FOR TODAY: Schlissel Challah – An Analysis

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[By Rabbi Yair Hoffman]

The custom of Schlissel Challah has become very widespread, not only in the Chassidish world but in many other communities as well. A few years ago, an article the influence which is still being felt appeared that attempted to connect the custom known as Schlissel Challah to Christian or pagan sources. It was written by a Mr. Shelomo Alfassa, entitled “The Loaf of Idolatry?” It stated that fulfilling this custom was, in fact, a Torah violation of following in the ways of the gentiles. In this article, an attempt will be made to trace the origins of the custom and to examine the alleged connection to non-Jewish sources that appeared in the Alfassa article. It is this author’s contention that the allegations are quite spurious, error-filled and misleading, and have no connection whatsoever to this Chassidic custom.

As far as the sources for Schlissel Challah, Alfassa writes as follows:

“While the custom is said to be mentioned in the writings of Avraham Yehoshua Heshel (the “Apter Rav” 1748-1825) and in the Ta’amei ha-Minhagim (1891), there is no one clear source for shlissel challah. And while people will say there is a passuq attributed to it, there is not. And, even if there were, a passuq that can be linked to the practice is not the same as a source… The idea of baking shlissel challah is not from the Torah; it’s not in the Tannaitic, Amoraitic, Savoraitic, Gaonic or Rishonic literature. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of Israel’s Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim said that while baking challah with a key in it is not forbidden, “there is no meaning in doing so.”

While Alfassa is correct in his assertion that the custom is not found in the writings of the Rishonim or earlier, for some reason he fails to point out the Chassidic origin of Schlissel Challah. As a general rule, we do not find Chassidish customs in the Rishonim because the movement itself only began in 1740. We, however, do find mention of the custom to bake Challah in the shape of a key in many, many Chassidish Seforim. These Seforim were written by genuine Torah scholars, and it is difficult to propose that a Christian practice somehow entered into their literary oeuvre. The Klausenberger Rebbe, the Satmar Rebbe, the Belzer Rebbe, Rav Moshe Aryeh Freund, and numerous Chassidishe Rebbes and Poskim all punctiliously observed this custom.

Most of the reasons have to do with the Kabbalistic notion of “Tirayin Petichin” that the gates to Heaven are opened. This concept of opened gates is found throughout the Zohar and is discussed by such authorities as the Shla (whose father was a student of the Remah).

The earliest reference is in the works of Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro of Koritz (born 1726), a descendent of the Megaleh Amukos and a student of the Baal Shem Tov. In his work called Imrei Pinchas (#298) he explains that the reason to bake Schlissel Challah on the Shabbos following Pesach is that during Pesach, the gates to Heaven were opened and remain open until Pesach Sheni. The key alludes to the fact that these gates are now open and that we should focus our prayers ever more on that account.

The Apter Rebbe, author of the Ohaiv Yisroel (Likkutim al HaTorah Pesach), mentions the custom as well but provides a slightly different reason. He writes that the gates to Heaven were opened to our prayers the entire Pesach and we must now re-open them with the Mitzvah of our Shabbos observance. Although Alfassa writes that there is no Pasuk that is referenced for this custom, the verse does indeed exist and is mentioned in the Ohev Yisroel itself.

In Shir HaShirim 5:2, which is read on Shabbos Chol HaMoed the verse states, “Open for me, my sister..” Chazal darshen (Yalkut Shimoni Shir HaShirim 988), “You have become My sister with the observance of the two Mitzvos in Egypt the blood of the Korban Pesach and the blood of Bris Milah..Open for Me an opening like the eye of the needle and I (Hashem) shall open for you like the opening of a wide hall.” The Ohev Yisroel mentions two other reasons for the custom, primarily that Hashem should open His “store house of plenty” for us as He did in Iyar after the exodus.

The Belzer Rebbe (Choshvei Machshavos p. 152) provided the explanation that although the Geulaha may not have happened yet as it was scheduled to occur on Nissan, at least the key to Hashem’s storehouse of parnassah and plenty have been opened.

