Stupendous Shabbat meal: Kiddush cups, challah covers & challah boards

A beautiful Shabbat meal experience starts not just with great food, uplifting conversation and stirring song, but also can be elevated by beautiful accoutrements to your table: the right velvet or leather challah cover, a fabulous challah board and knife set, a gleaming Kiddush cup and a decorative netilat yadayim cup.

Any special meal almost invariably starts with a gleaming table setting that sets the tone and atmosphere for the meal. A Shabbat meal starts with a few unique added touches: gleaming Shabbat candle holders on the table or on a shelf or mantel. The center-pieces of the Shabbat dinner are the Kiddush cup and a velvet or leather challah cover.

A challah cover brings together the best of Judaica: artistic design work with numerous advantages: it makes a fantastic wedding gift (not fragile if you need to ship it and not superfluous if another guest gave one too), it can fit any budget, whether you have just $15 or $20 to spend or want a top-quality $100 challah cover (we've even come across some for $500+).

One of the main distinctions separating different types of challah covers is the material. Most are made of velvet, cloth, raw silk, linen, satin or terelyne. Velvet challah covers tend to be more expensive, in part because you're paying for quality velvet. But keep in mind that a velvet challah cover is likely to hold up over time much better than raw silk, silk or terelyne. Within the realm of velvet challah covers, also keep in mind that some are more expensive simply because they are larger, and the complexity of the embroidery also contributes to the price.

There is a certain correlation between the type of material and the design style. Velvet and cloth challah covers tend to be on the more conservative end of the design spectrum, while silk and raw silk tend to feature modern designs. But that's not a hard and fast rule. Some challah cover makers here in Israel, such as Kaftor Vaferach, now have creations that lie halfway between traditional and modern, using vibrant colors on velvet.

The same applies to linen tallit covers, which tend to have subdued colors and design work. A linen challah cover offers a distinct advantage: it is quite durable, yet normally costs less than velvet.

Challah cover makers whose styles are hard to pigeonhole (not so traditional, yet not so modern) include Ronit Gur, Rikmat Elimelech and Dorit Judaica.

Barbara Shaw challah covers
On the modern end of the spectrum, two of the most notable challah covers makers in Israel are Barbara Shaw and Yair Emanuel. Barbara Shaw's designs are particularly original, with motifs and color schemes that almost jolt you, even though the design elements are not so complex.

Yair Emanuel challah covers
Yair Emanuel has a very large repertoire: he works in painted silk, raw silk with machine embroidery and hand embroidery and even has some linen challah covers. Over his many years in Judaica he has accumulated an enormous number of challah cover designs. Some of his common design elements include pomegranates, wheat sheaves, the Seven Species, birds, patchwork designs, the Old City of Jerusalem, floral patterns and vines.

Why do we use a challah cover on the Shabbat table?
The main reason a challah cover is used is as a remembrance of the miracle of manna. During the 40-year sojourn in the Desert the Children of Israel subsisted on manna, which was surrounded between layers of dew to maintain its freshness (see Rashi to Exodus 16:14). Therefore we always serve challah with a tablecloth or challah board below and a cloth cover on top, thereby reliving miracle of manna throughout the Shabbat meals.