Ahava’s Challah

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat the food of the land, present a portion as an offering to the LORD. Present a loaf from the first of your ground meal and present it as an offering from the threshing floor. Throughout the generations to come you are to give this offering to the LORD from the first of your ground meal.”  -Numbers 15:17-21

East Tennessee doesn’t have a large Jewish population, so for the first few months of my year of biblical womanhood, I searched high and low for a Jewish source to answer my questions about Jewish holidays, kosher eating, mixed fibers, head coverings, and niddah.  

I’d just about given up when in January I found a message in my inbox from Ahava—an Orthodox Jew and mother of three who lives in Israel and is married to a rabbi. 

Somehow Ahava had found the blog and taken an interest in the project.  She wanted to let me know that if I had any questions, I was free to ask her. “Oh and for the record,” she noted at the end of her first message, “in Bereshit (Genesis by you) where it talks about the ‘helpmeet,’ the Hebrew is not just ezer, but ezer kenegdo, which literally means ‘the help that opposes.’ The rabbis explain this term like two posts of equal weight leaned against one another. They stand because of equal force.” 


I liked this woman instantly. 

Ever since that first email exchange, Ahava has been a trusted resource and friend. She helped me figure out what items in my kitchen cabinet included chametz before Passover. She revolutionized my understanding of Proverbs 31 and its “woman of valor.” She shared openly about the challenges and rewards of observing the Levitical purity codes that require a woman to avoid any physical contact with her husband for the duration of her period and seven days after. She introduced me to schmaltz. 

When Ahava found out that my mom had breast cancer, she left a prayer for her in Jerusalem’s Western Wall. 

We are separated by thousands of miles, and there are significant differences in our faiths, but Ahava and I have learned from one another, prayed for one another, and laughed with one another—which is all one can ask of a true friendship. 

So seeing as how my project corresponded serendipitously with the end of the Jewish year, I could think of no better way to celebrate Rosh Hashanah than by making Ahava’s challah. 

Challah is a braided bread enjoyed by Jewish families on the Sabbath and holidays. When Ahava and her husband were dating, he made the best challah she had ever tasted, but refused to give her the recipe until she married him. Now Ahava makes that challah every week, and has generously shared the recipe on her blog.

Here it is: 

4 1/2 C warmish hot water
1 1/2 c sugar
7 tsp yeast
7 egg yolks
¾ c oil (olive is best, but any kind works)
4 Tb Salt
5 Lb flour
1 egg
3 Tb sesame or poppy seeds.

In a large bowl mix the water and sugar, then add the yeast. Let sit for 5 minutes. Add egg yolks, oil, sugar, and salt and mix thoroughly. Slowly begin adding flour, mixing completely each time. After a while it will be impossible to stir, so turn the dough out onto a floured surface and begin kneading in the rest of the flour. (It all has to go in for halachic reasons. If you find the dough is too dry, add more water.) 

Put dough ball into LARGE oiled bowl or pot, cover with plastic wrap (spray the top of the dough ball with pam or oil to keep it from sticking) and let rise overnight in a warm place, or at least 6 hours. The longer it rises, the better the flavor, punch it down a few times if you need to. 

Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface, separate challah with a bracha [blessing], and burn the portion.*

Cut the dough into the desired number of loaves (I make 12 loaves, but they are small. It makes 6 large loaves nicely.) Then cut the loaf section into 6 pieces and braid. (For Rosh Hashanah, consider rolling the challah into a circular shape to symbolize the cycle of the year. See examples here andhere). Place braided loaves on flat pans lined with parchment paper, cover with plastic wrap or a towel and place in a warm spot for 40-60 minutes, until the loaves have approximately doubled in size. (If you are pressed for time, you can put the loaves in to bake right away, but they won’t be as pretty or soft). 

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 375. Take the last whole egg and beat it with a little water to make an egg wash. Use a brush to coat each loaf with the egg wash, the sprinkle with sesame seeds or poppy seeds, or both. Place pans in the oven for about 35 minutes, until the tops are light brown and when you tap on the top of a loaf it is hollow sounding. If you have to use 2 racks because it is a small oven, switch the pans from top to bottom to ensure even cooking. The secret to nice challah is to not over-cook it. Trust me. People prefer things slightly underdone, whether they realize it or not.

* Note: In the Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) there are some commandments for us to follow. Not 10, 613. Starts with G-d saying to us "be fruitful and multiply" and goes from there. When we are able to fulfill one of these precepts (mitzvot in Hebrew) we say a blessing to remind us that it was given to us to lead a spiritually uplifted life. They follow a form. So, for separating Challah (commanded in Numbers 15:17-21), it is Blessed are you, L-rd our G-d, king of the universe, who has blessed us with his commandments and commanded us regarding the separation of Challah. Now, because there is no Temple nor Priests to receive it, we still separate the portion (the size of an egg from the whole batch) and it is holy. But what to do? Burning it to make it unfit for any other purpose and to keep us from wanting to eat it ourselves is what we do. This portion is called Challah, and is where the bread gets its name, not the other way around. 

I’ve never made bread before, so I expect this will be a challenge. (Poor Dan had to explain to me how yeast works.) I plan to start working on it today, and will keep you posted via Twitter and Facebook

Shana Tova!

Have you had the opportunity to build a relationship with someone of another faith? What did you learn from that relationship? 

Any tips from seasoned bakers out there?

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