Why cover the challah?
There are dozens (maybe hundreds) of online explanations for the custom of using a challah cover, but it seems to me that most of them are just rehashing information they found elsewhere online.
A well-known contemporary halacha compendium called Piskei Tshuvos has some valuable information on the topic, including full citations (O.C. 271, 18).
For the most part, two reasons for the custom are commonly cited:
- To spare the challah “embarassment” at having been passed over in favor of the wine, which usually comes only after the bread
- To envelope the challah just as the mannah was covered top and bottom
But in the Tur and Beis Yosef we also find a third reason for the challah cover custom: To demonstrate that the challah is being brought out in honor of Shabbos.
This third custom is a bit hard to conceptualize, since times have changed since the time of the Gemara. During Talmudic times, meals were often eaten on mini tables placed before each individual participant. (This may ring a bell in relation to haseiva, leaning while drinking the wine and eating the matzah on Passover Night.) The table was kept in a side room and only brought out, with the bread, after Kiddush. Had the table already been in place, it would have been less apparent that the meal was served specially in honor of Shabbat, but when it’s brought out immediately following Kiddush, the declaration of the sanctity of Shabbos, the raison d’etre of the meal is clear.
Thus during Talmudic times, a challah cover would be unnecessary to demonstrate that the bread is being served in honor of Shabbos and likewise unnecessary to spare the challah’s “embarrassment,” but would still be called for to envelope the challah as a memorial to the mannah.
Today, the custom is to use a challah cover for all three reasons. What difference does it make why you cover the challah? Well, there are some scenarios where it does make a difference. Most notably, an obvious question: If we’re using it to prevent the challah’s embarrassment at having been passed over in favor of the wine, once the blessing over the wine has been recited, there should be no longer be any need to cover the challah.
Challah cover above and beneath
Take a look at the halacha brought in the Shulchan Aruch (271, 9):
צריך שתהיה מפה על השלחן תחת הפת ומפה אחרת פרוסה על גביו
Literal translation: There must be a cloth on the table under the bread, and a separate cloth laid on top of it.
Two cloths?! In all likelihood, you probably observe this custom without ever having noticed: The tablecloth is considered, by most halachic authorities, to be the cloth placed underneath.
This came as a bit of a surprise to me personally, since I would think it’s not very apparent that the tablecloth is being used as part of the remembrance of how the mannah was encased. The tablecloth is there because, well, people eat on a tablecloth! And moreover, a nice white tablecloth in honor of Shabbos.
Piskei Tshuvos does cite one source that seems to concur with my reading (Shmiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa, Chap. 47, 25). He writes that a careful reading of the Shulchan Aruch and Shulchan Aruch HaRav suggests that there should be a special cloth underneath the challah, irrespective of the tablecloth.
But most poskim, including the Mishnah Berurah and Rabbi Nissim Karelitz in Chut HaShani, do not seem to concur, and Piskei Tshuvos challenges Rabbi Yehoshua Neubert’s assertion in Shmiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa, asking what his source was.
White challah cover or any color?
Is a white challah cover preferable? Piskei Tshuvos writes that ideally the challah cover should indeed be white, quoting the Eliya Raba (s.v. 16):
ויניח מפה לבנה על השולחן...ויכסה הלחם במפה שניה ג”כ לבנה
Translation: And one should place a white cloth on the table...and cover the bread with a second white cloth as well.
Piskei Tshuvos explains that during the weekdays the mannah was translucent, while on Shabbos it was white, therefore the custom to use a white challah cover is quite logical.