I recently had the pleasure of speaking at a Challah Baking event in honour of two special girls. I’d like to share my words with you:
Take a moment and think about the basic ingredients of challah: flour, water, yeast, sugar, salt, eggs, oil. There are 7- and today is the 7th of September.
7 is a special number in Judaism.
There are 7 days of creation, 7 days of the week, we have 7 major Jewish holidays, Shavuot, when we rejoice receiving the Torah, comes 7 weeks after the holiday of Pesach, which celebrates the freedom of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, both festivals last for 7 whole days. And there are more meanings to the number 7 – Rosh Hashana falls in the 7th month, Moshe was the 7th generation after Abraham, born on the 7th of Adar, Batsheva – the 7th daughter – was Moshe’s wife. A succah has to be a minimum of 7 by 7 hand breadths in size and on Succot we shake the lulav and etrog, signifying the 7 species for which the Land of Israel is praised. In Israel, this year is a shmittah year, the seventh in the agricultural cycle when the land is left to rest and this shmittah year is actually the 7th or last in the cycle of shmita years.
All of these 7s are central to how we perform our Jewish practices.
In the same way that each of the seven ingredients of challah alone has little value, gaining magnitude only when they are combined, so too in our performance or Judaism, we have to combine our practice of many rites and rituals in order to make it complete.
But, challah doesn’t just have 7 ingredients. Anyone who makes it regularly will tell you that no matter how you do it, what recipe you use, each challah you make will taste different to the one you made before. Each one is unique. And this is because the key ingredient to challah, one of the reasons why it is a women’s mitzvah, is love. The love we put into our careful measuring, our mixing, our kneading, the devotion that we weave into our dough is what makes challah such a unique mitzvah.
And so it is that challah is really about 8 – the basic 7 ingredients and the piece of ourselves that we add.
And in Judaism, while 7 is the world we live in, eight is the world that fills the lives we lead with depth, meaning and spirituality – and that is our greatest challenge: to infuse the commonplace, natural, physical, pedestrian activities of life with the refined spices of kindness, integrity, spirituality and the pursuit of meaning. (http://www.simpletoremember.com/jewish/blog/lucky-number-8/)
8 are the days leading to the Bris, 8 are the days of Channukah and 8 are also the levels of tzedakah as defined by Maimonides.
And so it is that challah is connected to tzedakah.
Challah literally refers to the portion of dough that we remove and offer up to Hashem.
In biblical times, there was a practical reason for doing this – the challah that Bnei Yisrael (Children of Israel) took helped feed the cohanim (high priests) who served in the Temple. Today, we have no Temple and our cohanim are not employed in this holy service. So, why do we bother? Why can’t we keep the dough all for ourselves? What does Hashem want with this small offering? Wouldn’t he be better off with a square of chocolate or a piece of Bobbi’s cake or maybe the biggest kneidel swimming in a bowl of delicious, hot chicken soup? And, why do we offer uncooked dough? Surely baked challah would be more sumptuous?
Clearly, there has to be something more to this practice. Not only was the act of separating challah about tzedakah but this gift of challah is actually a metaphor for human beings, for how we behave, for the responsibilities we have in this world.
By separating a small piece of dough we symbolically assert that our lives are full, that we have enough blessings to share.
Yes, we could keep the dough all to ourselves, but by doing that we would in fact land up separating ourselves from others, from communities, deny ourselves the opportunity to grow. We would always be alone.
The word challah is derived from the Hebrew word chol – chet, vav, lamed. When we create challah out of chol, we simply add the heh – the letter that signifies G-d. Similarly, in our actions, by taking the most basic element of physicality – an uncooked piece of challah – and elevating it to connect with Hashem, we assert that we have the power to take anything ordinary and make it great, elevate it with kedusha (holiness). We perform hafrashat challah, the separation of challah in order to engage with what Sara Yocheved Rigler calls life’s most important ‘app’ – appreciation.
Appreciation is central to why we are all here tonight, because we appreciate all we have, because we appreciate each other and most importantly, because we believe that together we can make a difference and change the world.
One way to do this is through tzedakah.
Tzedakah is one practical expression of chesed or loving kindness,
Rav Wolbe teaches: “just as people differ in their personalities, so too do their needs differ. Someone who wishes to be a true practitioner of chesed must train himself to see and listen to what the other is lacking.”
The root of the word tzedakah is tzedek which means justice or righteousness. Charity normally connotes benevolence, but when we give tzedakah, we believe that we have simply done the right thing. According to Rabbi Becher, this belief is based on the concept that everything we have is a gift from Hashem and that we are duty bound to share it.
By giving tzedakah we express our ultimate appreciation for all that we have and in doing so, not only do we change the world, we also do what is tzedek for our souls, we grow.
So my blessing for all of you at this sweet time it year is: be a giver. Be someone who is full to overflowing and who revels in every opportunity to help others. Be the kind of person who is noticed for your chesed and your tzedakah.
Don’t be satisfied with a 7. Rather be a ‘plus 1’, aim to be an 8 and to always add that special part of yourself to everything you do, that something which defines you as unique, something which will help others and will also help you to grow.
And as we strive to change at this auspicious and holy time of year, I ask you all to think about giving just one more – one more dollar, one more minute of your time, one more ounce of appreciation. And while you are doing this, please think of the life of Dr Henri Sueke, that it may be a blessing. Tie your plus with him at http://www.36plus1.org
Wishing you all a shana tova u’metukah and gmar chatima tova. Chag Sameach.