Walk into a Jewish home on Friday afternoon, and your olfactory nerves will be gently massaged with the smells undulating from the kitchen. All the traditional Shabbat dishes, such as chicken and kugel, as well as more modern variations and other local dishes, are a great way to usher in Shabbat.
Of all these pleasing scents, the most satisfying of all is that of the challah. The wafting aroma of the traditionally braided egg bread is nearly enough to satiate on its own!
The name challah is actually something of a misnomer, for it doesn’t refer to the bread itself, but to a portion that is removed from the bread, as per the verse in the Torah portion this week, Shelach:
“The first thing you should do with your dough is donate challah [to a Kohen] as an offering” (Numbers 15:20).
So, in fact, challah is not the bread that we eat, but is the portion of bread that was set aside for the Kohen (priest). This mitzvah (commandment) is fairly straightforward: A part of the dough is set aside to be holy and is given to the priests; the remainder of the dough is eaten by anyone.
Since we no longer have the Temple in Jerusalem, we no longer give challah to a Kohen; instead, when baking bread, a small portion is separated and then burned (the laws of this mitzvah are not within the framework of this particular article; for more info click here).
In this column, I would like to share with you a Chassidic teaching on this verse, taught by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn, while visiting the town of Rokiškis, Lithuania, in 1931.
But first, some interesting historical context:
Located in Northeastern Lithuania, Rokiškis had a vibrant Jewish community for hundreds of years. In 1923, the Jewish community numbered 2013; by 1939, it had reached 3500 (40% of the population), most of whom were Chabad Chassidim. Interestingly, before World War I, only three stored were owned by gentiles. After the War, various factors led to a serious economic decline for the Jews, and many Jewish businesses went bankrupt in 1925. In the latter half of the 1920s, many Jewish families emigrated to South Africa, the United States, and Israel.
The Soviets annexed Lithuania in 1940, and when Germany attacked Russia in June of 1941, Lithuania was overtaken. The official German Army report states that on August 15-16, 1941, a total of 3,207 Jews were killed.
It was in the midst of this, that Rabbi Schneersohn visited Rokiškis for a week and a half, in order to strengthen and encourage the Jewish community.
While there, he gave numerous talks on various Jewish topics (Sefer Hama’amorim Kuntreisim, vol. 1, pp.154-168).
On the last day of his visit, February 26th, 1931 (9 Adar 5691), he addressed the townspeople and the locals who had come to greet him, from the inn in which he was staying.
In the course of that talk, Rabbi Schneersohn quoted the above-mentioned verse from our Torah portion (even though it was a different Torah portion that week), and offered an alternative explanation, based on an etymological similarity between the Hebrew word for dough, and that for crib, or bed, עריסה.
The plain meaning of the verse is that we must donate from the “first of our dough.” On that day in Rokiškis, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who had been invited by the local Jewish community, explained that this verse can be read, “The first of your bed shall be devoted to G-d.”
In other words, it is incumbent upon us, Rabbi Schneersohn explained, that immediately upon awakening in our bed we are to devote ourselves to Judaism. Some examples of how to do this, opined the Rebbe, include: One should study Torah, each according to our abilities; pray with a minyan (quoram); be particularly cautious in business dealings according to the laws of the Torah; and lend money.
Sometimes, upon awakening, one is distracted by other needs, and either skips over some of one’s Jewish obligations, or performs them perfunctorily. This negatively influences one’s day, by making much of the day self-directed. When, however, one begins the day by helping another person, or by being involved in spiritual betterment instead of focusing on one’s own materialistic needs, one is able to sleep sweetly at night.
It is, in fact, a cycle: When one begins the day with a spiritual act – be it prayer, Torah study, or helping another person – the entire day is better, one has a refreshing sleep, and one is in turn strengthened to wake up again the next day and do the same.
A large crowd had gathered to hear the address, including the visitors from other villages and towns in Lithuania. At one in the afternoon, the Rebbe offered his parting blessings, and everyone escorted the Rebbe to the train station, singing all the way, thankful for the merit of seeing the Rebbe face-to-face, and for hearing this encouraging Torah teaching direct from the Rebbe himself.