Originally presented as a speech at the Great Pink Challah Bake -- October 24, 2018
The Meaning of Challah
By Nikki Friedman
Good evening, ladies of Dallas!!! It’s a pleasure to be here with such a fantastic group of women. We all took time out of our busy lives to join in this beautiful mitzvah and for that we should give ourselves a round of applause!! More importantly, by being here tonight we are showing a sense of unity, just as the strands of challah are joined together to create a beautiful braided masterpiece. I’m looking out into this amazing audience and see many familiar faces and also many whom I don’t know, yet hope to meet soon.
For those who don’t know me, my name is Nikki Friedman. Originally from the Chicago area, I moved to Dallas about 8 years ago, leaving behind my biological family and adopting many friends here in Dallas who have served as my extended family.
Aside from working as a high school math teacher at Yavneh Academy, painting in the spare time I barely have, and being a mom to 4 little ones, I run a Jewish wellness organization called Nafshi along with my husband, known to many as “Rabbi Mike.”
But before founding Nafshi, my first and foremost training is in mathematics.
So when I was asked to speak about the significance of Challah and its connection to wellness, naturally, I started to approach the idea from the perspective of a mathematician. You see, we mathematicians are truth seekers and obsessed with proofs. I know, for many of you when you hear the word “proof” you may resort to flashbacks of 9th grade geometry, two-column proofs, which for many of you may elicit some unpleasant memories. But bare with me.
When trying to prove a principle in math, one common technique used is proof by contradiction, which means we assume that the principle is NOT true, and then explore what would happen if that were the case. Ultimately, we then take steps to show that the assumption contains a contradiction, and therefore the original principle MUST be true.
So back to the meaning of challah. If I want to understand the true essence and meaning of challah, I have to consider “well, what if it WASN’T challah?!” What would be the opposite, so to speak, of challah? MATZAH!” So let’s explore the idea of matzah, and from there we can understand the meaning of challah.
We are commanded in the Torah to eliminate chametz, leavened products, from our homes and to eat matzot as we celebrate the holiday of Passover. On Passover we commemorate G-d redeeming the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and transforming us into a free people.
Matzah, which remains flat and simple, reflects selfless humility. This concept is also echoed in the Torah’s description of matzah as “poor man’s bread;” a poor man is known to be humble and free of arrogance. In contrast, chametz (leaven), which becomes swollen as it rises, symbolizes self-inflated egotism and pride. So on Passover, as we transition from slavery to freedom, we focus on humility as the stepping stone to liberation and the foundation of spiritual growth. When we can acknowledge our shortcomings and submit to a higher wisdom, only then can we free ourselves from our own limitations.
So does that mean that this evening, and the meaning of baking and eating challah, is therefore all about the opposite approach, inflating our egos?! No! And yes…
The Kotzker Rebbe, a great Hassidic Rabbi who lived during the turn of the 19th century, summed it up when he said, based on the Gemara, that a person should have a piece of paper in each of his pockets. On one should be written, “The world was created (just) for me”. On the other, “I am (originated from only) dust and ashes”. The key, says the Rebbe is to know when to take out which piece of paper!” So life is really a balance of these two extremes.
On Passover, when we eat Matzah, this is THE time and place for completely putting down our ego, viewing ourselves as powerless and totally reliant on G-d. But the rest of the year, we make challah - dough that rises! We aren’t meant to be in a “slave mentality” all year round! We need to focus on our strengths, of course coupled with the recognition that their true source is from G-d, and use those strengths to elevate ourselves, others, and the world around us. We are meant to do this the majority of the time! Passover is only one week.
Our Sages teach us that Mount Sinai, where we received the Torah with a National revelation, was the smallest of all the mountains, in order that we should glean a lesson in humility. But once again the Kotzker Rebbe sheds a pearl of wisdom and asks why the Torah needed to be given on a mountain at all? Why not a valley? He explains, although Mount Sinai was the smallest of all the mountains, it was still a mountain! So too, we are meant to be great, but that greatness is coupled with a sense of humility and not over-inflated hubris. So from here we understand the lesson of humility, while simultaneously we internalize how great we can become! That healthy balance between humility and an expectation of our own powers is what we would call "wellness." Emotional wellness.
