Have you ever wondered about the history of the beautifully braided Shabbat bread we lovingly know as Shabbat Challah?
After watching a documentary on sugar I realized that the popularization of this sweet ingredient is only a couple of centuries old. As this is one of the ingredients of modern Challah, this led me to question how has the recipe evolved and what did historical Challah look and taste like?
The religious history of Challah dates back to the time of the Temple in Jerusalem. There are three biblical references to Challah: Bamidbar (25:14): “Of the first of your dough you shall set apart challah for a gift.” Originally, the Challah was separated and given to the Kohanim. However, after the destruction of the Temple, the Sages instituted a substitute of removing a portion of the dough and burning it.
The braided loaves that we think of today as “Challah” are a relatively recent phenomenon. Although Jewish women have been baking Challah for thousands of years, the form and the ingredients have changed over time. Until the 15th century Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike had no special shape or name for their Shabbat loaves of bread. Yemenites used pita loaves called “salufe”, Indian Jews used naan, Sephardim used round flatbreads and Ashkenazim of northern Europe used small white breads.
In the 15th century in Southern Germany and Austria a fad of baking special braided breads emerged. Popular berchisbrod or perchisbrod loaves were made for Christian festivals and these braided loaves became common for special occasions. The Jews of the region adopted this custom and the Shabbat braids that we know of today emerged.
Over time with the globalization and evolution of agriculture, adjustments to the recipe were also made. Sugar became a standard ingredient with the evolution of beet sugar in the 19th century. Seeds and an egg wash were added to the top of the bread to add flare and festivity. The eggy, sweet bread we think if today as Challah is only about a couple of centuries old!
Today there are so many shapes, flavors and variations on this traditional recipe. Although the rituals and the mitzvah of baking Shabbat Challah remain the same from the biblical times, Challah has continued to evolve over history.
Here is my Shabbat Challah: