Year after year, I ask myself why I am doing shlissel challa. This is the custom of inserting a key into the challa dough for the Shabbos after Pesach. It wasn’t always that way.
When I attended Bais Yaakov of Baltimore, there was not much emphasis on segulos (protective rituals). Reb Yonason Eibshutz was mentioned in our Jewish history class only once as a Rav in the 1700s who had a dispute with Rav Yaakov Emden about cameas, amulets. It was explained to us that we do not use cameas nowadays. I got a similar answer about another esoteric subject. When I asked my father, Rabbi Moshe Shuvalsky, as well as Rabbi Steinberg, z”l, our principal, to explain gilgul neshamos (reincarnation), they both told me that it exists, but we do not delve into it, because we are concerned with keeping the Torah in this world.
After high school, I attended Yavne seminary, the women’s seminary connected with the Telshe yeshiva, where we learned Tanach (Bible) be’iyun (in depth) with many standard meforshim (commentaries). We certainly did not learn about segulos.
Recently, my mechutan (in-law), Reb Menasha Efron, asked me, “Is shlissel challa a halacha, minhag (custom), or hidur mitzva (enhancement)? How did I, a rational Litvishe woman, buy into what seems like a pagan ritual every Friday after Pesach? Good questions!
I relate all this in order to explain how I came to participate in shlissel challa. On erev Shabbos after Pesach, 1984, my sister, CV Dinovitz, who had returned from living in Yerushalayim a couple years before, was talking to me. Thinking out loud, CV was saying that she needed to find a key that she could put in the challa she was baking for Shabbos. (Both CV and I baked challa because we wanted to do the mitzva of hafrashas challa, separating and discarding a piece of the dough.) I inquired very innocently, “What is that all about?” By now, I was used to CV telling me segulos and minhagim of Yerushalyim – at least that was what I called all the things CV educated me about. We came from a frum home, but we did not do all that “extra stuff.”
Once I heard that this was a special time to ask Hashem to help with one’s parnassa, though, I was sold! So, for the next 15 years, shlissel challa became a part of my practice. My children knew about shlissel challa, and on that Friday night, they played a game of who would get the key in their piece of challa. We discussed the minhag, and pointed out that this was a time for more intense tefilos between Hashem and the individual. But by no means did the segula take the place of davening Shacharis, Mincha, and Maariv daily, or of benching, in which we thank Hashem for sustenance, request parnassa in an honorable way, and ask that we should never have to depend on tzedaka.
Around this time, I was at Aliza Shor’s; she was my sheitel lady at the time. Aliza told me a medrash that when a woman is doing one of her three specific mitzvos – hadlakas neiros, tevilas mikva, and hafrashas challa – it is an opportune time to pour her heart out to Hashem. This was when the women in Europe would daven for parnassa and for the welfare of their husbands and children, she explained. This made sense to me, as it correlated with a concept I was familiar with. We had learned that Mincha is the opportune time for a woman to daven for her bashert, because that is when Rivka saw Yitzchak for the first time and fell off the camel.
This reminded me of a poem I read many years ago, which was written by an early Zionist/Israeli writer from Eastern Europe. This poem made a deep impression on me, because it talked about a shtetl mother making daily bread and crying to Hashem to help her and her family. “The tears of my mother poured into the ingredients of the bread…” he wrote. The impact was so huge because I knew this author was not religious, yet he wrote of a time when women just spoke their hearts out to Hashem. A poem can be interpreted in any way the reader relates to it. At that time, I heard the poem as a tribute to the women of klal Yisrael using their daily activities as an expression of avodas Hashem.
I still understand the poem in this way, but I know now – at my age and because of my many different experiences with many different people – that someone else might interpret this poem as tragic: The shtetl women were begging G-d to stop their suffering. At that time, I was raising six children, working full time, and attending a program to earn a master’s in social work. I was struggling with one Shemoneh Esrei a day, which Harav Weinberg , zt”l, advised was the tefila I should say. I therefore created a schedule that revolved around the three womanly mitzvos, to make sure I did some good concentrated tefilos to Hashem. I also found some additional tefilos to say after performing these mitzvos.
Shlissel challa was a great concrete expression of emuna (faith), I thought, that I could model for my children – as long as I made sure they understood that this was not the end-all for the year’s tefilos to Hashem for parnassa. (Daily davening is what we need to do.) Shlissel challa was an add-on to the basic mitzvos we had been taught. Another caveat was that it was not something we bragged about. Nor were we ever to say that if a woman did not do this, she and her family had missed an opportunity. We do not force segulos on anyone.
This worked well until the age of the internet. Suddenly, articles – yay and nay –about shlissel challa bombarded cyberspace the week after Pesach. They were accompanied by photos of gorgeous challos shaped like a key (although some of them looked more like crosses!).
So the Litvak in me began to research shlissel challa. My first resource was my father, who maintains that this is a Yerushalmi minhag, because he does not remember his mother, my bubby doing this. (My bubby was raised by Litvish parents.) I asked my mother and aunts if they remembered their mother, who was shomer Shabbos and baked challa each erev Shabbos, doing this. Surely, if she had, it would have been a vivid memory. But they did not remember any such thing. Well, my maternal bubby was also a Litvak.
Then I began to investigate via the internet. (I admit that it is far better to find actual sources than to rely on others’ research, but this was the best I could do with the allotted time.) I found an article last year that was written by a Jewish scholar, who used many Christian sources to document that this custom was taken from the Christians, who used to bake bread in the shape of crosses around Easter time.
This year, I found sources stating that this is a chasidishe minhag dating to around 1726, based on the Rebbes’ studies of the Zohar (an area misnagdishe rabbanim did not emphasize). Chasidishe communities did this without much fanfare. Then chasidim and misnagdim intermarried, so there were some misnagdim who heard about it. Then Jews from many different areas of the world gathered to live in Israel, so it became prevalent for American Jews living in Israel to do it. And now, through the presentation on the internet, the practice of shlissel challa has evolved into an “event.”
So, to return to my original question: Why do I do this? Because I am a concrete, visual, woman of habit. When I was a young mother, these concrete activities appealed to me. I enjoyed kneading, shaping, and baking the challas for Shabbos, and I used that time as teaching moments for my children. I enjoyed showing them mitzvos lemaisa – how our life fits perfectly in the realm of doing mitzvos. My daughter and sons (especially Rafael) prided themselves on understanding the mitzva of hafrashas challa from a young age, because it was mitzvas aseh we did in our family.
I am grateful for my Jewish education, because it taught me the ikar, the main principle, of the mitzvos, and that has influenced how I participate in shlissel challa. I always stressed to the children that this was a time to do the mitzva of hafrashas challa with the appropriate bracha and designated tefilos and to prepare lechem mishna for Shabbos. Today, too, I make sure to use enough flour for hafrashas challa. I recite the bracha with as much kavana as I can, say the yehi ratzon to rebuild the Bais Hamikdash and bring Mashiach, and finish with a tefila I found in the gemara in Brachos. This tefila states that hafrashas hachalla is actually in lieu of a korban (sacrifice). There is a place to daven for your husband’s and children’s well being.
I make sure to remember at all times that our parnassa and welfare do not depend on this ritual. As Rebbetzin Shlomis Eisenberg says to me each time I tell her about another segula, “It is still better to daven daily to Hashem and do the mitzvos from the Torah without adding on.” And that says it all!