I was recruited to participate in the baking of challah for shabbat as a segula- a talisman - for good health for the father of one of my closest friends who is having a major operation this week. My friend’s sister-in-law, of the chabad persuasion, needed 40 women to participate in this ritual which is one of the three key mitzvot (commandments) that women are especially obliged to undertake (hafrashat challah(separation of dough), hadlakat nerot (candlelighting), andtaharat hamishpacha/niddah (family purity)). Traditionally the time of baking challah for shabbat - and separating the portion of dough which was once given to the cohen as one of the 24 priestly gifts - is considered to be a deeply spiritual time where the dough is consecrated and elevated from the material to the spiritual. Women are encouraged to use this time to ask for personal things such as as an easy birth, recovery from ill health, a good shidduch, livelihood (and so on). Hafrashat challahis also considered to be a reminder that our role in making bread is part of a bigger process in which we are involved yet not masters of - a call to humility, to recognise the very small role that we ultimately play in ensuring our material sustenance and existence.
The ritual is considered a segula -and while I would suggest talisman as a translation, the magical associations may rub some people up the wrong way. Segula essentially means a special treasure, especially one used to connect with God. Whether you ascribe to the world of segulot or not, there is something to be said for the power of collective intention and for the beauty of such shared rituals.
I was lucky to share this ritual with Mia (my niece, pictured) - who loves being in the kitchen, but being a little Shas kindergarten attendee she loves mitzvot (positive commandments) too. She was easily sold to the idea and we had a good time kneading and punching the dough. However both baking and braiding (challah or hair for that matter!) are not really my strengths. My sister was quick to re-shape my braided loaf, but Mia took things to a whole new place… When explaining to her that you make a bilkele (a challah roll) by curling a length of dough into a snail she suggested that the snail be for Gil (her brother) and the next challah be butterfly-shaped for her. I could hardly say no, aside from which it was the perfect opportunity to escape another braiding bungle. But more than that, it made me smile to think of her contribution to Mr S’s health - good intention and deed stamped with the sweetness and innocence of a child.
For those who say tehillim (recite psalms), please do so for Yakov ben Brayndel. Thinking of my favourite neighbours today and sending love xx