The physical into the spiritual: Challah speaks to women and tradition


Women from all around the Baltimore area gathered in the ballroom of the Harborview Towers on Monday night with one goal in mind: to make challah to celebrate Hakhel, the Jewish year of community and gatherings.

Women and girls participate in Chabad of South Baltimore’s second annual challah bake on Nov. 14, 2022. (Rafi Shasho Productions)

This was Chabad of South Baltimore’s second annual challah bake, with the theme of this year’s event being the unity that Hakhel traditionally brings.

In addition to the requisite baking, guests were able to mingle with fellow attendees, taste challah samples and even dance to some Hebrew music.

The event was led by Chana Kaplan, emissary of Chabad of South Baltimore and the University of Maryland Baltimore, who contextualized the event and its relationship to Hakhel in speeches she gave throughout the night.

Hakhel, writes, was the biblical commandment to assemble all Jewish people at the Temple in Jerusalem to hear the king of Israel read the Torah every seven years.

Following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the practice became less common as the Jewish people dispersed throughout the world.

Event organizers, however, say the mitzvah has gained popularity as a way to reunite with others in the community, especially following the isolated COVID years.

“This year happens to be a very, very significant and special year in the realm of unity,” said Kaplan, who also went on to describe Hakhel as a “Jewish family reunion.”

‘Bring ingedients together’

As the baking of challah has traditionally been a mitzvah for women, the Unity Challah Bake was primarily attended by women. In addition to Kaplan’s guidance, each table at the event had a table leader to guide the guests through the challah-making process.

“Challah embodies the concept of taking something physical and elevating it to the spiritual,” said Emily Hamburger, one of the table leaders. “Not only are we giving physical nourishment to the people eating our challah, we are also giving them spiritual nourishment with the blessings we are imparting while making our challah.”

She went on to say that there are eight ingredients to challah, and each one represents a tenet of Jewish philosophy.

The yeast that causes the challah to rise represents growth and expansion. The water that activates the yeast symbolizes the Torah. Oil represents anointment, flour is a stand-in for sustenance; eggs represent the renewal of the life cycle and potential; and sugar means kindness and sweetness. And salt, due to its hardiness, represents the eternal Jewish spirit.

The eighth and final ingredient, said Hamburger, is not something physical but the soul that goes into the mitzvah of baking challah.

“We think about the oneness of G-d, and the oneness of the Jewish people when we bring all the ingredients together,” she concluded.

In relation to Hakhel and the unity involved in the challah-baking process, Kaplan also spoke at length about the many times in her life and that of her friends when unity and community support have been important. She encouraged those present to reach out to others and offer a helping hand and an ear to listen to in their own time of need.

‘A meaningful thing to do’

“Baking challah is a mitzvah you can bring into your home easily,” she added. “It’s a very meaningful thing to do.”

Though this particular event was only the second time Chabad of South Baltimore has held it, she noted that attendance had doubled in size compared to last year.

“There’s something about doing this mitzvah and uniting the women that really gets the crowd going,” said Kaplan. “It’s a great bonding opportunity.”

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