The Taamei HaMinhagim (596 and 597) provides a number of reasons as well.

Alfassa writes that “at least one old Irish source tells how at times when a town was under attack, the men said, “let our women-folk be instructed in the art of baking cakes containing keys.” This is Alfassa’s lead reference, but looking up his reference (O’Brien, Flann. The Best of Myles. Normal, IL; Dalkey Archive Press, 1968. Page 393) reveals that it is not really an old Irish source. Rather it is a quote from the fiction works found a collection of Irish newspaper columns that date back four decades before the publication of the book. In other words, there is no correlation between this 20th century literary statement and a custom that dates back to Eatsern Europe centuries earlier.

Let’s now look at the second reference that Alfassa brings. He writes citing a book written by James George Frazer, entitled The Golden Bough. London: Macmillan and Co., “Another account mentions a key in a loaf: “In other parts of Esthonia [sic], again, the Christmas Boar [cake], as it is called, is baked of the first rye cut at harvest; it has a conical shape and a cross is impressed on it with a pig’s bone or a key, or three dints are made in it with a buckle or a piece of charcoal. It stands with a light beside it on the table all through the festival season.”

The fact is, however, this source does not mention a key in a loaf at all. It mentions a cake with a cross on top of it. How was the shape of the cross made? Either with a bone of a pig or with a cross shaped key. There is no parallel to the Schlissel Challah here whatsoever.

Alfassa further tells us in a footnote, “Small breads with the sign of the cross have been found as far back as 79 CE in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum (see The New York Times March 31, 1912). This was when Christianity emerged in Roman Judea as a Jewish religious sect which gradually spread out of Jerusalem.

This footnote as well is extremely misleading. The city of Herculaneum located in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius was destroyed on August 4th, in the year 79 CE. At the time it was an entirely pagan city where they worshipped Hercules, and were assuredly not Christian. There was no influence on Judaism here, nor a connection to Christianity as Alfassa implies because the entire city was buried in volcanic ash, and they were not influenced by Christianity. The connection to Schlissel Challah here is completely non-existent. More likely is the fact that the “plus sign” was actually an icon before the identification of the cross with Christianity. Also connecting the shaping of a plus sign with the Schlissel Challah in this instance is quite spurious.

Alfass further attempts to connect the practice with the idea of placing figurines in cupcakes. He writes, “Similar, there are modern non-Jewish customs, such as in Mexico, where a ‘baby Jesus’ figurine is baked into cupcakes; often, the child who finds it wins a prize. This is also practiced in the U.S. state of Louisiana beginning at Mardi Gras and practiced for 30 days after. There, a ‘baby Jesus’ toys baked into a whole cake, and whoever finds the baby in their piece has to buy the next day’s cake. In Spain, there is a tradition of placing a small Jesus doll inside a cake and whoever finds it must take it to the nearest church..”

The connection that the author makes between this and Schlissel Challah is perplexing. There is no geographic connection. There is no timeline connection. The only similarity is the placing of an item in something else. Both the items are different and the product that they are put in are different. At best, one can say that this is scholarship that lacks rigor.

In conclusion, there is no evidence whatsoever that this Chasidic custom was derived from or influenced by Christian practice. The scholarship behind this allegation is faulty and error-filled. This is a custom that has been practiced by the greatest of our Chasidic brethren and it is wrong to cast such aspersions on their practice.

The author can be reached at [email protected]

ARTICLE PUBLISHED BY5TJT

21 COMMENTS

  1. Rav Hershel Schachter holds it’s assur a)Nichush B) Darkei Emorei.

    Easter bread had a cross placed on top of the bread. The keys back in the 1700s looked very much like crosses. This is the connection to the Pagan sources.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_bread

    Even if somehow you claim that it is not darkei emori, it is still assur midoraiso mitam Lo Sinachashu

  2. We, however, do find mention of the custom to bake Challah in the shape of a key in many, many Chassidish Seforim

    My favorite daily statement…many many chassidish seforim. Why have we become a nation of people looking for chassidishe segulos rather than following halachah? I will tell you why-because it is easy! Pour wine in my pockets after Shabbos, put a key into Challah, go to the mikvah daily, and sit on the floor every Saturday night in the dark singing until 2am…easy! No need to break your teeth on a Gemara or Rambam, no need to really work on middos because I walk down the street wearing a gartel! Can this be why Chassidim and “many many chassidishe seforim” were banned and frowned upon when the movement began?
    You want to be chassidish? Kol HaKavod to you-but the world stands on Torah, Avodah, and Gemilus Chassadim-not “no assmbly required” chassidishe segulos!

