quick summary: Challah is one of the seven charitable gifts given to the priests or eaten in purity when the holy Temple stood in Jerusalem . These seven gifts of charity rectify our emotional realm.
Challah and the Rectification of the World of Chaos (Tohu)
One of the central paradigms in Kabbalah is that of the shattering of the seven spiritual (or, consciousness) realms of the World of Chaos, the first spiritual emanation that radiated out of Primordial Man (Adam Kadmon). As explained in Kabbalah, these seven spiritual realms constituted the emotional faculties emanated by Primordial Man and thus correspond to the sefirot from knowledge to kingdom, with eternity and acknowledgment treated, as they are many times, as a single unit. That these first emanations could not survive and ultimately shattered, falling into the levels of the impure, suggests that indeed the initial state of every person’s emotional faculties is not rectified. The Arizal, who introduced the notion of the World of Chaos and its shattered realms pointed to the Biblical account of the seven kings of Edom1 as the Biblical source that refers to the emanation and subsequent demise of these first emotional realms.
In Chassidut, it is explained in length that the reason for the shattering of the seven realms of emotion in the World of Chaos was their overwhelming sense of self, which led each to feel that it alone could “rule” over the entire emotional realm (a sentiment known as “ana emloch,” literally, “I will rule”), dismissing any contribution from the other emotional faculties. Where the emotional realm of the World of Chaos was destroyed by feelings of self-importance and self-centeredness, the emotions of a rectified individual are stable and secure when governed by the calming and relaxing influence of the sefirah of wisdom and its inner experiential quality of self-nullification and selflessness. Thus, the measure of spiritual maturity is the pliancy of one’s emotions, a state that can only be achieved by subduing one’s ego and feelings of self-importance.
There are different commandments of the Torah that are directed (explicitly or implicitly) at rectifying our emotions. Such are the seven Noahide commandments for non-Jews, whose correspondence to the seven emotional faculties we have illustrated elsewhere. As they correspond to the the seven lower sefirot, the seven Noahide commandments are directed at rectifying the emotional realm of righteous gentiles.
The Role of Charity
In Chassidut it is explained that charity is the strongest cure for unrectified emotions. Charity, from the point of view of the Torah, can come in many forms: giving money is one form, as are giving time, energy and most importantly in our generation, giving over teachings of the inner dimension of the Torah to another person. When the holy Temple stood in Jerusalem , every Jew was required to go through a seven-stage process of giving charitable gifts before the produce of the holy Land of Israel could be consumed. The last of these seven was challah.
The Tzanser Rebbe (a.k.a, the Divrei Chayim, for his book), one of the central Chassidic masters of the 19th century, offers a surprising explanation for why we are commanded to give charitable gifts to the priests (and Levites). In practice, G-d could have expected the priests to both serve in the holy Temple and pursue their own livelihood, so the gifts are not given to them because they are overly occupied with their priestly duties and do not have time to work. Instead, the priests were also given the duty of educating the people to serve G-d. But, to serve G-d it is necessary to have a rectified psyche—one’s consciousness and midot (emotional and behavioral sefirot). Thus, as noted, the giving of the seven gifts to the priest was more for the person donating them than for the priest receiving them, intended to rectify one’s spirituality, one’s seven “realms of chaos.”2
The Seven Gifts
The seven stages of gifts that are given from produce are:
1. Bikurim: the first fruits of every harvest were brought to the holy Temple in Jerusalem and given as a contribution to the needs of the Temple .
2. Terumah Gedolah: was given to a local Cohen (priest). Its measure was between one part in forty and one part in sixty.
3. Ma’aser Rishon: a tithe (one part in ten) given to a local Levite.
4. Ma’aser Min Hama’aser: one part in ten of what the Levite received from as Ma’aser Rishon, which he in-turn gave to a Cohen.
5. Ma’aser Sheni: once the person who had grown the produce had completed the first three stages, he was obligated to take a second tithe and either bring it to Jerusalem and consume it there, or exchange it for its monetary value, take the money to Jerusalem and use it to buy food and eat it there. This stage applied on the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of each seven-year sabbatical cycle, known as a shmita, in Hebrew.
6. Ma’aser Ani: on the third and sixth years of the sabbatical cycle, the second tithe (as in stage 5) was given to the poor.
7. Challah: was taken from dough before it is baked.
1. Genesis 37.
2. The Tzanser continues by challenging that apparently, because the holy Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were dispersed from the holy Land and were no longer obligated to give the seven charitable gifts described, an individual could no longer seek spiritual and psychological rectification of his emotional realm. To provide an avenue for giving that rectifies the psyche, G-d gave the Jewish people their sages whom they could support financially allowing them to develop Torah scholarship in tranquility. Though giving of this type lasted for a time, eventually, the evil inclination “won” and people started to support the Torah sages in exchange for the sages teaching their children. In order to provide a new avenue for charitable giving that rectifies the spirit, G-d revealed the holy tzadikim, the righteous individuals who became the masters of Chassidut. Thus, a person seeking to rectify his spiritual being, would come to a tzadik and give him a “pidyon nefesh,” literally, a “liberation for the spirit,” a sum of money which the tzadik, in his holiness, would use for the purpose that would be the best aid to cleanse that person’s spirit.
See the Tanya, Igeret Hakodesh 22 about the original practice and purpose of “pidyon nefesh,” and the manner in which it too fell into the hands of the evil inclination, making people use it to seek material wealth and health.