I like to try new things, mostly because I’m curious. Plus, stepping out of my comfort zone keeps life interesting. I recently tried kombucha and started hula-hooping at the gym. I also decided it was time to master the art of shaping a four-braided challah, a skill I’ve wanted to acquire for ages.
With baker’s envy, I’ve eyed the idea of making five- and six-braided loaves, too, but only from a distance. Crafting four-braided ones, however, always seemed within reach. It’s only one more than the standard three. How difficult could it possibly be? Let me count the ways.
On several occasions, I attempted the process by following a diagram in a cookbook. I moved strand A over C, then D over B, ending up with challahs that resembled a two-humped camel. As a crafty person who’s been crocheting for ages, I was both surprised and frustrated by my lack of success. I was determined to try again, which I did last Friday.
For me, challah-baking is usually a solitary activity, which is good because I needed to concentrate on the how-to video I opened on my laptop. Except I wasn’t entirely alone. I was part of a group of 40 women who were baking that same day in their own kitchens as a segulah, a ritual undertaken to affect a positive change in someone’s fortune. Our efforts were on behalf of a wife and mother, the cousin of a friend, who had fallen dangerously ill. My participation gave me hope that our pure intentions would up my chances of success with the four-strand braiding I was doing in her merit.
The 40 of us independently performed the mitzvah of separating a piece of challah dough before shaping the loaves — a reminder of the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem and a portion was set aside for the Kohanim, or priests. I made 10 four-braided challahs, thanks to a YouTube video I had to watch 10 times — once per loaf — until I got them all right. They still weren’t perfect specimens, but I have faith I’ll get the hang of it if I practice.
What mattered most, though, was the way each of us, regardless of how many strands we were braiding, contributed to the power of one. At the moment we said the blessing that is recited upon the separating of challah, our strength lay in our unity, in our harmonious plea for the restoration of the ill woman’s health.
A segulah may have mystical powers, but it isn’t magic. On the other hand, the ritual of joining with other women in baking and praying offered an auspicious opportunity for me to have a heart-to-heart with God. I found myself filling up with gratitude for the blessings of health and a full pantry, as well as the chance to pay it forward. Even the basic act of feeding our families opens a door, inspiring us to use our gifts to nurture others and change the world for the better.
Bread is essential to life. Yet we read in the Torah that “…not from bread alone does man live, but by everything that comes from the mouth of God.” Bread may sustain us physically. Yet it is the holiness we plait into it — pouring our prayers into the kneading and shaping — that ultimately nourishes our souls.
The challahs that hold pride of place on our Shabbat and holiday tables are where these two aspects of human nature, the physical and the spiritual, come together. After all, what is more worldly than the process of baking? Or more divine than the scent of warm challah, whether home- or bakery-made, exiting the oven to remind us that whatever tries our souls, Shabbat is coming to give us a break?
As I sat in the kitchen that Friday morning, I prayed for Yocheved bat Tamar Yaffa’s recovery. The unbaked loaves had a lot to say, even as they rose silently in their pans on the counter. Their four strands represented the four matriarchs of the Torah — Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah — who had come to visit me with a message. Leaning in, they reminded me of our own potential to rise above our challenges and see past ourselves in order to bring good into the world. And when I recited the blessing for the sick, I was sure I heard them whisper Amen.
Merri Ukraincik, a frequent contributor, lives in Edison, N.J.