In our first class, we began by meditating on the mitzvah (commandment) of challah one of the three special commandments (mitzvot) entrusted in the Torah to women. The first letters of these three commandments, as we saw, together spell the Hebrew name “Chanah.” Because Chanah begins with the letter chet, the first letter of “challah,” we may say that challah is the most fundamental mitzvah for every Jewish woman. We also made some connections between the mitzvah of challah and our matriarch Rachel, and discussed a number of the various segulot that challah has, that is, the many remedies and good things that come from the performance of this particular mitzvah.
The very first word of the Torah in Hebrew is “bereishit,” which is usually translated as “in the beginning.” The sages explain that this word also means “for the sake of [that which is called] reishit [beginning].” So the first verse reads: “for the sake of ‘beginning,’ God created Heaven and Earth.” As explained in the Midrash,1 challah is one of those things that is called a beginning by the Torah in the verse:
[From] the first of your dough, you shall offer up a cake (challah) as a gift (terumah); like the gift of the threshing-floor, so you shall offer it up.2
So, when separating the challah out of the dough, you should have in mind that G-d created the world with the specific intent that you perform this act.
Challah Alleviates Shame
The word “bereishit” in Hebrew comprises six letters (bet reish alef shin yud tav), which if ordered in all possible ways yield 720 possible permutations. One of the most basic texts in Kabbalah titled Tikunei Hazohar is made up of seventy meditations on many of these permutations. The unifying motif of all seventy meditations is that the first word of the Torah, “bereishit,” already contains a concentrated form of G-d’s vision for everything that will come to pass. In other words, the beginning is interlocked with the end. The final end of creation, the ultimate vision of the future, is the granting of reward for the work done in the present.3
Clearly, life in “this world” (i.e., in our present state of consciousness) involves difficulty, hardship, and toil. The reward in “the World to Come” is symbolized by “bread,” as in the verse: “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread.”4 However, as taught by the Ba’al Shem Tov, though we toil to earn our “bread,” the actual reward that we will be given far surpasses what could be “fairly” given for our efforts.5 Whenever a person receives more than what he or she deserves, a sense of shame accompanies that reward, especially when the reward is given for the consummation of one’s actions in life. In order that the “bread”/reward that we receive in the World to Come not be accompanied by shame, life is tiled by trials and tribulations. To be able to accept the ultimate reward in a positive manner and be able to utilize it constructively, our actions in life are surrounded by difficulties and problems, whether as individuals, as a group, or as a entire people. In order to taste the sweetness of Shabbat, we must toil during the six days of the week.
As mentioned elsewhere, the consummate sweetness of the reward, the seventh day of Shabbat, is tasted in the Challah—the special bread of Shabbat—which literally means “sweetness.” Thus, the first word of the Torah informs us, that by performing the commandment to separate the challah from the dough we are preparing our experience of eating our bread/receiving our reward in a way that it not be accompanied by shame. This is a very important interpretation of what it means that the world was created for challah. By performing the commandment of challah, the “bread”/reward in the World to Come will not be shameful.6
1. See Bereishit Rabbah 1:1-4. Rashi, the classic medieval commentator of the Torah, brings two examples of what in the Torah is called “beginning.” The first is the Torah itself, as in the verse: “G-d has created me [the Torah] as the beginning of His way” (Proverbs 8:23 ). The second is Israel, who are called “G-d’s first crop” (Jeremiah 2:3).
In the Midrash, we find that there are many other things that are designated as “a beginning.” Among these are challah and two other commandments that make up the different stages of “donating” to the priests: bikurim and terumah. Bikurim are the first fruits, which are marked while still growing and are brought every year to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem starting on the festival of Shavu’ot. Terumah (also known as terumah gedolah) is the first portion of the produce donated to the cohanim (the priests). As we shall see later, the order of performing these particular commandments that make up the three of the seven stages of “donations” (terumot uma’asarot) given to the priests isBikurim, Terumah, and finally Challah.
2. Numbers 15:20 .
3. See Tanya ch. 37.
4. Genesis 3:19.
5. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught this from the verse: “You G-d have loving-kindness, for You will repay man based on his actions” (Psalms 62:13). The Ba’al Shem Tov explained that “based on” (in Hebrew, kaf hadimayon) means that in reality the good acts performed by a person cannot be compared with the amount of reward that he or she will be granted. The Almighty has boundless loving-kindness, which will make the reward boundless and infinite, while our actions are always bound and limited.
6. Indeed, as we shall see in the following sections, challah is the last stage of the seven donations given from produce, alluding that it is also related to the final reward that G-d will give us in the World to Come.