Why do we cover the challah?

A friend of mine recently told me about how he invited a coworker of his to join him and his family for Shabbat dinner. She and her four-year-old daughter had never experienced a traditional Shabbat dinner before, and they – actually, the four-year-old – were full of questions.

One such question came right after the cover was removed from the challah, before the host had even recited the hamotzi blessing over the bread: “Why did you cover the bread?!” the innocent four-year-old proclaimed.

Challah covers are probably one of the more popular wedding gifts; I myself received a few for my wedding.
Yet I would venture to say that it is not just a curious four-year-old who wants to know why we use them. Moreover, I suspect that many would be startled to learn that the origin of the custom can be traced to this week’s Torah reading, Beshalach.

The Jewish people had recently left Egypt and experienced the Splitting of the Sea. Now they were in the desert, and they were hungry. They turned to Moses and complained that they wanted something to eat. Moses brings the complaint to G-d, who assures Moses that He will provide sufficient meat and bread, AKA manna.

“That evening, quails came up and covered the camp. In the morning, a layer of dew was around the camp. The layer of dew rose, behold, over the surface of the desert, there was a fine substance as fine as frost , uncovered on the ground” (Exodus 16:13-14).

After the dew evaporates, the Jews discovered the manna which was hidden beneath it. The Talmud (Yoma 75b) points out that although in this verse the dew is said to rise from below, in another verse (Numbers 11:9), the dew is said to have descended from above.

Which one is it, the Talmud wonders?

The issue is resolved in a stereotypically talmudic fashion: both are correct! The manna was covered both from above and below in dew, as if it were resting in a box.

From this Talmudic statement developed the custom that the challah rests on a challah board, and is covered by a cloth, representing the “box” that the manna rested in.

Thus, every Shabbat when we place challah on the table and then cover it, we are hearkening back to the time when the Jewish people received manna in the dessert.

It is interesting to note that this is the first mention of the obligation to observe Shabbat in the Torah. The concept of Shabbat is introduced specifically in connection to the manna – and remembered each Shabbat with the challah and its cover – because they both share a theme.

What is the common denominator between Shabbat and manna? They both underscore our dependency on the Creator.

Refraining from pursuing a financial livelihood one day a week can be a significant challenge for some. When we refrain from working on Shabbat, we affirm that even though it would make sense that if we were to work on Shabbat we could make more income, but we refrain from doing so because we know that the Creator will fill our financial needs in other ways.

Likewise, the Jewish people were completely dependent on their Creator to provide them sustenance – it literally descended from above! So a challah cover is not just a nice wedding gift, but it is a reminder of our dependence and reliance on the Provider of all Sustenance. How many gifts evoke such a meaningful idea?