Shlissel Challah

Many Jewish people will be baking challah for Shabbat this week either in the shape of a key or with a key added inside the challah. This is supposed to bring parnassah to the household.

It’s an interesting custom – not something I ever did, but what’s the harm, eh? My beloved relative sent me this link to an Academic Paper on the Origin of Shlissel Challah. In this paper, which is well written and researched, the myth of the shlissel challah is disected. Is it based on ancient pagan practices? Does that make it bad juju (can I use that word?) to bake challah shaped like a key? Or is it just something that has no real effect but what harm can it do?

Please read the paper and discuss below.

(I am not baking it this week. I will bake my regular challah in the braided loaves and that will be it).


17 responses to “Shlissel Challah

  1. He’s not an academic.

  2. NechamaLeibowitz

    Mottel, is that your grand contribution as a response to the paper or do you have something more interesting to say? Seriously, what was the point of that? I have always thought that this shlissel challah (along with segulahs in general) are a way of saying “Listen, I know my prayers just won’t cut it so I am desparate and will try anything including things that border on idolotry.” Why no one has taken a stand about it is simply because, as much as we are encouraged on “paper” to ask questions and told that that being allowed to ask questions is a big difference between us and those who practice other religions, the true fact is that asking questions, questioning “traditions” and sources is simply not accepted. Thank you for bringing this paper to the public eye. I will be sure to share it and your blog post on my FB wall.

    • Nechama – the organic cross pollination of cultural customs is a very old one. If accepted by a segment of the Jewish community and approved by the rabbinate for hundreds of years, then they have a legitimate place in the canon of Jewish customs. Do Purim costumes borrowed from Carnival or the German adapted game of dreidel bother you?
      While your interpretation of the custom that ” know my prayers just won’t cut it so I am desparate[sic] and will try anything including things that border on idolotry[sic],” is indeed troubling, that’s more a statement of your own personal beliefs than the practice of the custom.

      There is a pernicious element, a group combined of academics (both real and self-titled) and those with a personal grudge against Ashkenazi, Eastern-European Jewish customs (and even more so Chasidic customs).

      I have no problem with legitimate academic inquiry into the source of the custom – despite your baseless comments about the (lack of) acceptance of asking questions. The issue here is Alfassa’s decision to go beyond the realm of academic discussion, and instead use it to preach his own personal theological approach to Judaism – written about – ad nauseum – on his self-promotional website.

  3. If it is a minhag yisroel that has been practiced by Ashkenazi Jews for hundreds of years, it is good enough for me. No one should believe in magic tricks to gain parnassah or anything else. Seems to me that like so many sepharadim, Alfassa is merely attempting to insinuate that Ashkenazi minhagim have no validity and that somehow the Sepharadic tradition is “purer” and more “authentic”. Maybe it is. No one can say for sure.
    But the vast vast majority of religious Jews today are Ashkenazim , since real scholarship among the Sepharadic rank and file (as opposed to the rabbis) was dead until quite recently.

    • If it is a minhag yisroel that has been practiced by Ashkenazi Jews for hundreds of years

      This isn’t true. VERY few practiced it until recently. And recently all sorts of segulot have become popular for various reasons.

  4. Religions the world over have a history of taking or utilizing things from other religions and making them into their own traditions. Witness the Christmas tree originally being a pagan symbol and the church choosing to have saints that people could pray to in order to make the transition from paganism to Christianity easier. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Just as one person cannot have only their ideas in this world, so can only one religion not have every good tradition. There are things that people go, “hey, I like that idea…we should do that!” and integrate it into their religion. In doing so, they take it and make it their own and it becomes part of their religious tradition.

  5. Mottel, the difference between the cross-pollination and coopting of customs little the teetotum / dreidl and the dressing up for the Carnival of Venice / Purim vs. the key challah, is that according to the sources cited in the paper, the key challah is an actual hearkening back to the cross as a symbol of prosperity, etc. the other two are non-religious ways that people celebrated on their religious holidays that we apparently coopted. Now, whether one or the other is in violation of bchukoseihem lo teilechu is up to a halachic authority. Why we came up with possibly fictitious stories to explain these customs’ origins is another issue….

    • I’m sure that the dressing up at carnival (as well as the lighting candles for a yahrtzeit – and many more) were not only accouterments of christian ritual – but vestiges of pagan holidays as well. It doesn’t matter. Rabbis far greater – and more knowledgeable than Mr Alfassa witnessed these practices and let them continue – even practicing them themselves.

      (As to retroactively giving reasons – folk etymologies are common and fine – if one knows the “real” source – mah tov umah naim.)

      • you’ve got to be kidding. rabbis far more knowledgeable? greater, yes. knowledgeable about this stuff?- ie: Co-opted customs from just hundreds of miles away? no. access to ethnography resources, historical references, not a chance.

        folk etymologies — i think you meant false etymologies. urban legends. and if you seriously believe that the use of untruths retroactively to explain our practices is fine (others have explained that it doesn’t matter where stuff comes from as long as we’re getting meaning from it, etc.), we are seriously straying from an intellectually honest approach to Torah spirituality and heading into feel-good, follow-the-crowd, head-in-the-sand religion.

