Ask the Expert: Taking Challah

Why do we burn up a little piece of dough when we make bread?

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Question: I was baking challah with a friend and before we put the challah in the oven she took off a small piece of dough, wrapped it in foil, and threw it in the bottom of the oven. She said it was called “taking challah.” What does it mean to take challah, and where does this tradition come from?
--Sally, Dallas TX

the expertAnswer:
I know “Taking Challah” sounds like the title of a bread-themed caper film, but actually it’s a commandment that appears in the Torah, still practiced in Jewish kitchens around the world. 

God says to Moses: “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set some aside as a gift to the Lord: as the first yield of your baking, you shall set aside a loaf as a gift; you shall set it aside as a gift like the gift from the threshing floor. You shall make a gift to the Lord from the first yield of your baking, throughout the ages” (Numbers 15:18-21).

In observance of this mitzvah, when the people entered the land of Israel, anyone who baked bread was obligated to give a portion of their dough to the kohanim (priests) who worked in the Temple. This dough was part of the salary of the priests, who essentially functioned as public servants doing the Temple work, as well as Divine conduits.
Today there is no Temple  in Jerusalem. But this practice of “taking challah” (in Hebrew, hafrashat challah) is still around. Instead of bringing dough to the kohanim, though, we separate a small piece of dough—about the size of an olive—and either burn it or dispose of it respectfully, rendering inedible the portion that God commanded be set aside. 

There are a whole host of rules about when one should take challah—it is typically only done when making a large batch of dough, using over 10 cups of flour. It should be done when one bakes a large batch of any kind of bread, not just challah bread. If one is using more than 14 cups of flour, there is a blessing to say immediately before taking challah.

בָּרוּך אַתָּה יהוה אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֱלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶר קִדְּשֳנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָנוּ לְהַפְרִישׁ חַלָּה מִן הָעִסָּה

Barukh ata adonai eloheinu melekh haolam asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu lehafrish challah min ha'issah.

(You can learn more about the mechanics of taking challah here, along with a wonderful challah recipe.)

Traditionally, taking challah is a mitzvah that has been associated with women. Some say this is because women have typically been the ones in the kitchen, cooking in keeping with Judaism’s dietary laws. Others trace the connection between women and taking challah to the first Jewish woman, Sarah. When Abraham welcomes the traveling angels in Genesis 18 he prepares a large feast for them, but instructs Sarah to bake the bread: “Quick, get three seah of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” From this and other passages the rabbis of the Talmud explain that taking challah is one of the three mitzvot set aside specifically for women, along with lighting Shabbat candles , and observing the rules of menstrual purity. (That said, it’s perfectly fine for a man who is baking to take challah.)

Talking so much about taking challah is really making me hungry. I better get baking!

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