Sunday, April 15, 2007

וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים -- My Schlissel Challah

This past Friday, I participated in a poster session at the CUNY Grad Center, describing some of my recent research, and as such, got back a bit later in the day than I usually would. When I got to G&I (or I think it is now Mendy's) Bakery on Main Street, they were all out of medium challas and challah rolls, so I bought a large challah roll and a large challah.

That night, before washing, I noticed something about my challah. There was a key embedded in it.

My first thoughts were that one of the workers had somehow dropped his or her key into the dough, that I should cut around it, and return the key to the bakery after Shabbat.

But then I decided to show my brother-in-law and sister-in-law the challah, before cutting into it, and so went down the hall of my apartment building to summon them. The reaction: "Cool! You bought schlissel challah?"

Apparently, schlissel challah (from Yiddish -- the German word for key is Schlüssel) is a custom, or segulah, to bake a key into the challah (or else shape the challah in the form of a key) the week after Pesach. It is a segulah for parnassah. But it is usually done by people with the custom baking the challah in their homes. This was an innovation, for a bakery to sell schlissel challah. (And my b-i-l and s-i-l also bought challah from there, but bought a medium challah earlier in the day.) I don't know if this was a marketing gimmick or if I somehow accidentally got someone else's specially requested schlissel challah.

I looked into a bit, and found two blogposts on the subject, one very recent on the FRUM Toronto blog:
The minhag of women (or men) baking the house key into the challah on the Shabbat following Pesach (also known as a shliss [=key'> challah) is explained with the following reasons:

1. Based on "Pitchi Li Achoti, Ra'ayati..." ("Open up, my darling..."-- Shir HaShirim 5:2), on which the Medrash states "Pitchu li petach ke-chudo shel machat...," (cf. Shi HaShirim Rabbah 5, s.v. "Kol Dodi Dofek") = something like "Open your hearts (in teshuvah) like the eye of the needle, and I (God) will open the rest like [a very large opening'>.

2. According to Kabbalah on Pesach the gates to heaven were open, and following Pesach the lower gates are shut, and it's up to us to open them again, therefor on the 1st Shabbat we put the key on the challah to show that through the mitzvah of Shabbat we are opening the locks.

3. In the desert the Jewish people ate from the manna until after Pesach upon entering the land at which point they ate from the produce of the land, and became dependant on their livelihood for the first time (now they had no manna). The key in the challah after Pesach is a request the God should open the Sha'arei Parnasah (gates of livelihood). Alternatively, the manna began to fall in the month of Iyyar, and this Shabbat is always Shabbat Mevarchim Iyyar.
Orthomom posted the same info last year, and linked to the source, a post on mail-jewish, by Jeffrey Saks. He concludes with:
See: Sefer Ta'amei HaMinhagim, pp. 249-50. 
See: Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 6, pp. 1419-20 for a photo of a shluss
challah (and other "special" challot). It seems (from both of the above
sources) that the minhag was to bake the key on top of the challah not
inside (a la the old jail break trick).

My wife prepares a shliss-challah each year--however I had to go out and
buy an antiquated looking skeleton key, both to make it look more
authentic, and because the top of keys in Israel ("pladelet" keys) are
generally made of plastic, and there's a fear it will melt in the
baking! We have also begun the custom of using a shliss-challah for the
meal on the night of Yom aAtzmaut--for the reasons see the story related
at the beginning of "O! Jerusalem," pp. 9-10--ve-ha-mavin yavin.
In the post immediately above, Jeannette Friedman gives a different reason:
this had to do with a blood libel, where a chassidishe rebbe found blood
in his wine bottles (after his shul key fell off the wall a few times on
the Friday night before Pesach). See, after the key fell off the wall,
the rebbe went back to the shul and found that the wine bottles were
filled with blood, so he threw them all out. The next day the powers
that be came to the shul to prove a blood libel, but there was no blood
in the wine bottles, so the town was saved.

So now, people either put the key into the challah or make an impression
of the key in challah, and its called "Shlissel Challah" and its a
segulah for parnassa, and they do it the shabbos after pesach.
Perhaps, to all these explanations. It is always hard to tell where an explanation is an ex-post-facto rationalization, especially for segulot.

Someone at the table at the aufruf this week said it was because Hashem has three keys, and this one is the key of parnassah.