        Talk straight; it helps clarify your thoughts. Simplify your sentence and read it back to yourself: “As to retroactively giving reasons – folk etymologies are common and fine” Translation: Using urban legend to justify these customs is okay. Really?? If we don’t know where something came from, we can just make up a story that fits? We can obviously derive meaning from anything, but making up a story for it? Why, that’d be fodder for snopes ;).

        I couldn’t care less about the author of the article other than the validity of his citations. I have no grudge against ashkenazi customs. i just find it odd that this strange custom has suddenly become so widespread, while our Christian neighbors are baking little Jesus dolls in their breads this time of year — and we’d rather shut our minds than question, “hey, wait a minute….”. THAT makes ME question the authenticity of our customs. Not the co-opting.

        • Dude. Take a chill.
          When this custom was first introduced there were rabbinic authorities – of greater stature then our dear author. If you are able to observe non-Jews with such customs today, I promise you that the leading rabbis of the day would know about the custom as well. The fact that in the body of SHu”t we don’t observe any traditional concern about the custom speaks volumes.

          The employment of various etymologies folk, false and otherwise, has a long standing place in Jewish tradition. Look no further than the Talmud’s etymology for Totafot!

          I never said that we should “where something came from, we can just make up a story that fits” and that we should live a “feel-good, follow-the-crowd, head-in-the-sand religion.”
          I’ve known about the origins of Schlissel Challah long before this silly spat began on this blog (and before Mr. Alfassa gifted us with his article) and am simply not bothered by any traditional rational for the custom. The reality is that local Jews saw the customs employed by their neighbors – found meaning in it and Jewish religious significance – and left it as a practice. That the originals source was paschals is entirely incidental to the modern practice – today it is done for Jewish reasons.

          That today some may have silly beliefs – extrapolating the idea of a custom, rich in meaning, a segula or the like for something not entirely with our ideals really isn’t the end of the world. I think these people are far better off than those the Raavad felt could be exonerated due to their belief that G-d had a corporal form r”l . . . Instead of trashing the custom as a whole, why not inform those that give segulos a broader reach than they should a friendly education

          • “If you are able to observe non-Jews with such customs today, I promise you that the leading rabbis of the day would know about the custom as well.” – call a few and ask them if they’ve ever heard of pascal bread, the origin of cross buns, or the other handful of related Easter breads you can read about profusely online. this is not a castigation of the rabbis, it’s just being honest about our rabbis’ areas of expertise and honest about our practices. it’s not the end of the world, but it does chip away at the authenticity of our practice. perhaps that doesn’t really matter THAT much. and i wouldn’t say folks are trashing the custom – they have been offering a friendly education, with the response: “maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. but i like how it feels, all my neighbors are doing it, & it was cited as meaningful in the Ohev Yisrael, so i’ll keep it going.” –reinforcing artificial segulos. meanwhile – we can’t partake of certain non-Jewish culture or wear certain clothes bec. of b’chukoseihem lo teileichu. we can just adopt their empty religious practices as our own. hm… ? the honesty of devotees seems so compromised by our desire to protect the unquestionable authenticity of our faith whole hog, it truly makes me question even more.

  6. wow. i’ve been posting this article too, and the response against dropping the custom is STRONG despite the possible Christian theme. folks coming up with every reason in the book not to stop putting keys in their challah for parnassah. ??? the issue with the shlissel challah is that it hearkens back to a specifically religious symbol: the cross. it’s a practice folks certainly wouldn’t adopt had it been called the cross challah, regardless of how meaningful or harmless. different from the teetotum (dreidl) or dressing up for the carnival of venice (purim), which were non-religious ways of celebrating on religious holidays. now, whether one or the other violates b’chukoseihem lo teilechu is an issue for halachic authorities. and why the fictitious stories about the jewish origins of these practices… hm?

  7. If our blog-mistress (who certainly is more frum than I am) hasn’t done it, it is hardly minhag Yisrael! (even if it isn’t problematic in any of the other ways that the rest of the commenters are arguing about).

    • Hardly. Minhag Yisroel hardly means that it must be universally practiced – if it’s a custom of a specific regional community – it would also be fine.
      The idea of a homogeneous set of Jewish minhagim is an incredibly new concept.

  8. Personally I am against it.
    Rav Kaduri once warned me that many of the traditions that we have(he was at the time specifically referencing sephardi ones: henna, hamsa ect) are in fact Kabbalah Maasit(black magic) and Avodah Zara. That we should rather rely on simple piety and the segulah given by Hazal of Prayer, Repentance and Charity.
    That being said he did tell me two repositories of valid segulot, the Leshem(for Ashkenazim) and Rav Yehuda Pattiya(for those of Sephardic origins). He said beyond those it was best to stay away.

    Oh and am I against Dreidel? Yes. I don’t want to teach my children that gambling is good. Same thing with ransoming Afikomen, I don’t want to teach them extortion and thievery.

  9. Well, my shlissel challah is cooling, and my pleasure at baking it is a litte tarnished after reading the academic paper you’ve posted. Oh well, I know it’ll be yummy, and will definitely enhance our enjoyment of the shabbos seudah tomorrow night. Good shabbos to you all!
    Michele, Brooklyn

    • Sorry your pleasure is a little tarnished. I like to know why we do certain things, especially those customs that were not mentioned in the Torah or the Gemara. It’s not as if it’s wrong or right to bake Shlissel Challah – it’s a personal thing, I guess.

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