Monday, April 23, 2012

The problem with Shlissel Challah

Are hot cross buns a
Christian shlissel challah?
See this post at Rationalist Judaism, and this article at I am not entirely convinced, but the theory is that:

1) on Good Friday, which is the Friday before Easter, Christians had a custom to make hot cross buns, and there were all sorts of superstitions associated with them, e.g. that they would not mold, that they had medicinal properties, and so on and so forth.
2) keys back then were shaped like crosses.
3) Jews copied the practice, and since Shabbos and Easter fall out at about the same time, they produced their "hot cross challahs" on the Shabbos after Pesach.
4) As an ex-post-facto rationalization of this problematic custom, explanations of the key opening parnassah were made, such that it became a segulah.

This is all quite plausible, though I wish some of the evidence were clearer. And the Christian practice was quite possibly based earlier pagan practice, a point against apologetic attempts to say that the Christians got it from us.

In the minds of the hamon am who practice this, there certainly are no such idolatrous intentions. Instead, they regard it as a holy segulah, and maybe associate all sorts of Torah-based justifications for the practice. So I would not condemn it as the worst thing in the universe. (There are other problematic aspects to segulahs in general, as commonly practiced, as a sort of witchcraft, but that is beyond the scope of this post.) Regardless, it is an interesting example of how some Jewish practices have been adapted from the surrounding culture.

What I find more problematic is what the widespread acceptance of this minhag means.

A) Initially, people's practice was more or less mimetic.
B) Then, people turned to texts and away from their mimetic traditions.
C) Then, with the advent of the Internet, each group's personal mimetic traditions become text (or become memes?) and become the expectation for the global Jewish community.

Thus, I've never heard of R' Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, but some large local group did. And they said parshas haman. But it was not my custom. Then, since it is a segulah with some expected reward, people forwarded the statement that one should say it. (Often via chain email.) And Artscroll published to the web parshas hamon. And now, the expectation is that you do say it, and people are surprised that you don't.

So too with schlissel challah. It certainly was not my family's minhag to make it. And I'm sure that, similarly, many others in my neighborhood never had this custom. I don't know if it was the influence of blogs, or if it was clever marketing on the part of the bakeries, who add key blanks to their challahs and get to charge an additional buck, but all of a sudden everybody is practicing this, and people are surprised if you don't. What kind of shnook doesn't have shlissel challah? What are you, some sort of rationalist?

(See also this post, and this post.)


Gary said...

I think you're exaggerating the widespread nature of these minhagim. While I do see people talking about it on the internet, I've never actually seen someone bake a schlissel challah. Why would they if it's not their minhag? On the internet it gives them something to talk about.

joshwaxman said...

I'm sure I know at least 10 people who bought shlissel challah from the bakery (rather than baking it, since they don't bake challah), despite it not being their family's minhag.

Commenter Abbi said...

So, I can keep idols in my house as long as I don't have the intention to bow down to them? Since when is not having "intention" to commit AZ make it ok to dabble in things that resemble it?

joshwaxman said...

no, but you can (according to many people) buy or fashion Barbie dolls. your intention defines whether or not this is idolatry.

Fred said...

Do you all fast On Lag Bomer?
Have no Tu Bishevat seder with red and white wine? No Upsherinish?
No Tikkun Leil shavuot?

joshwaxman said...

I am not sure what your point is. And what the 'right' (as in expected) answers are. Some minhagim spread organically. Others don't. But most recently, certain minhagim, in particular those with 'segulah' aspects, have spread as Internet memes.


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