Each Friday morning as I picked up my challah (egg bread) from the Publix bakery, I would feel a bit of regret that I didn't bake it myself. Now, as I pull a fresh-baked, sesame seed-covered challah from my own oven, I feel a real sense of accomplishment.
Recently I attended a challah baking class hosted by Rebbetzin Dina Eber with Chabad of West Pasco. She opened her Trinity home to about 25 women eager to learn the art of baking Jewish egg bread. For Jews, it's tradition to have a festive dinner each Friday to welcome Shabbat, the day of rest and holiness, and no Sabbath meal would be complete without challah.
I came away from the class with much more than a challah recipe and some dough. As women, Dina said, we transform the mundane into the spiritual, and likewise with baking challah.
Dina spoke of our Torah, our "blueprint for life," and reminded us that it's what we do in our homes and our lives that matters most, not just what we do at synagogue.
Literally, challah is a mitzvah (commandment or deed) in the Torah that tells us to set aside one piece of dough from each batch we make. The Torah says, "It shall be that when you eat the bread of the land, you shall set aside a portion [of dough] for G-d."
In the days of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Jews would give a portion of their challah to the High Priest. That Temple no longer stands, but it's still a mitzvah to separate a piece of the dough as a symbolic offering, to show our generosity and connect to G-d. Actually, the word "challah" doesn't mean bread or dough. The root of the word is chol, which means ordinary or secular.
There's nothing more ordinary than eating bread, but it is our task to elevate it to a higher level. In fact, there is a prayer we say for all kinds of food: fruits, vegetables, cake, cheese, even water.
My husband and I didn't grow up religiously observant, but little by little we are learning to bring sparks of Judaism and spirituality into our lives. My 2-year-old son can now say the gist of the Hamotzi, the Hebrew prayer over the bread, and the prayer over the wine — "borei pre hagafen".
My 4-year-old daughter helps light Shabbat candles each Friday night and now helps braid our challah and "paint" it with egg.
Each Friday night we sit down as a family for our special dinner, and for the next 25 hours escape the world of television, computers and cell phones. It was a bit of a struggle at first, I have to admit, but now anything less-than-spiritual seems like an infringement on our special day.
I know we have much to learn about Judaism, and even challah has more meaning and history than I was able to get out of one class. But, as I've often been told, each new mitzvah stands on its own. And now I can check baking challah off my list of things to accomplish.
Mindy Rubenstein is a Times correspondent.