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I confess to liking a slice of challah as well as the next person—or better yet, a thick chunk of it torn from a not overbaked, still moistly warm loaf, especially when it’s spread with freshly made jam from the kumquat tree in our garden as it was on a recent Shabbat. But that doesn’t make me a challah expert, and I also confess to having never heard until recently about “shlissel challah” and to having had no idea that it is, with or without the jam, what I should have been eating on the first Shabbat after Passover.
This was brought to my attention by a group email received from my friend Menachem Butler, an inveterate blogger, fellow for Jewish legal studies at Harvard Law School, and contributing editor at Tablet magazine. Known to his readers for his far-ranging knowledge and indefatigable curiosity in all areas of Jewish law and custom, Menachem was announcing a lecture to be given by him on the subject of “Unlocking the Key to Tradition: The Schlissel Challah Tradition and the Influence of Frum Instagram.” By way of explanation, he wrote:
Shlissel challah or “key challah” is a Jewish custom of baking challah bread with a key in it, or with a key-shaped dough, for the first Shabbat after Passover. While there is a myriad of reasons that contemporary practitioners of this practice offer, the most common, attributed to [the 18th-century ḥasidic master] Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta, also known as the Apta Rov, is that [the key] symbolizes the opening of the gates of heaven and the blessings of prosperity and sustenance for the upcoming year.
There has been, wrote Butler, “an explosion of this practice during the 21st century, led by a nameless army of ‘frum Instagram influencers’ who are leading the charge in shaping their community’s practice, and which has been met with resistance from some rabbinic leaders.”
Under the impact of the social media, indeed, the post-Passover baking of shlissel challah, once practiced by a small minority, mostly ḥasidic, in the Orthodox world, appears to have gone viral. As described by the Jewish food blogger Melinda Strauss: “It all happened so fast! I was on Facebook stalking my fellow food bloggers when I started to see an unfamiliar trend: challah shaped like keys popping up everywhere! I asked around and found out my Jewish friends were making something called shlissel challah.” Soon, relates Strauss, she was regularly baking shlissel challah herself.
The shlissel challah phenomenon, comments Butler, confronts the Orthodox Jewish world with “the challenges that arise when navigating the relationship between traditional Jewish beliefs and practices, and potential, even if imagined, external cultural influences.” But how traditional a Jewish belief and practice is shlissel challah? And what are these “potential, even if imagined, external cultural influences?”
The answer to the first question is not entirely clear. Although the Apta Rov (1748–1825), the earliest Jewish author to mention shlissel challah, is a relatively recent historical figure, the reference to the bread in his book Ohev Yisra’el claims the custom is a very old one. Citing a passage in the book of Joshua about how the manna, the magical food eaten by the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert, ceased to be provided after their first Passover in the land of Canaan, the Apta Rov comments:
The custom, going back to ancient times, is to press a key into the [dough of] the challah on the Sabbath after Passover, so that its shape appears on the challah. Now, a Jewish custom is [like a commandment in the] Torah and must have a reason, [which in this case is that] Scripture tells us that “They [the Israelites] ate from the yield of the land [of Canaan] from the day after Passover. . . .” Whereas hitherto they had eaten the manna, henceforward they needed to earn their bread. And since all things, as is known, have a gateway, we pray to God to unlock the Gates of Prosperity, whence comes the custom of marking the challah with a key.
But if shlissel challah is so ancient, why do we find no previous mention of it in Jewish sources? And why is it that we find, not in antiquity, but in the Slavic lands of Eastern Europe in which Jews settled in force in the late Middle Ages, a Christian custom sufficiently like shlissel challah to make a connection between them more than likely?
