I am reading a BOOK. And I don’t just mean any sort of book. I am reading something unbelievably inspiring and motivating and soul stirring. I have written elsewhere about Sara Yocheved Rigler’s book Holy Woman and it inspired me to read further – anything by this incredible woman whose life story is so vivid and striking. So, I am reading Lights from Jerusalem and I just had to share:
I have been religiously observant for 18 years. Three months ago, a woman started giving a course in our neighborhood on the mitzvah of taking challah. In the Torah, God commands that once we enter the Land of Israel, when we bake bread, we should separate off a small piece of the dough and put it aside. This is one of the three mitzvot that are considered specifically given to women.
Not being the earthy type, I have never felt inclined to bake bread from scratch. With my bread maker, yes. With my husband (a pianist who loves to exercise his fingers by kneading) making the dough, and me just saying the blessing and breaking off a piece of dough, yes. But to take a ten-week course in the single mitzvah of separating challah, no thanks.
When a friend asked me why I wasn’t taking the challah course, I replied glibly that I’m all air signs, and I’m not the earthy, bread-baking type. My friend looked at me aghast. “Don’t you know that all the blessings of physical abundance come down into the world through the performance of the mitzvah of taking challah? The mitzvah also brings blessings of health and healing, emunah and protection.”
I enrolled in the course, wondering how there could be so much to say about a single mitzvah.
“The mitzvah of challah is cosmic in its effect,” the teacher proclaimed. Every week my jaw dropped lower as she expatiated on the mystic ramifications of this one mitzvah.
Then she announced that the following week a Rabbi Elozor Barclay would be coming in to teach us about the mitzvah’s specific requirements in Jewish law. This would take two hours.
Two hours? I couldn’t imagine how he could fill up two hours. And, of course, I already knew how to do the mitzvah.
I went to the class anyway. I discovered that I had been doing the mitzvah wrong.
The following week, our teacher announced, she would be demonstrating how to make challah. I came prepared for a Pillsbury lesson that I didn’t need because my husband has the world’s best recipe for whole wheat challah.
The demonstration was a life-changing event.
Now I make challah once a month, and it’s the spiritual highpoint of my month. I start by turning off the phone and announcing that no one is permitted into the kitchen until I’ve finished; this mitzvah requires total concentration.
Then I give tzedakah, so that all my prayers will be favorably accepted. Then I say a chapter of Tehillim, to open up the gates of heaven.
While sifting the flour, I sing, because joy is the foundation of all spiritual success. Then I add each ingredient consciously: sugar for the sweetness I hope to see in my family’s life; yeast so that each member of my family will grow and expand; water represents Torah; when measuring salt, which represents rebuke, I fill two tablespoons, then shake some back into the salt container because we should always give less rebuke than we think we should; and as I slowly pour in the oil, I “anoint” each member of my family by name, praying for his or her specific needs.
Kneading is the time to pray. My teenage daughter and I take turns, each of us thinking of people to pray for by name: single friends that they should get married; childless friends that they should have babies; sick people and terror victims that they should have a speedy and complete recovery; people struggling financially that they should have livelihood. My daughter reminds me to add the names of Israel’s missing soldiers and of Jonathan Pollard. On and on we knead and pray, with such spiritual focus and intensity, that the kitchen becomes charged.
Now the dough is ready to take the hallah, but the spiritual preparations to perform the mitzvah properly continue. Reading from a laminated sheet prepared and distributed by two Israeli sisters, I pray fervently that my performance of the mitzvah of hallah will repair the primeval sin of Eve. That just as she brought death into the world, I will bring life into the world, nullifying death, erasing the tears from every face.
Now the dough is ready to for challah to be taken, but the spiritual preparations to perform the mitzvah properly continue. Reading from a laminated sheet prepared and distributed by two Israeli sisters, I pray fervently that my performance of the mitzvah of challah will repair the sin of Eve. That just as she bought death into the world, my intention in the performance of this mitzvah is to bring life into the world, nullifying death, erasing the tears from every face.
Now I am ready to perform the mitzvah. I break off a small piece of dough, recite the blessing over the mitzvah, and with both hands lift the piece of dough above my head and proclaim: “Behold, this is challah!”
My hands are quivering with the spiritual intensity of the moment. With my hands still raised, I utter two more prayers — one that my taking challah should be considered as if I had brought an offering in the Holy Temple, that it should atone for all my sins and be as if I am born anew, and the other for the complete and final redemption of the whole world.
After all the prayers and intentions, it has taken me over an hour to perform this one mitzvah. I feel exalted, tremulous, ecstatic as I used to feel after hours of meditation.
For 17 years, I sporadically (and incorrectly) performed the mitzvah of challah, while having no idea of the profundity and spiritual potential of the mitzvah. I slid into second base, recited the blessing, broke off a piece of dough — and felt nothing. It did not connect me to God, except on the most rudimentary level.
The lack was not in the mitzvah. The lack was not in Judaism. The lack was in me.
The mitzvot are an unparalleled spiritual feast. Most Jews have barely tasted their sumptuousness. Connoisseurs know the difference between eating and dining. The latter takes time — and concentration on the taste of every bite. A connoisseur dining in a five-star restaurant will not complain at how long the food takes to prepare. Nor will he assess the quality of the restaurant by how full he feels when he leaves.
Connecting to Hashem through the mitzvot takes time, constant learning, and a commitment to moving ever deeper. Judaism is not a fast-food religion.