It has been almost a year since the mass desire to make bread, a subplot of the deadly pandemic, swept the nation: Yeast shortages, empty shelves that once held flour, sourdough recipes everywhere. As my social media feeds overflowed with pictures of golden loaves, traffic to my inbox and WhatsApp surged. “Please take challah for my sister, who is hospitalized with COVID.” “Please bake challah for my grandfather, who is battling coronavirus.” It was a Jewish twist on the pandemic baking boom. Bread-making, like so many other mundane tasks, is full of religious possibility.
For some years now, a Jewish baking practice has served as a kind of kitchen-based healing service, organized largely by women. Following the commandment in Deuteronomy that orders the removal of a small portion of dough and the donation of that piece to the priests, these home bakers separate a ball of dough, recite a blessing, and then—in the absence of bona fide priests—burn this “challah” offering. As they do so, they recite the names of those in need of healing. No one knows quite how this form of the ritual emerged, but for those who practice, it has a logic and a set of rules all its own.
During the pandemic, as everyone else turned to bread as a coping mechanism—to battle boredom, contend with frustration, or solve the problem of empty grocery shelves or the fear of going to the store at all—Jewish women amplified this practice. While the mitzvah itself is defined as “taking” challah—separating a small piece of dough—it is the actual baking that fills our homes with sweet smells and our hearts with the hope that comes from bubbling yeast and braided loaves. Providing delicious sustenance is empowering.
No one person can defeat the coronavirus. The fear that someone I love will fall ill is an enduring worry. Muttered prayers on my lips, I shape the loaves of bread. Though this may not actually ward off sickness, the primal act of feeding others allows me to strengthen them and help them to thrive. This is the role of bread, no matter your religion.
There is something about baking that makes us feel that we are partnered with the divine. The bread rises, bubbles form, and it is as if we have breathed life into something inanimate. Bread grows, slowly, once we turn our backs on it and leave it in a warm place. It is easy to forget that the laws of nature made the yeast produce carbon dioxide. And in this pandemic, we really need to forget. All control is an illusion, but bread is an especially delicious one. This is why we pray while baking bread: so that at precisely the moment we feel that we, too, exercise our creative powers in the universe, we yield the moment back to God, who has the power to heal those beyond the space of our kitchens.
Jewish law dictates that we recite a blessing before taking a bite of the freshly baked loaf: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who has brought forth bread from the earth.” As we do in all of the blessings recited upon consumption of food, we recognize God as having brought bread from the earth. Yet this blessing might be read as containing a kind of false modesty. We recognize the Divine for having brought forth bread, but a voice inside our head says: “It was us! Human labor cultivated the land, ground the wheat, and took flour, water, and a bit of yeast and transformed it into the loaves you see before you.”
The Talmud recognizes that bread can lead us to believe a little too strongly in our own human powers. “Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that our will is to perform Your will, and what prevents us? The yeast in the dough” (Berakhot 17a).
Leavening, in this text, is analogous to the yetzer harah, or evil inclination; it is that voice that inflates our egos, that makes us believe we are better, stronger, and more deserving than others. It puffs up our souls with overconfidence, like the air bubbles that make the dough rise. No, says the blessing, you never could have produced that bread all by yourself!
Passover, which we will celebrate this month, forces us to confront our limits. But it also reminds us that it is not about the bread. Passover is full of ritual foods, sustaining in both the physical and emotional sense. Taking—or baking—challah represents something tangible, a change in the world that we can see, and so it is a moment for meditation. For those who refrain from eating bread on Passover, as well as those who couldn't find the time to invest in a baking project during the mania of the pandemic, the holiday presents itself laden with meaning and depth. It is a celebration of salvation, of survival, and of the resourcefulness of a basic dough repurposed at the last minute.
“Ha lachma anya,” we say at the Seder. This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in Egypt. The culinary miracle of our escape from Egypt is that one food could come to represent so many different aspects of the narrative—the slavery, the poverty, the breathtaking middle-of-the-night dash to freedom, and also the responsibility to feed others in need. The story of the matza is the story of that time when maybe the yeast didn’t proof, the dough didn’t come out right, and somehow you still found a way to nourish those around you. It is a reminder of the spiritual potential of every meal.
Passover reminds us: Carve out time for your spiritual life, and believe in your power to partner with the Divine and change the world. Or, whisper a prayer over some matza pizza and slip it into your children’s hands. It’s the prayer, the time, the dedication to sustaining others that changes lives.
Sara Wolkenfeld is chief learning officer at Sefaria.
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