“For three transgressions women die in childbirth: for being careless regarding [the laws of] menstruation, the tithe from dough, and kindling the [Sabbath and festival] light.”– Bameh Madlikin / Mishnah Six
I do not personally feel bound to the traditional understanding of challah as a woman’s commandment. It bucks against my general inclination towards egalitarianism, and it also seems wildly superstitious to blame death in childbirth on neglecting to tithe a small piece of dough.
That said, I do feel connected to a community of Jewish women who, over centuries and changing contexts, so lovingly and carefully followed the commandment of making challah each week. I love the softness of swollen dough between my floured fingers. I love punching it down on Friday afternoon and releasing a heady mixture of yeast and sugar into my kitchen. I love braiding the stretchy strands and pulling two egg-browned loaves from the oven. I love that first fragrant breath of Shabbat. Throughout this process I merge with these women. I intuit the way they worked their weekly frustrations out in the dough, braided their secrets into its folds, and infused it with the sweetness of their wishes.
So although I purchase pre-baked challah more often than I make it, and cheer when my friend Avi brings his beautiful, seeded challot to a Shabbat potluck, I think Challah continues to be a binding force for women across Jewish tradition – as rich and complex as the dough itself.