  3. I am not convinced that this is a Christian practice and am less convinced this is a Jewish practice although it most certainly is a chassidic practice. If we were to reject all chassidic practices for which there are no Jewish reason we would have to reject chassidus in its entirety. I am not prepared to do so.

  4. Lo senachashu doesn’t apply here just like it doesn’t when eating the simanim on Rosh Hashanah.

    Darkei Emorei, contrary to what people think, does not mean that it actually is a non-Jewish or Pagan custom; it means that it is like their customs to do for good omen.

    The Chasidim will argue it’s nothing less than the simanim on Rosh Hashanah

  5. I’m glad someone finally found the key to the issue. This article really unlocks the mysteries of the minhag. Further, the mar’eh mekomos are a mafteach to the various sources.

  6. Ziontorah: How can someone be so ignoramus? According to you and Rabbi Schachter (if your quote is correct) we cannot put tefilin on bar mitzvah cakes, and numerous similar icons for all kinds of simchas we celebrate.
    Simple advice: Back off from criticizing tzadikim ( as quoted from heilige seforim in the article), it backfires in the long run. Believe me. I was once a misnaged. I regret it.

  7. There is no mention of this “minhag” before the late 1700’s. Christians made easter bread and shaped it as a cross. Keys were often used because they were shapped as crosses.

    This simple fact should be enough to make one fear that this is real “darkei Emori” . Many take on this “minhag” thinking that it is harmless. Shelomo Alfassa has done a great service by making peole realize that doing this might actually be harmful and assur.

    Rabbi Hoffman tries to make this a typical chassideshe minhag issue. He is wrong. This is not at all similar to other chadidishe customs that have weak sources. This has no source in gemara, rishonim, and poskim and has very strong similarities to prevelant Easter customs. Perhaps Rabbi Hoffman can try to list some other Chasideshe customs that meet this criteria ( upsherin might be one and for that reason the Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz warns against accepting the practice if it is nor your minhag ) and if he does one should be forewarned about doung them.

  8. MDU. – lo sinachashu does apply here. This is not at all similar to the simanim on rosh hashana. Take a simple look at the rishonim who discusses the simanim and why it is allowed and you will see that none of their reasons apply to shlissel challah.

    Take a look at the sugya in Horius before you make unsubstantiated comparisions

  9. Sorry to bust the Authors bubble, but just because great talmidei Chachamim wrote about it and current Rebbe’s do it, does mean his has goyish origins (Darchei HaEmori) there have been over history numerous minhagim that had such origins and people abandoned them after hundreds of years of practice when they discovered as such (even though great gedolim wrote on it), however there are few modern minhagim that are up for debate like this one. Also the author, while making accusation against the author of a different article actually does the exact thing he accuses the other author of doing and its actually this one that is less based in facts or research.

    When we have doubts over whether a minhag is jewish origins or Darchei HaEmori like this one, Upsherin, etc. One should practice it if it is their mihnag but not adopt it if it is not, until we know for sure

  10. MDU-
    As CK ststed, you can’t compare Shlissel Challah and the simonim. Learn through the sugyas that discuss the simanim with the meforshim. The gennerally accepted mehalach is that the simanim invoke a tefilla (the yehi ratzons we say)- and that’s why it’s not assur. The simanim aren’t a one stop fix it to give you a happy yr, they trigger our tefillah.

    imho, there is no such inyan to be mispallel by shlissel challa. It’s a silly minhag that evolved from Pagan origins, and chassidim are trying to make up a mekor for it.

  11. Between the Chassidishe Rebbes of previous generations and all you latter-day geniuses, I think I’ll stick with the opinions and practices of the former.