I could suggest other rationales for this. For example, it is a siman -- it is the key to obtaining dough (or the key to obtaining bread). Or perhaps because we just encountered Pesach, it behooves us to obtain the mafteach (key) -- this pun works best with an Ashkenazic accent, but the name of the custom is Yiddish, which would allow this.

Alternatively, I have a rationalist suggestion for the development of the custom, with no mystical connotations (which would then have been added later).

Baking (even private baking) in Europe was often done in communal ovens, and right after Pesach, there was presumably a lot of demand for the oven in perhaps limited time, since Pesach might have finished later in the week. How, then, do you identify which challah is yours?

The first Mishna in the second perek of Bava Metzia (perek Elu Metziot) lists items which bear no distinguishing mark and therefore may be kept if found. Two examples are: round cakes of pressed figs, and loaves of bread from a baker. The Mishna continues:
רבי יהודה אומר כל דבר שיש בו שינוי חייב להכריז כיצד מצא עיגול ובתוכו חרס ככר ובתוכו מעות ר' שמעון בן אלעזר אומר כל כלי אנפוריא אינו חייב להכריז
"Rabbi Yehuda says: Anything which is distinguished one is obligated to announce. How so? If he found a round cake of pressed figs and inside it a shard of clay, or a loaf of bread and inside is money."

Baking money into bread is thus a way of distinguishing it... Unless, of course, everyone is putting money into theirs. However, baking a key into the top of the bread can help, because the key is identifiable as yours, either by sight or by the ability to open your front door.

Once people saw this custom of doing a strange thing after Pesach, various segulah reasons were associated with it.

Of course, I should stress, I have absolutely no basis, historical or otherwise, for positing this theory. I'm just floating it as a practical possibility. Any thoughts?

The particular key in my challah would have been no help, by the way. It was kikar shel nachtom, a baker's loaf! And the key opened no particular door, for it was a blank! I think they bought a bunch of blank keys from Towne Variety or from the hardware store for this purpose.


The picture at the top of the post, by the way, is a scan of the key I extracted. There is still some challah attached to it. And surrounding it are various challah crumbs.


Unknown said...

Very interesting theories!

But is the title of the post meant to imply that we are God's good luck charm?

i hope you know you're going to have to perform hag‘ala or libun on your scanner before next Pesahh because of this ;-)

joshwaxman said...


though since it was with cold and glass is not bolea', I would consider less drastic measures required.

My plan is actually to next scan a matzah, for reasons to be elaborated upon then...

Not sure what I meant with the biblical reference, though. perhaps that we draw our segulot from all the nations...

kol tuv,

Chaim Cohen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chaim Cohen said...

hmm, I like your theory. It's the most probable one I've heard yet. had an article on this last week, where they mentioned the Nadvorna minhag - to poke holes in the Challa with the key from the Oron Hakodesh (AR K for short?)
Food for thought

Anonymous said...

see here for details on this custom

joshwaxman said...

Thanks. The details about making them flat, using sesame seeds, etc. were interesting.
The plethora of reasons given makes me disagree with what is written on a Talmid's blog, that "Every minhag and of course every mitzvah has many holy reasons behind it and it’s not done just because someone decided this is a nice thing to do, as some say."

Rather, I would say that this is evidence that the vast majority, if not all the explanations, are ex-post-facto rationalizations, that it is quite easy to come up with such a rationalization, and that this is part of the creative rabbinic endeavor.

Anonymous said...

check out this on Shlisel chalah. doesn't sound like "part of the creative rabbinic endeavor."

joshwaxman said...

I'm not sure what you mean. Care to elaborate? Thanks. I would still say, after reading this, that the various rabbanim's explanations are exactly that. And that that post is another example of that.

the chocolate doctor מרת שאקאלאד said...

There is an article by Uriel Weinreich that appeared in the Proceedings of the AES 1962 called “Cultural Geography at a Distance: Some Problems in the Study of East European Jewry” that discusses traditional hallah ornaments “including birds, ladders, hands, keys, and other objects that might facilitate the ascent of prayers into heaven” (cited in Marvin Herzog, The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland, 1965). Can’t do proper bibliog. In comments, but I will be looking at this. These articles only mention dough shaped like keys, not baking actual keys in the dough.

the chocolate doctor מרת שאקאלאד said...

Bibilography and pix are
The English section is not a precise translation of the Yiddish, but you get the idea.

joshwaxman said...

I'll check it out.


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