The word challah was first mentioned in ‘Leket Yosher’, an Austrian book from 1488.
Shabbat, the weekly day of rest as observed by Jewish people, sees challah, wine and candles grace the dinner table. Challah is a braided bread that’s considered kosher as per Jewish dietary laws. Kept covered with a decorative cloth, challah forms an important part of Shabbat feasts and the 25 hours during which working and tasks like kindling fires are forbidden. On Friday evening, two loaves are placed on the table as a reference to the Jewish teaching that a double portion of manna fell from heaven on Friday to last through Saturday. The braids are supposed to form 12 “humps,” which are believed to represent the 12 ceremonial loaves kept in the Temple in Jerusalem for the 12 tribes of Israel.
In medieval times, challah was simpler than it is today. The tradition of braiding it started in 15th century Austria and Southern Germany, when Jewish housewives imitated their non-Jewish counterparts, who braided their Sunday loaves. Braids are meant to symbolise the Shabbat bride’s hair.
The word challah was first mentioned in ‘Leket Yosher’, an Austrian book from 1488. In the US, the German Ashkenazi potato bread berches came to be called challah as Eastern European immigrants arrived. Berches were also baked in Poland and Lithuania and Poland; sugar was added in Poland. The bread changed when Hungarian Jewish immigrants brought yeast with them. Yeast was added to the dough to make the bread bigger and fluffier.
‘Challah’ comes from a reference in the Torah. The Torah says that God instructs Moses to set aside a portion of each loaf and offer it to local Jewish priests, also known as the separation of the challah. Today, orthodox Jewish cooks burn a piece of dough in the oven before baking their bread.
Now, the braided bread has gone on to become an Instagram sensation. Some versions even boast as many as 12 braids. Mandy Silverman (@mandyliciouschallah) has been baking unusual types of challah since 2013 and has garnered a huge following. She has received backlash from Jewish people who believe challah must be prepared the traditional way.
Outside of the Jewish community, challah is looked at with awe and intrigue. It remains an aspirational loaf of bread that people long to bake themselves.