In a fascinating historical article in Family First (reprinted on Kosher.com), I was astonished to read that challah is relatively new on the block, and Jews ate very different types of bread on Shabbos a few centuries back.
The Hebrew word “challah” is mentioned in several places in the Torah, generally referring to the mitzvah to set aside a portion of your dough for Kohanim. For instance, in Bamidbar 15:20, reads, "Of the first of your dough you shall set aside a cake (challah) as an offering; as the offering of the threshing-floor, so you shall set it aside."
In the Gemara, Rabi Abba tells us that on Shabbos there is a requirement to recite the blessing of Hamotzi over two loaves of bread, in commemoration of the double portion of manna (Shabbos 117b). There the word kikarim, not "challah," is used for “loaves.” Likewise the Rambam instructs us to use two "kikarim"for Shabbos and Yom Tov (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Blessings 7:4).
According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim used flatbread for their Shabbos loaves until the fifteenth century. To honor Shabbos and differentiate the loaves from weekday bread, during the early medieval period it became customary to use white flour for Shabbos loaves — although the Persian Jewish community continued to prefer whole-wheat flour to white. Some Sephardic communities would also sprinkle sesame or some other type of seed over the round loaves, an allusion to the manna that fell in the form of coriander seeds.
The earliest description of Shabbos loaves as “challah” in a Judaic text appears the late 1400s. That text was the Leket Yosher, written by Rav Yosef ben Moshe, a Bavarian disciple of Rav Yisrael Isserlein, widely known as a leading rabbinical authority of his time. In his writings, Rav Yosef records the statements, customs, and daily conduct of his rabbi. One passage describes some of Rav Isserlein’s Shabbos customs, provides us with a fascinating glimpse into some of the Ashkenazic customs of his time:
"I recall that every Friday they would make him three thin challahs, kneaded with eggs and oil and a little bit of water. At night, he would put the mid-sized challah in the middle of his table, which was square, on a cloth in the center of the table. Under the challah was a large uncut loaf, even though it [the large uncut loaf] was made of black bread, rather than on a small roll of white bread called zeml. In the morning, the large challah and a large loaf were put on the table, like at night. For the third meal, he used the small challah and a whole loaf."
Notably, even though the fancier zeml roll was known to Rav Isserlein, he seems to preferred a challah that was both thin in size and ordinary in taste. Some posit that although zeml might have been tastier, it was a type of bread that was eaten throughout the week—at least by those who could afford to eat white-flour bread instead of the more common black bread—and Rav Isserlein wanted a bread that was baked especially for Shabbos.
Later, Rav Yosef mentions that these challahs were also called kuchen, giving us another clue for what this bread was like. Although today the word kuchen is used for cake or some other sweet dessert, in the past the word was used to describe thin round bread that was baked in a pan over a fire, using a little oil. Since that method was similar to the one used to bake the challah offerings mentioned in the Torah, it’s thought that this was why kuchen was used Shabbos and Yom Tov.
According to Mordechai Kosover, author of Yidishe Maykholim, kuchen used for Shabbos was pan-baked using chicken fat. That led a nineteenth-century midwife and author by the name of Malka Berlant to complain in her book Di Gliklekhe Muter that these schmaltz-laden loaves were “harmful even for a healthy person.”
At some point during the 1400s, braided breads using the best available white flour become popular in Germany, perhaps because braiding the dough helps to keep the bread fresh a bit longer. These breads, known as berchisbrod, started to make an appearance on the Shabbos table, possibly because the German word bercht (braid) sounds very similar to the Hebrew word brochos (blessing). In Southern Germany, this type of challah became known as barches or berches.
Braided loaves soon became popular in Alsace and parts of Hungary, where braided loaves sprinkled with poppy seeds were known as barhesz or szombati kalács. It took a little longer for the new look and lingo to reach Eastern Europe. As late as the mid-1500s Rav Moses Isserles, the Rema, referred to the Shabbos loaves as lachamim in his gloss on the Shulchan Aruch. However, by the 1600s both the braids and the term khale were widely used in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe.
Of course, there continued to be innovations and variations. While the three-strand braid was the easiest to make, six-strand braids were also popular; two loaves with six strands apiece symbolized the 12 showbreads on display in the Beis Hamikdash. Another allusion to the showbread was a loaf that had two rows with six bumps apiece.
The ingredients used to make the dough also became more varied. In some places eggs were added, as well as a pinch of saffron, to give the dough a yellow color that symbolized the color of cooked manna. After sugar became more affordable in Eastern Europe, this too was added to the dough because when manna was pounded into cakes it tasted like honey.
Since many Sephardic halachic authorities argued that a dough enriched by a significant quantity of eggs and sweetener made the resulting product more like cake than bread—and therefore inappropriate for the recitation of Hamotzi—the Sephardim kept their challahs simple.
Jews from Germany also had a recipe for a simpler challah, called vasser challah (water bread), that contained no eggs or oil. Yet if it was short on ingredients, vasser challah was rich with symbolic meaning. A strip of dough that ran down the length of the oblong loaf symbolized both the ascent to Heaven and the letter vav, which has the numerical value of six. Put two such loaves together and you once again have an allusion to the 12 loaves of showbread.
In Lithuania and Latvia, the braided loaves were called kitke; even today people living in South Africa will refer to their Shabbos loaves as kitke, because their bubbes and zeides mainly hailed from Lithuania and brought the term with them. Poland also made a linguistic contribution, calling the loaves koilitch, keylitch or something similar.
Early German immigrants to the United States brought their customs with them, and for a while the Shabbos loaves were still known as barches. But after Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe began pouring into America during the early 1900s, “chollah,” “chalah” and our own “challah” eventually won the day. In Israel as well, the term most commonly heard is “challah,” although the Israeli loaf is generally not as sweet as its American cousin, since Israelis love to start the Shabbos meal with lots of savory appetizers.
The Malbin might not have approved. In his commentary on parshat Beshalach, he states that white flour is the best way to honor Shabbos; while the manna that fell throughout the week looked like bits of crystal, on erev Shabbos it was white, symbolizing mercy and kindness. Hence, the preference for white flour.
No matter how you slice it, challah has followed the Jewish people into their homes around the world and throughout time, welcoming the moments of sanctity as we take a break in time and reconnect with loved ones and our deepest selves.