"…the first of your kneading you shall set aside as challah …(so) shall you give a portion to Hashem for your generations" (Bamidbar 15:20-21)
What is challah? Challah is known to most of us at the two braided Shabbat loaves we delight in after Kiddush on Friday night. In halachic terms, challah is a mitzvah in the Torah to separate a portion of dough from the baker’s batch. Any dough meeting the requirements for hafrashat challah , taking challah, must have this portion removed, or the bread baked from this dough is not considered kosher.
In Temple times, the separated portion, the challah, was given to the Kohain . The Kohanim were deeply involved in their service in the Temple, and were therefore unable to fully provide for their families. Hashem commanded us to give His portion, challah, among other gifts, to the Kohanim. This ensured their sustenance as they performed their holy work on our behalf.
Today, the Temple remains central to our identity as a people. Observing the mitzvah of hafrashat challah, then and now, establishes a bond between the people and the Kohanim. We immortalize this interdependence when we remove this piece of challah dough, burn it and dispose it in an honorable way.
We, like the Kohanim, depend on Hashem for physical sustenance in order to perform our mission in life.
Many Jewish women make it a priority to bake their own challah each week, particularly on erev Shabbat, just to perform this mitzvah of taking challah. Why is it so important to them that we make the time to “take and bake” when delicious kosher challah is readily available? And what is so propitious about performing this mitzvah on (I’m so busy then!) erev Shabbat? Finally, why is this a Jewish womens' mitzvah?
G-d extracted a "handful" of earth from the dust and water He combined and created Man. Similarly, we separate and elevate a handful of dough from the simple ingredients we combine. Prior to taking from this mixture, there is nothing to distinguish the portion destined for separation and sanctification from the whole.
Our purpose is to take the gifts G-d gives use them to serve Him, thereby we elevate the world. We can only elevate something that is first completely of the material world. Adam, the pinnacle of Creation was extracted from the earth and imbued with the Divine spirit; this sanctified Hashem’s entire world. Challah, the first and the best, is taken from dough and the bread baked from that batch becomes kosher.
It is interesting to note that the Hebrew root of the word challah is “chol,” which means ordinary. Just as separating challah dough makes the bread edible, the purpose of the Jew-to make the "chol" holy, requires our involvement in it, and also our separation from it.
Like the braids of the Shabbat challah, may this mitzvah be intertwined with your purpose on this world: to elevate the work in our lives by making it holy, thereby infusing all our actions with potency, meaning and vitality.