And, we can actually practice this by making challah. The process of making challah teaches us this balance.
As you know, even though bread is a staple in our diet, the recipe for challah is a simple recipe. All you need is flour, yeast, sugar, salt, water, and oil. Think about that for a second. What do we always hear? Water and oil don't mix. They do in challah. They are both essential. Sugar and salt. We need a measure of both. It's not challah without some salt or some sweetness. Both are vital ingredients. We must have that balance. We are human. We have moods. We have to recognize that our internal dilemmas and conflicts, our different moods...these are what comprise us and make us who we are. G-d created humans to have inner conflicts and to struggle. We are born with these ingredients provided. But will we rise? What will our character and personality be? That's up to us. That's where we prove ourselves.
This is where math and wellness meet! In challah making! It's all about the proof!
Yeast has to proof, which is the process where you test that the yeast is active and becomes bubbly once it is added to the sugary water. But once the yeast is proven...and you've mixed everything and worked on yourself, kneaded all these parts of yourself, so to speak, (your strengths, your circumstances), worked on yourself toward reaching your potential... now you are something different and MORE than the simple ingredients that G-d created you with and now it is time for you to RISE.
That's the next step in baking challah. After the yeast is proven, the challah can rise.
But, in order to rise, the dough has to rest. There has to be time to rest. I let my challah rest twice! In the bowl and then after I've shaped it. Dough will not double in size if you do not let it rest. Your challah will not have a light texture if it's not allowed to rest. What happens during rest? Growth. If we want to rise spiritually, if we want to fulfill our unique potential, and our potential as mothers, as wives, as friends, as professionals, we must rest. This is a very subtle, quiet lesson we can learn from baking challah. Proper rest is essential to growth. And to wellness.
We believe in this so much that Nafshi is actually planning a workshop in January specifically about how to sleep well. More details about that another time. Tonight, I just wanted to share that insight: to rise, we must rest.
When we take a meditation class, or practice yoga, or go for a walk, or sit down and eat a proper meal, WITHOUT OUR PHONES NEXT TO US, or take a nap, or go to bed at the same time every night, we need to recognize that this is the process that is required in order for us to RISE.
So allow me to take you through a brief exercise to help put these ideas into practice. Close your eyes and think of one strength or talent that you possess.This is a basic ingredient, and it is absolutely integral to who you are. It is your flour and water. Some examples may be personal qualities like the ability to speak eloquently, being hardworking, having a listening ear, or an outgoing personality. Think about what makes you who you are are.
First, recognize that your talent came directly from G-d, tailor made for YOU. And you are meant to use that gift to help you become great and to do good. The question is, what does that greatness look like for you? This will be different for every person, so it’s important to have a clear vision in your mind of what success would look like if you were living and breathing your greatness. Every good sports coach knows the importance of the team members visualizing their success before a game. The same principle applies here. Now contemplate what “living your greatness” would look like? See yourself experiencing that greatness. Who are you at your full potential? How does it feel? Let’s take a brief pause to hold this visualization in our minds.
Now gently open your eyes.
This type of meditation, or visualization exercise can be practiced regularly as a form of rest, as we take a break from the business of life’s lists and routines and take a few moments to become refocused.
Challah teaches us that we are all endowed with unique character traits, which are essentially our ingredients, and we are each meant to RISE and fulfill our potential. The practice of kneading dough helps us understand what work it is is to reach that potential. And we must learn from allowing our dough time - and space - and warmth - to proof, that if we do not allow ourselves that rest, that space, that warmth, we cannot rise.
May you all merit to rise to your highest potential -- and may your efforts at reaching greatness through the proper balance of hard work and rest result in a nourishing, sweet life of just the right texture.
Click here for a recording of the original speech.