Challah sprinkled with sesame seeds
Alternative nameskhala, khale, chałka, kitke, berkhes, barches, bukhte, dacher, koylatch, koilitsh, shtritsl, kozunak
Main ingredientsEggs, fine white flour, water, yeast, sugar and salt

Challah (/ˈxɑːlə/,[1] Hebrew: חַלָּה ḥallā [χa'la] or Hallah [ħɑl'la]; plural: challot, challoth or challos, also berches in Central Europe) is a special bread of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, usually braided and typically eaten on ceremonial occasions such as Shabbat and major Jewish holidays (other than Passover). Ritually acceptable challah is made of dough from which a small portion has been set aside as an offering. Challah may also refer to the dough offering. The word is biblical in origin, meaning "loaf".[2] Similar braided breads such as kalach and vánočka are found across Central and Eastern Europe.

Name and origins

Main article: Dough offering

The term challah in Biblical Hebrew meant a kind of loaf or cake.[3] The targum is גריצא (pl. גריצן, var. Classical Syriac: ܓܪܝܨܐ / ܓܪܝܣܐ) which also means loaf.[4] The word derives from the root chet-lamed-lamed (hallal), which means "pierced." According to Ludwig Köhler [de], challah was a sort of bread with a central hole, designed to hang over a post.[5]

In Rabbinic terminology, challah often refers to the portion of dough which must be separated before baking, and set aside as a tithe for the Kohen,[6] since the biblical verse which commands this practice refers to the separated dough as a "challah".[2] The practice of separating this dough sometimes became known as separating challah (הפרשת חלה) or taking challah.[7] The food made from the balance of the dough is also called challah.[8] The obligation applies to any loaf of bread, not only to the Shabbat bread, but it is traditional to intentionally bake bread for the Sabbath in such a manner as to obligate oneself, in order to dignify the Shabbat.[9] By synecdoche, the term challah came to refer to the whole of the loaf from which challah is taken.

Variant names

Homebaked challah
Homebaked challah

Challah may also be referred to as cholla bread.[10][11] In Poland it is commonly known as chałka (diminutive of chała, pronounced ha-wa), in Ukraine as 'kolach' or 'khala' and khala (хала) in Belarus and Russia.[12][13]

Yiddish communities in different regions of Europe called the bread khale, berkhes or barches, bukhte, dacher, kitke, koylatch or koilitsh, or shtritsl.[14][15] Some of these names are still in use today, such as kitke in South Africa.[15]

The term koylatch is cognate with the names of similar braided breads which are consumed on special occasions by other cultures outside the Jewish tradition in a number of European cuisines. These are the Russian kalach, the Serbian kolač, the Ukrainian kolach the Hungarian kalács (in Hungary the jewish variant is differentiated as Bárhesz), and the Romanian colac. These names originated from Proto-Slavic kolo meaning "circle", or "wheel", and refer to the circular form of the loaf.[16][17]

In the Middle East, regional Shabbat breads were simply referred to by the local word for bread, such as noon in Farsi or khubz in Arabic.

Ingredients and preparation

Preparing braided challah

Most traditional Ashkenazi challah recipes use numerous eggs, fine white flour, water, sugar, yeast, oil (such as vegetable or canola), and salt, but "water challah" made without eggs and having a texture like French baguette also exists, which is typically suitable for those following vegan diets. Modern recipes may replace white flour with whole wheat, oat, or spelt flour or sugar with honey or molasses.

According to Sephardic Jewish observance of halachah, a bread with too much sugar changes the status of the bread to cake. This would change the blessing used over the bread from Hamotzi (bread) to Mezonot (cake, dessert breads, etc.) which would invalidate it for use during the Kiddush for Shabbat.[18] While braided breads are sometimes found in Sephardic cuisine, they are typically not challah but are variants of regional breads like çörek, eaten by Jews and non-Jews alike.

Egg challah sometimes also contains raisins and/or saffron. After the first rising, the dough is rolled into rope-shaped pieces which are braided, though local (hands in Lithuania, fish or hands in Tunisia) and seasonal (round, sometimes with a bird's head in the centre) varieties also exist. Poppy or sesame (Ashkenazi) and anise or sesame (Sephardi) seeds may be added to the dough or sprinkled on top. Both egg and water challah are usually brushed with an egg wash before baking to add a golden sheen.

Challah is almost always pareve (containing neither dairy nor meat—important in the laws of Kashrut), unlike brioche and other enriched European breads, which contain butter or milk as it is typically eaten with a meat meal.

Israeli breads for shabbat are very diverse, reflecting the traditions of Persian, Iraqi, Moroccan, Russian, Polish, Yemeni, and other Jewish communities who live in the State of Israel. They may contain eggs or olive oil in the dough as well as water, sugar, yeast, salt, honey and raisins. It may be topped with sesame or other seeds according to various minhagim.

