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Jews bake a heavenly gift with reverence

The tradition of baking challah for Friday dinners goes back to when the Israelites wandered in the desert gathering manna.

By SHERYL KAY
Published January 29, 2007


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CARROLLWOOD - It is, to some, the foundation for a thick, delicious slice of French toast.

Smooth and eggy, slightly sweet and faintly chewy, challah can taste like manna from heaven.

And, according to the Jewish religion, the connection is more than just a coincidence.

Rabbis reach back to the biblical story of the Israelites who wandered through the desert gathering up God's gift. On Friday mornings, they took twice as much, knowing they would not be able to work on the Sabbath and therefore have to bake an extra loaf.

That is why a braided loaf of challah can be found on most Friday night dinner tables in traditional Jewish homes.

"Friday nights, we are especially reminded it's a very holy meal, distinguished from the rest of the week," said Rabbi Sam Seicol of Congregation Beth Am in Carrollwood. "We light special candles, drink special wine and eat this special bread."

The term challah pronounced with a guttural "ch" sound comes from the Hebrew word "is taken."

As Seicol explained it, in the days of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, bakers would take a piece of every loaf before they baked it to give as a small tithing to the high priests. Even today, he said, it is customary to burn a small piece symbolically before baking.

During the centuries, all kinds of explanations have been offered about the presentation of the challah. Why is it kept under a cover at the start of the Friday night meal? Perhaps to recall the dew that covered the manna from heaven, Seicol said. Or to protect the bread's feelings, as the blessing over the wine comes before the prayer over the bread.

"It shouldn't know it's second," Seicol said. "And if one is sensitive to the feelings of a challah, imagine how sensitive one could be to the feelings of other people."

In many homes, there are two challahs put on the dinner table, side by side. Some say this commemorates the double portion of manna, while others say the second challah keeps the first one company.

With a slice in hand, many Jews dip their challah in salt. This also dates back to the days of Temple, when all sacrifices were made upon the altar with salt.

"All of these traditions teach us lessons," Seicol said.

For centuries, it has been a highly honored custom for women to bake the challahs. But in today's world, not everyone has the time to bake bread.

Finding a challah in North Tampa in the major grocery stores on a Friday is fairly easy, say, before noon. Closer to 5 p.m., unless there is a special order, it's not uncommon for the delicacy to be sold out.

Most are 1-pound loaves and sell for less than $3.

Those who still bake their own bring their special magic to the basic recipe of flour, yeast, eggs, salt, oil and sugar.

Bonnie Hoffman uses an old family recipe given to her more than 20 years ago by her husband's grandmother, Ida Hoffman. She is so loyal to the specific ingredients that when Gold Medal no longer sold its presifted flour in Florida, she went on the Internet and had it shipped in.

But she won't divulge the recipe.

"I don't think she shared the recipe, and I just wanted to carry on that family tradition," said Hoffman, 57, a speech therapist living in Lutz. "I think she gave it to us because she knew she was coming to the end of her life."

In fact, Ida Hoffman did die the very next year after speaking the specifics into a tape recorder.

Bonnie Hoffman often wakes at 5 a.m. on the mornings she bakes challah, because the process takes her six to seven hours. Her recipe makes an unusually large 4-pound loaf, and she often bakes it specifically to give as a gift. She's marked many an occasion for her Jewish and non-Jewish friends, including births, weddings, bar mitzvahs, deaths and even Thanksgiving. One time she donated a loaf to a local synagogue's fundraiser, and it sold for $200.

Using rapid-rise yeast, Pat Fox is able to cut the prep time to about three hours.

"I start every Thursday night, right before ER," she said.

Baking for her husband and five children, Fox, 50, a homemaker in Country Place, makes three 1-pound loaves every week. By Saturday night, there is rarely a slice left.

For Fox, an Orthodox Jew, the baking is all about a spiritual bond.

"There's this really special feeling inside when I bake my own challahs," she said. "I'm more connected to Shabbas (the Sabbath) when I make it myself."

On the rare occasion when she is distracted by the day's events and not 100 percent connected to that religious bond, the challah, she said, suffers. After his first bite of the bread, Fox's husband will note that her mood must not have been too good that day.

"Yes, the ingredients are all the same, but maybe I just kneaded it a little too hard that time," she said, laughing. "It's all about the feeling."

Sheryl Kay can be reached at (813) 230-8788 or skreporter@hotmail.com.

Challah

There are many different recipes for challah, reflecting different tastes and diverse Jewish communities.

On the Web, you will find dozens of recipes at www.recipezaar.com/cookbook.php?bookid =66075. The following, very basic challah recipe comes from www.jewishrecipes.com:

Ingredients

4 cups of flour

1/4 cup of sugar

1 teaspoon of salt

1 cup of warm water

1 package of dry yeast

1/4 cup of oil

2 eggs

Instructions

Dissolve yeast in warm water for 10 minutes. Beat oil and eggs together. Mix all ingredients together and work with fork until it is hard to handle. Place on floured board, and if too sticky, add a little more flour. Knead about 10 times and place in a large greased bowl. Lay dough in oil and turn. Cover with wet towel. Allow to rise for two hours or until it doubles in size. Place dough on floured board and knead until air bubbles are out. Roll out. Cut in three equal parts; braid. Allow to rise again uncovered on baking sheet. Cover top with beaten egg yolk; bake in 350 oven for 30 to 45 minutes until challah sounds hollow when tapped.

[Last modified January 28, 2007, 23:50:04]


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