Pesachim 37

Let them eat cake!

Two pages ago, in the midst of a discussion about the five types of grain from which matzah can be made, we learned that one is obligated to take challah from bread dough made from the same five grains (wheat, spelt, barley, rye and oats). Today, following a discussion about the prohibition of making “thick loaves” of matzah on Passover, the Gemara lists several different types of breads from which we are exempt from taking challah.

The mitzvah to take challah is first found in the Torah in Numbers 15:19: “And when you shall eat from the bread of the land you shall separate an offering to the Lord.” Because the verse specifies lechem, or bread, we now need to define what bread is and what it is not.

The sages taught: Sponge-like cakes, honey cakes, spiced cakes, pan-fried bread, and bread prepared from a mixture of permitted grain and terumah, their owners are all exempt from challah.

The Gemara continues by defining these different types of baked goods, concluding that even if they are called “bread,” they’re not really bread. We can understand this, since we might refer to a loaf of banana bread or zucchini bread but, let’s be honest, these are really cakes masquerading as something healthy. In addition, we learn later on in the daf that if a loaf is baked outside of a traditional oven, such as in a pan on the stove, or in the sun, it doesn’t count as true “bread” and the baker is therefore exempt from taking challah.

Here and elsewhere, the Gemara refers to taking challah from loaves baked in Jerusalem to give to the priests (kohanim) working in the Temple, one example of many that the Talmud uses to create a how-to manual for running daily operations at such time as the Temple will be rebuilt and the kohanim restored to their jobs.

Today, when Jewish home cooks discuss taking challah, they are typically baking challah for Shabbat. When preparing a large enough quantity of dough (from about 9 cups or more of flour), bakers who follow this custom recite a blessing at the time that they separate a small piece of the dough, in honor of the biblical practice. In addition to reciting the blessing, many bakers who take challah take a moment to pray for the well-being of loved ones, as this is considered an auspicious time to petition God.

So while honey cake is lovely, separating a piece of it doesn’t fulfill the mitzvah of taking challah. In a tractate all about Passover and matzah, it’s fascinating that we divert to bread and cake. And anyway, “let them eat matzah!” doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

Read all of Pesachim 37 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 28th, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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