Controversy is raging around this tradition, dating back to Middle Ages. Since we have laboriously and thoroughly divested our homes of all leavened bread in order to celebrate Passover, as we are commanded, Jewish women are faced with a task of baking the first challahs of the year. So we get creative and insert a little key – yes, an actual key! – into one of the challahs. Surprise!
Here is my little key, wrapped in foil. Some women use their house keys, and I’ve heard of some wealthier ones who used to bake in safe deposit box keys. You get the idea: those ladies believe that baking a Shlissel Challah (Key Challah) will ensure a year of financial prosperity. Many authorities challenge this seemingly innocent custom, citing Biblical injunction against all omens, since finances and all our worldly possessions are in the Hand of the A-mighty. Nevertheless, we women are, perhaps, even more “stiff-necked” than men, so we stubbornly continue sticking keys into the first challahs after Passover. Some of us get even more creative and fashion key-shaped challahs. Is there, perhaps, a deeper meaning to those delicious creations?
Contrary to Mr Spock, we human beings have emotions. Modern psychology recognizes four major categories of feelings: sad, angry, mad, and happy. The rest of our emotions, the entire spectrum of them, are only variations. Does anything bother you about this list? It disturbs me that 75% of our emotions are supposedly negative and only 25% are positive. The Jewish view differs; Kabbalah teaches us that there are seven major emotional states, and each one of them has seven more, to the total of 49. Thus, on the second day of Passover we start counting Omer (this used to be a daily offering to the Temple, but nowadays, when we, tragically, do not have a Temple, all we can do is count). We count 49 days, and on each day we unlock yet another gate of positive emotion and character trait, until finally, on the last day of counting, we merit to unlock the Gate of Wisdom. To me, this is what Shlissel Challah represents, in accord with “Ethics of Our Fathers” which states, “Who is wealthy? The one who rejoices in his lot.”
Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, who lived in the 2nd century CE, has shared Kabbalah, the mystical meaning of Torah, by authoring Zohar, “The Book of Light,” that contains this, as well as myriads of other incredible insights. Since the teaching of Torah was forbidden by the Roman authorities at the time, he incurred wrath of the local Roman procurator and had to hide in a cave for 13 years, together with his son. There, it is said, he would have such distinguished visitors as Our Teacher Moses and the Prophet Elijah, among others, who came to learn with him. When he eventually emerged from the cave, he went to the nearby village of Meron. He didn’t start teaching or preaching; instead, he asked the villagers,”How can I help you? If there is anything that needs fixing, I’ll fix it for you.” No wonder the day of his passing, which falls on 33rd day of counting Omer, is celebrated by thousands of people making pilgrimage to his grave side in Meron. Rabbi Shimon admonished his son and his students on the day of his passing to “mark this day with joy” (chabad.org), since the righteous person’s passing means he has surely entered the Gate of Wisdom.
This is what Shlissel Challah means to me – Chochmah (wisdom), achieved not by finding a little key in a key-shaped challah, but by stepping out of an ivory tower to apply learning to practical tasks, “to fix what needs to be fixed.” This year, our guest for this special Shabbos was a dear friend who is a cellist. For him, and for our memories going back almost 40 years, I fashioned my challah into a “Violin Key” (Treble Clef); it is still a key, isn’t it? The little key was safely tucked inside, and as we made the blessing over challahs, we held our breath: who will get the special slice?
The musical Shlissel Challah did lose much of its shape, as the dough was rising, but our friend was just as happy to discover the key in his slice! To follow my family tradition, he was required to extend blessings to all present. On his behalf, I am hereby sending blessings to all of you, Beautiful People: may we merit to enter the Gate of Wisdom while still on this earth and start fixing what needs to be fixed here!
The recipe for my whole wheat / spelt challah is found here.