  12. I am curious if any of you even know Shelomo Alfassa or if you even know anything about him or his credentials. I do. I know him personally. He’s a great guy. But he is absolutely UNQUALIFIED by any means or measure to comment on this or any other minhag.

    Shelomo bills himself as a historian and yet has ZERO academic credentials: no degree in history from anywhere. His only real Jewish education was a few months at a baal tshuva yeshiva. Shelomo’s only qualification is that he is an active and quite vocal promoter of Sephardic heritage. Unfortunately, like many of that ilk, he feels that one of the best ways to do that is to tear down and otherwise ridicule Ashkenazi and Chassidic heritage.

    All of this is evident in the original article itself which is very poorly sourced from an academic standpoint. As to the Rabbis he sources: Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of Israel’s Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim says it is a useless but harmless custom; Rabbi Moshe ben Chaim of Mesora.org opposes ALL segulim (but apparently shaving your beard off, as he does, is ok); and the equally clean shaven Rabbi Reuven Mann of that renknown hub of Torah scholarship, Phoenix Arizona, and is of that ilk that trains women to be “rabbis,” who considers it avodah zara.

    That’s it. Not one Gadol; Not one recognized talmid chocham; Not one rosh yeshiva; Not Chassidic, not Litvish, not Yekke, not Mizrachi, not Sephardi who opposes this. No one. All the rest is pure speculation.

    You don’t care for the custom? It makes you uncomfortable, for whatever reason? Don’t follow it! No one is holding a gun to your head! But, Shelomo, that does NOT give you the right to tear down the minhagim of others so that you will feel better about your own (marginal) Jewish observance.

  13. Upshern has it’s source in the kisvei hoarizal. Sclissel challah is a minhag hamonim that was sustained by the Hasidic Rebbies. So if the source is not from the kisvei hoarizal and not known in toras hanigla either, one wonders where is it from? My gutt tells me that the source is Christian. The Jews were not that intimate with the gentiles when this minhag began. Darkei hoamori is a bit extreme position. But i agree with the person who said that if you don’t have the minhag of Schlissel Challah don’t rush to adopt it. I wouldn’t say the same about upshern. There you will find that a majority of people who keep the mitvos keep this minhag as well.

  14. Why all the venom? Has Matzah withdrawal caused this reaction? Rarely have I read so many comments laced with such cynicism, hatred and belittling of other Yiden and in this case great Yiden.

    By the way do all these commenters not eat Hamantashen either?

  15. Who really cares? If its a minhag some chassidus have decided to follow, what possible harm could there be to others who don’t hold form that minhag? Like a large percentage of minhagim followed in both the chassidish and litvish tzibur, the precise origin of a particular minhag has blurred over time and there are a variety of reasons offered as to why that minhag is still followed today when its original purpose may have not contemporary rationale. In simple terms, why do we waste time debating whether others should follow their own minhagim if that is what make them happy or their rav or posek so paskins.

  16. chachamhagadol says that the majority of Torah observant Jews have the minhag of upsherin. While this may be true today, I get the impression that it’s relatively recently that non-Chassidim adopted this custom. Can anybody clarify?

  17. Upsherin has become widespread, but only lately. Many if not most who do it did not see it performed by their parents or grandparents. Many think that it is a cute minhag so they do it. Also everybody else does it so why not.

    The earliest source is questionable. There is a letter from the Arizal regarding upsherin on lag bomer but many doubt its authenticicty due to dating issues and the fact that the Arizal did not allow haircuts the entire sefira period.

    There is no source for Upsherin in Shas, Geonim,Rishonim or Poskim. As a matter of fact the Mishna allows one to cut the hair of a newborn on Chol Hamoed. Not one commentator mentions a need to wait for three.

    Many try to come up with sources for upsherin but the sources are hardly convincing. On the other hand there is strong evidence that many non Jewish cultures practiced upsherin like customs and refrained from cutting the hair of their children until a certain age. Therefore many suggest that if you have this minhag in your family by all means do it but if not do not take it on by yourself.