex human creation, which is reflected in bread, is dependent on ‘Clal Yisrael‘ (the whole of Israel), which includes all the various ideals in the world, and thus, each individual is able to reveal the sanctity of his creation, as expressed in the mitzvah of ‘challah‘.

In the wake of Israel’s exile during the destruction of the First Temple, the majority of Jews no longer lived in the Land of Israel, and the mitzvah became null and void. Even during the establishment of the Second Temple, the mitzvah was not applicable, since most of the Jews remained in exile. However, the ‘Anshei Knesset Ha’Gedolah’ (the Men of the Great Assembly), headed by Ezra Ha’Sofer (Ezra the Scribe), decreed that even when the majority of Jews were not in its Land, they would be obligated from ‘Divrei Chachamim’ (a precept of rabbinic origin). They also enacted that Jews living abroad would also be obligated to separate ‘challah’, so they would not forget the mitzvah. Why did they make this enactment concerning ‘challah‘ and not in ‘trumot’ and ‘ma’asrot’? Because the mitzvah of ‘challah’ is similar to a certain extent to mitzvot dependent on man, and not dependent on the Land, because one is obligated to fulfill the mitzvah while kneading the dough (Tosafot, Kiddushin 36b).

It seems that a profound idea can be learned from this enactment – thanks to the great period from the time of Yehoshua bin Nun until the destruction of the First Temple, in which Jews fulfilled the mitzvah of ‘challah’ in the Land of Israel, our Sages were able to continue the obligation of the mitzvah, and the revelation of holiness in the dough that Jews prepared outside of the Land of Israel, and thus connect all the creative activities that Jews do abroad to the vision of the revelation of holiness that spreads from Eretz Yisrael to the entire world.

The Mitzvah Today

Following the destruction of the Second Temple and the decline of the Jewish community in Israel, the ability to be purified by the ashes of the ‘Para Adumah’ (Red Heifer) was nullified, and consequently, all Kohanim are considered ritually impure, and are forbidden to eat ‘terumah’ and ‘challah‘. Nevertheless, the obligation to separate ‘challah’ remains in force, and it is to be burned or placed in a bag and disposed of respectfully so no one mistakenly eat it. But since the ‘challah’ in any case is going to be rendered inedible, there is no need to separate 1/24th of the dough, rather, it is enough to separate a small piece.

The Meaning of the Mitzvah In Our Times

Although the mitzvah today is of rabbinical status and the Kohanim are not permitted to eat the ‘challah‘, by way of the mitzvah of separating ‘challah’ we remember its original intention, our bread becomes connected to sacred values, ​​and the blessing is drawn into our home. When the majority of Jews live in Israel, we will merit the return of the mitzvah to its Torah status, and the blessing will increase. And when we merit the building of the Holy Temple and the restoration of the order of purification to Israel, the Kohanim will be able to reveal holiness in their very lives and Israel’s blessings will be strengthened, until it spreads to the entire world, and all the families of the earth will be blessed through us, and this is hinted at by the fact that our Sages enacted separating ‘challah’ outside of the Land of Israel as well.

Thus, we see that the mitzvah of ‘challah’ expresses the sanctity of the human creation that takes place inside the home, and consequently, it draws guidance and blessing for family life in all areas, including health, livelihood, ‘shalom bayit’ (peace in the home), children and their education.

In one of the following issues, I will explain the details of the laws of the mitzvah.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Raziel Shevach, HY”D, for whom the sanctity of the Torah, the People of Israel, the Land of Israel, and family, expressed in the mitzvah of ‘challah’, were the essence of his life and love.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: http://revivimen.yhb.org.il/

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