Author’s Note: This article appeared in the July, 2020 issue of The Scroll.
It is a rare thing when I get to do a Mitzvah for the first time, so rare that I cannot remember the last time it happened to me. Oh sure, I remember the first time I put on Tefillin and even the first time I recited the Birkat Kohanim with my dad. But, the truth is, after 56 years of life, it sure feels like there is not much that I haven’t done (that I can, that is). Still, recently I had the experience of performing a Mitzvah that I do not recall ever doing before. How it came about is an interesting story; one in which I have found some meaning and would like to share with you.
We have all been spending more time at home than normal, to put it mildly. Each of us has worked to pass the time and make it through the isolation in his or her own way. I, for example, in addition to working, my municipal activities, leading services on Facebook and having learning sessions on Zoom, have been working on a book and a few websites of my own. My wife, in addition to the gazillion things she already does, recently began exploring the art of Challah baking.
Before I go further, I have to explain why this was so significant for me. When my father, of blessed memory, came to the United States, his first job was at a bakery working as a Shlepper. He saw that the men who Flechted (braided) the Challahs made more money and, in an effort to better himself and his position, he resolved to learn how to do it. To make a long story short, he became a master at it. My mother, of blessed memory, was the queen of the kitchen. She cooked like no one I have ever known and was the mistress of cakes and other baked wonders. But dad was the Challah baker par excellence.
I remember one time when dad was baking Challah. I watched as he made a six braid Challah at what seemed like the speed of light. I asked him if he would teach me how to braid a six braid Challah. He answered in the affirmative and proceeded to show me. He prepared the six braids and carefully showed me the first move or two of the process. He proceeded to speed up and speed up and speed up… well, you get the idea. When he was done, I was flabbergasted at the speed and skill I had seen with my own eyes… and I had not learned a thing. I still smile when I think about it.
When you make Challah, and bread in general, there is a special Mitzvah that comes into play. You see, the Torah commands that some of each Challah dough (either in dough or baked form) be given to the Kohen. The Challah that is separated for the Kohen becomes sanctified and the Kohen may only eat it in a state of ritual purity. Since, in our modern times, we can no longer achieve a proper state of purity for the Challah to be eaten, the procedure is as follows: The baker recites a special blessing, takes off a small piece of dough and burns it in the bottom of the oven as the oven preheats or as the bread or Challah bakes. There’s a catch though… The procedure of “taking Challah,” as it is called, only applies to large doughs. How much is a large dough? There are, of course, various opinions but I was taught that the dough had to use 5 pounds of flour in order for it to be large enough to allow Challah to be taken.
Well, our first batch of Challah was a success but only up to a point. It tasted very nice, and I suppose that is what really counts, but our efforts at braiding the Challah were not 100% successful. When the Challahs baked, they didn’t look as nice as we would have liked.
When our youngest son came home, Chana decided that it was time to try again, only this time she tried a different recipe and made some adjustments based on some things I remembered from my dad. She also decided that this batch would use a full five pounds of flour, the first time I can ever remember working with a dough that large.
When the dough was finally ready, Chana asked my help with the kneading and then, after it had risen, to assist with the Flechting. When I approached the dough to work on it, I remembered that I had to do the Mitzvah of taking Challah. I recited the blessing as I remember my father doing it and, for a brief moment, I felt like I was with him. I worked the dough with Chana and the three braid Challah (I still can’t do a six braid Challah but I will learn… I will learn) seemed to form itself. The Challah rolls and the rest of the items I made took no effort at all. And then Yitzchak got involved and watched as I made some Challah rolls, and a three braid Challah. History had, in a small way, repeated itself. After I had shown him the procedure, he made some rolls, a couple of Challahs and, before we knew it, the dough was completed and the Challahs were baked.
For me, the Challah we made was not just a culinary exercise: it was, in a small way, a journey to that “home again” they say you can’t go to. For a moment, I felt like I truly stood in for my dad both as the baker and as the teacher. I hope, when I take that first bite on Friday night, my dad will have a little smile. It may have taken a while, but the tradition he began has begun to happen in my home, and in so doing, his legacy will be enhanced just that much more. That will make this Shabbos an experience to remember.
Our recent isolation has afforded us some positive opportunities. We have had more time to spend with the ones we love and to find new ways to reach out to each other. Let’s make sure that, as the world slowly reopens and life begins to return to normal (whatever that may look like) that we will not lose sight of what we have learned during these months. Continue to take time and pay attention to the ones you love. That is how you build a legacy that will live long after your time on this earth comes to an end.
For me? I hope that Yitzchak and I shared a memory he will remember as fondly as I remember the times with my father. Sometimes, repeating history is not so bad a thing.
Let’s see if I get you right, Cantor. There’s a pandemic, riots have been occurring all over the country, a nasty presidential election season is shaping up and you are writing about Challah? Have you lost your mind?
I can almost hear the thoughts of some along these lines. My answer is simple: No, I have not lost my mind. I am just tired of writing and speaking about tragedy and surviving the latest pseudo-apocalypse. What is my response, at this moment, to the tragedies occurring around me? I made my grandchildren smile the last time I saw them. And no, that is most definitely not a non-sequitur.
You see, life is a tapestry made up of many images. I refuse to make mine only about the craziness of the world. I choose, at this moment, to focus on the gifts that Hashem has given me. I choose to put the insanity aside and focus on things that have provided me great meaning and enjoyment. There is always time to deal with Mishegass, and G-d knows we have enough of that. There is never enough time to enjoy that which makes life worth living.
Think about it.