Baking Challah In Order To Put Bread on the Table

By Mark Levenson

Published April 13, 2007, issue of April 13, 2007.
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Almost every self-employed person has financial ups and downs. For me, last year was one of the downs — not a calamity, but business was slow. And when you have the expenses that come with a young and growing family, it’s easy to be concerned. I was concerned.

As Judaism teaches in such circumstances, to drum up new business I prayed and took more down-to-earth steps — without result. Now I wasn’t the only one concerned. My wife was, too.

She mentioned her concern to a close friend, who gave her financial advice you won’t find in business school: She suggested that my wife start baking traditional Jewish bread, challah, for the Sabbath. Not that my wife should go into the challah business, you understand, just that she should bake it for our family.

Jewish tradition holds that baking challah is a supernatural spur to income. One explanation is that challah is associated with the manna of the desert, the gift that God gave to the Jews to ensure their survival in Sinai for 40 years. The Sabbath after Passover — this week’s Sabbath — is a particularly propitious time for this connection; a challah baked for this Sabbath with a key in it, called a “shlisl challah,” is said to unlock the gates to income. But the connection is also attributed to challahs baked throughout the year.

It seems ironic that the religion that gave the world monotheism is unable to shake practices that smack of superstition. For centuries, some rabbis have railed against the idea that swinging a chicken above one’s head at the start of the year will cleanse one’s sins — but the practice continues. And, as pop culture mavens know, a red string around the wrist is supposedly better for you than a Mayo Clinic doctor and a top accountant.

Some superstitions, such as eating a fish head or a pomegranate to promote fertility, seem harmless. Others don’t. The mezuza — a small, rolled-up parchment with Torah text — is a symbol of the Jewish home mandated by Torah law. But for hundreds of years, some have regarded it as an amulet to ward off danger. When tragedy befalls a Jewish community, there are calls to “check the mezuzas,” as though God might mete out calamity because someone allowed the ink on his mezuza to fade. Worse, this reinvention of the mezuza seems idolatrous to the extent that people think the object itself can effect the protection they seek.

Which is why I couldn’t believe that God would solve our financial problems if my wife baked challah. Frankly, it’s been difficult for me to believe the traditional Jewish concept that God remains deeply interested, and involved, in our daily lives. For this reason, I didn’t bother to pray for many years. I rekindled my belief in God through the study of traditional texts. But there’s a world of difference between an intellectual acceptance of the idea of God and feeling deeply that God is a real force in one’s life. This chronic crisis of faith was a continuous dull pain on my soul.

But my wife embraced her friend’s suggestion enthusiastically. Bread boards and egg brushes were purchased, and whole wheat challah was baked in our home. My wife was attentive to the Jewish legal aspects of the exercise, carefully separating and destroying the small piece of dough that represents what would have been given to the Temple if it still stood.

She was attentive to the spiritual aspects of the exercise, as well, using the time not only to focus her prayers but also to call a different friend each week, each with a particular need — this one had lost a job, that one was having a difficult pregnancy — to whom she would dedicate the “spiritual value” of that week’s challah.

Making challah also proved to be a way that our family could prepare for the Sabbath together. My wife had an eager assistant in our 3-year-old son, who quickly learned to knead, roll and twist the dough. I participated by brushing the raw loaves with egg so that the baked breads would glisten appropriately.

While I have longstanding clients, they almost always hire me for one project at a time, so a heavy workload one week is no guide to what the following week will bring. The week after my wife started baking challah, a client hired me for a yearlong contract worth almost half my previous year’s income. This was unprecedented in my 16 years of self-employment. But it was not to be unique: The following week, another client did the same thing. New clients and other long-term contracts emerged, too. I thank God that I am now offered more work than I can handle.

What am I to think? God will shower you with gifts if you bake bread for him? Not my God. My wife’s friend doesn’t subscribe to that quid-pro-quo deity, either. She told me that when she puts together flour and water, she also puts herself in God’s hands. When one has this sense of partnership with God, my wife’s friend said, prayers become more powerful, encouraging God to answer them affirmatively. Put another way, it’s about using the process of making challah to focus on one’s relationship with God, and about God’s positive response to our prayers when we first choose to invest in our relationship with him.

How do I regard my good fortune? Even more than the income, I needed the reassurance — reassurance that God is present and engaged in the welfare of his creations, even this one. I choose to believe that that’s what I got.

Which leaves me with another challenge: how to make my life worthy of such attention.

Mark Levenson is a writer living in New York City.

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