Rituals and religious significance

Prepared shabbat table, with challah in the foreground

According to Jewish tradition, the three Sabbath meals (Friday night, Saturday lunch, and Saturday late afternoon) and two holiday meals (one at night and lunch the following day) each begin with two complete loaves of bread.[19] This "double loaf" (in Hebrew: לחם משנה) commemorates the manna that fell from the heavens when the Israelites wandered in the desert after the Exodus. The manna did not fall on Sabbath or holidays; instead, a double portion would fall the day before the holiday or sabbath to last for both days.[20] While two loaves are set out and the blessing is recited over both, most communities only require one of them to be cut and eaten.

In some Ashkenazi customs, each loaf is woven with six strands of dough. Together, the loaves have twelve strands, alluding to the twelve loaves of the showbread offering in the Temple. Other numbers of strands commonly used are three, five and seven. Occasionally, twelve are used, referred to as a "Twelve Tribes" challah. Some individuals - mostly Hasidic rabbis - have twelve separate loaves on the table.

Challot - in these cases extremely large ones - are also sometimes eaten at other occasions, such as a wedding or a Brit milah, but without ritual.

Traditional Sabbath meal procedure

Challah-Platter, Basel, 20th century, in the collection of the Jewish Museum of Switzerland.
Two homemade challot covered by a traditional embroidered challah cover

It is customary to begin the evening and day Sabbath and holiday meals with the following sequence of rituals:

Challah cover for Sabbath, interwar period. Collection of the Auschwitz Jewish Centre

The specific practice varies. Some dip the bread into salt before the blessing on bread.[22] Others say the blessing, cut or tear the challah into pieces, and only then dip the pieces in salt, or sprinkle them with salt, before they are eaten.[23] Some communities may make a nick in the bread with a cutting knife.

Normally, the custom is not to talk between washing hands and eating bread. However, according to some, if salt was not placed on the table, it is permitted to ask for someone to bring salt, before the blessing on bread is recited.[24]


Salting challah is considered a critical component of the meal. Customs vary whether the challah is dipped in salt, salt is sprinkled on it, or salt is merely present on the table. This requirement applies to any bread, though it is observed most strictly at Sabbath and holiday meals.

The Torah requires that Temple sacrifices to God be offered with salt.[25] Following the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbinic literature suggested that a table set for a meal symbolically replaces the Temple altar; therefore, the blessing over food should only be recited with salt present on the table.[21] Should one eat a meal without performing a commandment, the covenant of salt protects him.[26]

To the rabbis, a meal without salt was considered no meal.[27] Furthermore, in the Torah, salt symbolizes the eternal covenant between God and Israel.[28] As a preservative, salt never spoils or decays, signifying the immortality of this bond.[29]

Special challah

Rosh Hashanah

On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the challah may be rolled into a circular shape (sometimes referred to as a "turban challah"), symbolizing the cycle of the year, and is sometimes baked with raisins in the dough. Some have the custom of continuing to eat circular challah from Rosh Hashana through the holiday of Sukkot. In the Maghreb (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria) many Jews will simply bake their challah in the shape of "turban challah" year-round.

Sometimes the top is brushed with honey to symbolize the "sweet new year." According to some traditions, challah eaten on Rosh Hashana is not dipped in or sprinkled with salt but instead is dipped in or sprinkled with honey. As above, some continue to use honey instead of salt through the Sukkot holiday.[30]

Shlissel challah

Shlissel challah

For the Shabbat Mevarchim preceding Rosh Chodesh Iyar (i.e., the first Shabbat after the end of Passover), some Ashkenazi Jews have the custom of baking shlissel[a] challah ("key challah") as a segula (propitious sign) for parnassa (livelihood). Some make an impression of a key on top of the challah before baking, some place a key-shaped piece of dough on top of the challah before baking, and some bake an actual key inside the challah.[31]

The earliest written source for this custom is the Ohev Yisrael of Avraham Yehoshua Heshel (1748-1825), published in 1863. He refers to schlissel challah as a preexisting custom and offers several kabbalistic interpretations. He writes that after spending forty years in the desert, the Israelites continued to eat the manna until they brought the Omer offering on the second day of Passover. From that day on, they no longer ate manna, but food that had grown in the Land of Israel. Since they now had to start worrying about their sustenance rather than having it handed to them each morning, the key on the challah is a form of prayer to God to open up the gates of livelihood.[32][31]

The custom has been criticized for allegedly having its source in Christian or pagan practices.[33]

Challah rolls

Challah rolls, known as a bilkele or bulkele or bilkel or bulkel (plural: bilkelekh; Yiddish: בילקעלע) or bajgiel (Polish) is a bread roll made with eggs, similar to a challah bun. It is often used as the bread for Shabbat or holiday meals.

Similar breads

Similar braided, egg-enriched breads are made in other traditions. The Romanian colac is a similar braided bread traditionally presented for holidays and celebrations such as Christmas caroling colindat[34].The Polish chałka is similar, though sweeter than challah. The Czech vánočka and Slovak vianočka is very similar and traditionally eaten at Christmas. In Bulgarian and Romanian cuisine there is a similar bread called cozonac (Bulgarian: козунак), while tsoureki bread (also known as choreg or çörek) is popular in Armenian,[35] Greek and Turkish cuisines. A sweet bread called milibrod (Macedonian: милиброд), similarly braided as the challah, is part of the dinner table during Orthodox Easter in Macedonia. Zopf is a similar bread from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, with a sweeter variant known as Hefezopf or Hefekranz. In Finnish cuisine, pulla (also known as cardamom bread in English) is a small braided pastry seasoned with cardamom that is very popular in Finnish cafés. Brioche is an egg-enriched bread, but it is not braided.