The resemblance starts with challah itself, which in fact, though it has come to be known in countries like America as a distinctly Jewish culinary contribution, is a Jewish version of such East European breads as the Czech houska and the Ukrainian kolach, to whose braided dough are added eggs and often sugar before being brushed with egg yolk and put in the oven. (In parts of Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe, challah was actually known as koylitsh.) Like challah, such breads are festive rather than everyday ones and are associated with religious holidays, especially Christmas and Easter. Moreover, when baked for Easter, in which case they are known in Slavic languages like Ukrainian and Slovak as paska bread (a word ultimately deriving from Hebrew Pesaḥ), they are commonly decorated with religious symbols such as braided crosses.
A symbol on a bread, of course, is not the same as a bread baked in the form of a symbol, or as a symbol baked into a bread; nor is a cross a key. Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that just as the challah derives from the kolach and its close relatives, so the shlissel challah comes from the paska. If Jews picked the custom up from their non-Jewish neighbors, after all, one would hardly expect them to have stamped or braided crosses on their challahs. They would have chosen a different symbol, though perhaps one shaped similarly—and indeed, if one looks at the crosses on some Ukrainian paska, they do somewhat suggest both keys and shlissel challah designs.
Why, though, would Jews have wanted, however approximately, to imitate a paska cross on their challahs? Well, to begin with, Jews have generally imitated their non-Jewish neighbors and been imitated by them in return: this is how cross-cultural influence works. And if one would like a more specific scenario, there is no end of possible ones. A Jewish woman in an 18th-century Ukrainian village, for example, might have seen the Christian housewife next door braiding a cross on a paska bread in a week in which Easter and Passover came together. “Why are you doing that?” she asks. “Because it brings good luck,” the answer is—and a week later the neighbor’s cow gives birth to twin calves. Naturally, our balaboste doesn’t want to miss out; what’s there to lose by putting a good-luck sign on her challah, too? Not a cross, of course. She waits for the first Sabbath after Passover when leavened bread can be eaten again and squiggles a design vaguely like her neighbor’s on her challah—and don’t think that soon after Passover her cow doesn’t also twin!
The woman tells her husband, who has a bit of Jewish learning, and shows him the design. “Why, that’s a key!” he says. “It’s written in the Gemara of Ta’anit:
The Holy One Blessed Be He has three keys [maft’ḥot, from the verb pataḥ, to open] that He dispenses with His own hand: the key to rain, the key to childbirth, and the key to resurrection. . . . The rabbis of the Land of Israel say, “The key to prosperity, too, for it is written [Psalms, 145:16], ‘Thou openest [pote’aḥ] Thine hand and satisfieth the desire of every living thing.’”
Your key has unlocked the Gates of Prosperity!”
The man goes to tell his rabbi. “That’s remarkable!” the rabbi informs him. “We’re told that right after Passover, the manna stopped falling and the Israelites had to begin to earn a living—that is, that this is precisely the time of year in which we should pray for the Gates of Prosperity to open! Your wife is an inspired woman!”
And so a Jewish custom and a Jewish explanation of it were both born together. If this isn’t the way it happened, it happened in some other way—and while it didn’t happen in the lifetime of the Apta Rov, who wouldn’t have called the custom ancient if it had, it needn’t have happened long before his time, either. Several generations would have been enough for Jews who learned the custom from their parents and grandparents to have come to regard it as immemorial.
It is both the relative newness of the custom of shlissel challah and its near-certain Christian influence that have caused its surge in popularity to be met, as Butler writes, “with resistance from some rabbinic leaders.” (Why he himself thinks such an “external cultural influence” may be imaginary, I really don’t know. I would certainly be wiser had I attended his lecture, but even then I doubt he could have convinced me that there isn’t a cross behind the shlissel challah key.) And yet in the final analysis, what’s so special here that makes it worth resisting? Jewish popular tradition is full of such borrowings. It’s not where they come from that matters but what is done with them. The shlissel challah craze may be a fad that will fade or become a permanent part of mainstream Orthodox tradition, but it’s fun for some and unlikely to do any more harm than did the Christian hymns whose melodies underlie Hanukkah’s Ma’oz Tsur or the well-known Chabad niggun that was taken from a Napoleonic march.
Got a question for Philologos? Ask him yourself at [email protected].