More about Jewish food traditions/history associated with the Sabbath – a day of rest, a day of sweetness, a day of wonderful, memorable foods. This popular Yiddish song emphasized the importance of food:
“Friday, Saturday, Sunday./As each guest arrives/Every mother sits and watches/How her baby thrives/ Eat and eat and eat (ess) and stuff/Eat and eat, my lovely son/ Eat and eat and eat and stuff/And soon you’ll weigh a ton.”
The Sabbath table is characterized by two candlesticks, a wine cup for Kiddush, and two loaves of challah covered by a lovingly made challah cover. The challah cover in our home was hand painted by our daughter in Shabbat school, but it is rarely used, as we do not welcome the bride of the Sabbath on a weekly basis.
Neither my husband nor I were raised in observant Jewish homes. My mother’s parents, Joseph and Esther Bacola from Greece, kept a kosher home. After marriage, she did not continue this practice. My mother-in-law’s grandfather, Mendel Marylander, was a melamed (teacher) in early Denver. She also did not continue many food-related traditions. In the meantime, my husband and I are cultural Jews.
Let’s start with that wonderful Shabbat bread, challah. The rich, braided egg bread is blessed and eaten when welcoming the Sabbath. Challah is Hebrew for portion or dough referring to “of the 1st of your dough you shall give unto the Lord a portion for a gift throughout your generations,” the requisite portion given to the Temple priests every Sabbath. In Numbers 15:18, Jews are directed to “take fine, choice flour and bake 12 loaves.”
Ashkenazi Jews developed the challah enjoyed today. Somewhere I read that following the biblical references, challah dates to 15th century Eastern Europe. It is made with eggs to make it richer, tastier, and worthy of its prominent place at the Sabbath table. The traditional Shabbat bread in Germany in the Middle Ages was based on the local tradition of a water bread or “berches” baked with no egg in the dough. Even the braided shape might not to be of Jewish origin, but based on twisted breads common throughout Central Europe and the Slavic countries. In addition, challah is made with no milk and can be eaten with meat in a kosher home.
Challah is rich in symbolism. Two loaves of challah (lechem mishneh) came to represent double portion of manna provided during the wandering from Egypt. The poppy and sesame seeds on the loaves symbolize the dew. The fabric challah cover is also symbolic of “the manna which lay covered as if with dew.”
The most common challahs are made with three braids which some say symbolize truth, peace, and justice. They also resemble intertwined arms and symbolize love. Two loaves each with four humps or one intricately braided loaf with 12 humps represent the miracle of the 12 loaves for the 12 tribes of Israel, placed on the altar in the Temple in honor of Shabbat mentioned earlier.
Housewives started their dough on Thursday, let it rise overnight, and got up early on Friday to bake, often baking all the bread for the week. The smell of baking bread which filled the house is often a fond Shabbat memory for many – Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.
According to cookbook author, Leah Koening, not all Jews celebrate Shabbat with challah. Ethiopian Jews ate dabo, a soft, honey-sweetened loaf spiced with turmeric and nigella. Tunisian Jews ate bejma, a yeasted bread formed into doughy triangles, and Moroccan and Syrian Jews traditionally serve whole-wheat flatbreads called khubz ’adi.
Thanks to the book/website “Tablet Magazine 100 Most Jewish Foods,” one of the many sources of some of this content. https://100jewishfoods.tabletmag.com/ and also Hannah Pressman’s Sephardic family memories from Rhodes to Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and South Africa to Seattle, https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/222801/my-sephardic-inheritance.