Unlike challah, which by convention is pareve, many of these breads also contain butter and milk.

Rose-encrusted Challah Bread, Based on a Recipe by Hélène Jawhara Piñer

Food historian Hélène Jawhara Piñer, an expert on Sephardic cuisine, has suggested that a recipe for a leavened and braided bread called peot which appeared in a thirteenth-century Arabic cookbook from Spain, may have been a European precursor to challah – except that peot was flavored with saffron and fried.[36]

See also


  1. ^ or schlissel


  1. ^ "challah". Dictionary. Retrieved 10 April 2020.
  2. ^ a b Numbers 15:20
  3. ^ "Strong's Concordance".
  4. ^ Payne Smith, J. (1903). A compendious Syriac Dictionary: founded upon the Thesaurus Syriacus of R. Payne Smith (in Syriac and English). Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 78. OCLC 251355373.
  5. ^ Köhler, Ludwig (1948). "Miszellen". Theologische Zeitschrift. 4 (2).
  6. ^ Jastrow, חַלָּה (meaning 2)
  7. ^ "Ask the Expert: Taking Challah". What does it mean to take challah
  8. ^ "AlHatorah Concordance-Dictionary, s.v. חַלָּה".
  9. ^ "Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 242:1". Retrieved 3 March 2024.
  10. ^ Arnold E. Bender (1975). Dictionary of Nutrition and Food Technology (4th ed.). London: Newnes-Butterworths. p. 54. ISBN 0-408-001437.
  11. ^ "Loaves For Jewish Festivals "Not Bread"". The London Times. No. 55124. London. 4 July 1961. p. 8.
  12. ^ Леонид Беловинский (2015). "Хала". Энциклопедический словарь истории советской повседневной жизни (in Russian). Новое Литературное Обозрение. ISBN 978-5444803783.
  13. ^ Barbara Rolek. Polish Egg-Twist Bread Chalka Recipe. The Spruce, 2017.
  14. ^ Come ’Round., 2004.
  15. ^ a b South African Challah?., 2005. The etymology of kittke is given as Kitt + -ke: Kitt in German means "putty" [1]; "-ke" is the Slavic diminutive suffix found in many Yiddish words and names. Kitke referred not to the whole challah but simply to the braids or decorations that were attached to the challah like putty before baking, and the word must have originally referred to these.
  16. ^ Colac (in Romanian). DEXOnline: Dictionar Explicativ al Limbii Romane (Romanian online dictionary). References: Miklosich, Slaw. Elem., 25; Cihac, II, 67; Conev 66
  17. ^ Колач (in Russian). Max Vasmer. Russisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. Winter, Heidelberg 1953–1958 (in German). Russian translation by Oleg Trubachyov: Этимологический словарь русского языка. Progress, Moscow, 1964–1973.
  18. ^ Spolter, Rabbi Yair; Simmons, Rabbi Shraga (7 September 2015). "10. Three Mezonot Categories". aishcom. Archived from the original on 6 March 2021. Retrieved 1 March 2021.
  19. ^ Maimonides (d. 1204), Mishneh Torah Hilchot Shabbos, Chapter 30, Law 9. (Hebrew)
  20. ^ Sol Scharfstein, Understanding Jewish Holidays and Customs, page 16 (1999)
  21. ^ a b "Salt". Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 7 March 2013.
  22. ^ Isserles, in Shulcḥan 'Aruch, l.c.
  23. ^ Both practices are based on different parts of the same verse in Leviticus
  24. ^ Shulchan Aruch, Oraḥ Ḥayyim 167:5; Jacob Zausmer, "Bet Ya'aḳob," No. 168; comp. Berachot 40a.
  25. ^ Leviticus 2:13
  26. ^ Tosafot, Berachot 40a
  27. ^ Berachot 44a
  28. ^ Silberberg, Naftali. "Why is the Challah dipped in Salt". Retrieved 7 March 2013.
  29. ^ Rabinowitz, Louis Isaac. "Salt". Encyclopedia Judaica.
  30. ^ some keep the salt on the table, to not "withhold" salt from being present, per Lev. 2:13
  31. ^ a b "Second Thoughts: The Key to Parnassah." Hamodia, Feature Section, p. C3. 23 April 2009.
  32. ^ "Ohev Yisrael, For the Shabbat After Pesach 1:1". Retrieved 7 July 2024.
  33. ^ Shelomo Alfassa, Shlissel Challah – “The Loaf of Idolatry?”
  34. ^ "Reteta Colaci impletiti".
  35. ^ "Adventures in Armenian Cooking". St. Sarkis. Archived from the original on 21 May 2008.
  36. ^ Piñer, Hélène Jawhara (2021). Sephardi : cooking the history : recipes of the Jews of Spain and the diaspora, from the 13th century to today. Boston. pp. 16–17. ISBN 978-1-64469-531-9. OCLC 1200038942.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)