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The Ecology of Challah Baking

Most Fridays, I bake two loaves of challah for Shabbat dinner. Sometimes I have no other plans for dinner beyond the challah, and I scramble to add something to complete the meal. I use a standard recipe, which varies weekly based on how much whole wheat flour I add, whether there are raisins on hand and how much time there is to let the dough rise. The loaves are always slightly different, even between the two loaves on the same week there is often variation, one dough compliant and neatly braided, the second straining against the twists and curves.

These days I bake with my nearly four year old son, my 14 month old daughter watching from her baby carrier or toddling around on the floor. My son loves the routine. He can turn on the mixer, add ingredients and even break the eggs. He can sense when more flour is needed and when the dough is the right consistency to be left alone to rise. He has even developed a magic word — geech — he likes to shout to help the dough rise.

After the dough rises, it is traditional to remove a small piece of dough around the size of an egg. The act of separating the dough is also called “taking challah,” as this small piece of dough was the original challah that was given to priests in Temple days. Today, the small piece is removed and destroyed to remind us of the Temple and elevate challah making to a sacred act.

According to tradition, I take off a piece of dough before braiding and declare “this is challah” and add a less traditional dramatic hand movement for the audience of my children. This is where I get a little stuck. I have read you are supposed to burn the offering in the oven, but it seems a bit wasteful to begin preheating so far in advance. Since my home is connected to one of those old coal fired power plants that spews pollutants like mercury into our air and water, it hardly makes sense to power up my electric oven or even my toaster for this symbolic act. Also, it takes a surprisingly long time to blacken dough in the oven. Since I live on a farm, I generally toss it directly into the compost.

At this point I veer entirely from tradition. I take a second piece of dough out for my son to play with. He loves this part and the dough can keep him occupied at the table for a long time. A teacher once told me the best way to calm down children is give them dough or clay. Recently while watching him engrossed in playing with the dough, I thought that I would like to add a new bracha to my challah tradition — one that expresses gratitude for the blessing that children learn through play. How truly awesome that it is through joyful, giggly and focused play that children engage in the world and learn.

A friend and Reconstructionist Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, graciously offered advice with this suggested language, “Thank You G-d, for creating a world where children learn through joy and play,” or in Hebrew, “Modim anakhu lakh, boreh olam k’sh’yeladim lomdim derekh gila u’miskhak.” I love the idea of adding this blessing as I see my children play with the dough.

As far as what to do with the actual challah, or the small piece of dough that was removed, Dobb suggests, a radical and new idea: “what if ‘challah is taken’ and given directly to the kid/s (who have ‘energy to burn’), then composted when done?” This way the dough won’t be wasted, ensuring another Jewish value. I think this solution is a good one for some, but if you want to follow the more traditional practice of keeping the actual challah piece separate and not lost it in the toybox as would happen in my house, the question remains, what to do with it?

For a more traditional perspective, I checked with my local Chabad House and reached Rebbetzin Hindy Light in Annapolis. She said that allowing a child to play with the sacrificial dough and composting would be prohibited because the child and potentially the farmer would draw benefit from the dough. But she agreed, burning each week can be impractical and if you use the oven, your house will smell like smoke on Shabbat. However, if you want to make sure that nobody draws benefit from it, it’s a dilemma. You can’t just toss it in the woods, or the compost, or the river like tashlich.

She suggested wrapping the dough in paper towel or foil and a zip lock bag and putting it in the freezer. You can add to the same bag each week until there is an opportunity to burn it all together (such as your next party with a bonfire, visit to a friend with a wood stove, turning on your grill etc). A bit tricky before Passover, but it seems like a good solution assuming you can find a fire once in a while.

So, it turns out dealing with this piece of dough can be a little sticky! I am hoping this post will generate some comments. What do other environmentally conscious challah makers do with the dough? What about city dwellers who cannot find a fire? Please leave a comment here and let us know your tradition.

Tanya Tolchin has new blog On the Lettuce Edge on farming, parenting and Jewish life. She is a manager at Israeli Harvest a small business that a aims to support farms in Israel and lives on her Maryland family farm.

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