This is an update of a post from 2016 with revisions based on extensive Facebook discussion. New posts are coming within a few days.
For those who do not know, in recent years there has been a revival of the folk practice of baking a key into Challah (Shlissel Challah) during the week after Passover as a charm to insure successful livelihood.
In short, I will treat the ritual as modern home ritual focusing on baking bread after Passover, not as a magical act, and sometimes as an act done to relieve the anxiety for making a good livelihood because people are very concerned about paying their bills and making a living especially after the economic downturn. But, it is more connected to the trend of challah baking parties and contemporary spirituality. It has become a form of annual symbolism, the same way one buys a round challah for Rosh Hashanah, one buys a key challah this week.
This post is not about the Hasidic community or those who were doing it thirty years ago. It is only about the progress of the custom in the modern community within the last dozen years. If you were from a community doing it thirty years ago, then I am not addressing you.
Malinowski in Teaneck
For more than decade, I have wanted to do an article entitled “Malinowski in Teaneck.” This is just the tip of the iceberg of many related observations on this topic. I do not think one needs to accept all, or even most, of the functionalism of Malinowski, but the insights are valuable.
Already fifteen years ago, I was taking note of the huge amount of magical acts, healing practices, segulot, and rituals to affect or change bad situations that took place among the modern Orthodox Jews of Bergen county. Keeping track and documenting of the magical practices was easy through the local community shul list serve, currently at over 14,000 members, where invitations to practices were openly posted.
The famed anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski (d. 1884-1942) wrote seminal articles in the 1920’s and 1930’s showing that people turn to magic when they are doing everything right but things are still coming out wrong. For example, when a person did everything right in one’s farming or fishing, but one still had well-placed anxiety about this year’s harvest since life is never certain. One released the tension through magical practices. One did magical practices to ensure a good catch even though you still knew it was based on skill and hard work because life remains fragile and contingent.
My original intention was to post about the magic practices by those in Teaneck stricken by illness. Last decade there was a boom in these new practices. They know they have to go to doctors and specialists, along with second and third medical opinions; they know it depends on modern science and the best procedures. But when that fails they turn to magic to deal with the anxiety about the failure and that they have exhausted all possible means. In addition, in their minds they did everything right religiously, they went to the right gap year programs, they followed the rules for social and professional success-so they are left the question: why did this happen? The halakhic universe of duty and obligations does not address their anxiety. Telling them it is nonsense or forbidden is beside the point in relieving anxiety and fear. They will just seek the relief elsewhere.
Wherever there are situations of danger or uncertainty, rift between ideals and realities, or human crisis and resulting in anxiety and fear, religion and magic steps in and attempts to resolve, mediate and/or lessen, and provides chart and procedural knowledge to give order and control.
He must admit that neither his knowledge nor his most painstaking efforts are a warranty of success. Something unaccountable usually enters and baffles his anticipations…Man feels that he can do something to wrestle with that mysterious element or force, to help and abet his luck.
There are no peoples however primitive without religion and magic. Nor are there, it must be added at one, any savage races lacking in either the scientific attitude, or in science, though this lack has been frequently attributed to them.
Malinowski wrote that: “Magic therefore, far from being primitive science, is the outgrowth of clear recognition that science has its limits and that a human mind and human skill are at times impotent.” These practices are non-pseudo- science; people know what they have to do rationally. Rather, they are means to deal with the frustrations of real life. Malinowski confirms the Talmud when it says: “Most sailors are pious, He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea,” (Mish. Kid. iv. 14).
Magic is to be expected and generally to be found whenever man comes to an unbridgeable gap, a hiatus in his knowledge or in his powers of practical control and yet has to continue in his pursuit. Forsaken by his knowledge, balled by the results of his experience, unable to apply any effective technical skill, he realizes his impotence. Yet his desire grips him only the more strongly. His fears and hopes, his general anxiety, produce state of unstable equilibrium in his organism by which he is driven to some sort of vicarious activity.
Malinowski still acknowledges the rituals of social order and heightened tension but some are the result of psychological anxieties. What he is rejecting it the approaches of the 19th century E. B. Tylor who developed the evolutionary scheme where people need to be taught to move past their superstitious past based on a lack of knowledge of science and accept the rational world of science. For Tylor, magic is attempt of bad science cause-effect For Malinowski, magic reduces anxiety and is integrated within proper knowledge of procedures for success, hence it is still part of the life of modern scientific people.
According to Malinowski, the ritual eases stress, mental conflict and possible psychic disintegration. In addition, magic serves not only as an integrative force to the individual but also as an organizing force to society when the stress is collective.
Most practitioners of anxiety magic are middle-class professionals. To take a noticeable case that has been subject to several studies is the great American pastime of baseball . Most baseball players , similar to Talmudic sailors, engage in various magical practices because one can still have bad days despite their training, hard work, and skills. They have million dollar contracts, managers, and coaches. Yet, they engage in many magical rituals to relieve the stress of winning. They are not following Hasidic customs or pagan practices; they are not ignoring their training or thinking that is all they need. Rather, they are attaching their hope and fear onto a practice as a way of relieving anxiety. Many professions, even those in the upper middle class, or maybe especially those in the upper middle class, partake of a variety of magical practices.
Alternately, Michael Taussig, the Australian anthropologist, points out the role of magical ritual in capitalist production of wealth, in that, wealth is a limited commodity and requires magic and contact with the devil to obtain a share of it. Michael Taussig’s discusses how societies that come into contact with capitalism for the first time tend to find this fetishistic process pretty weird, and associate it with magic and sorcery—Columbian rural farmers, when introduced to capitalist agriculture, developed myths about how one could, by dealing with the devil, plant money in hope that this money will grow, a practice which only strikes outsiders as strange because the would-be devil worshipers weren’t going about it the right way, using savings accounts, mutual funds etc. The observant life style would be be a form of creation of capital. The desire for wealth creates a need to perform magical acts. This would be a fruitful alternate line of thinking to Malinowski.
Shlissel Challah and Segulah
Now to the segulah of Shlissel Challah, which is to either bake a key into a challah, or to form the challah in the shape of a key for the first Shabbat after Passover . The key is supposed to allow the opening of the gates of heaven for money and making a living. The custom has early 19th century roots in a custom of the Ukrainian Hasidic Rebbes, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz and Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, popularly known as the Apter Rebbe (d. 1825). (For the current Ultra-Orthodox debate on the topic, see here.)
In addition, there are scores of practices involving the connections of the sacredness of the twelve loaves of show-bread, the manna in the desert and sacred eating go back to Second Temple times and are further developed in Midrash and Zohar. These themes of the holiness of sacramental bread have not been emphasized in recent history.
Segulot are the Jewish magical and folk charm and remedy practices, of which there are thousands. Some date back to Second Temple times and the tradition of using them continued unabated through two millennium of Jewish life. They collected in large volumes with names like Sefer HaSegulot, Sefer Ha-Refuʾah Ve-HaSegulah, and Sefer haZekhirah. The Talmud advises that Psalm 91 wards off mazikin (evil spirits or demons), the priestly blessing has been seen as having healing powers since antiquity, and there are dozens of segulot to help retrieve lost objects, prevent fire, remember Torah, to use as love potions, or ward off wild beasts.
A widely accepted magical practice in Judaism is to spill wine while reciting the ten plagues of the Passover seder as a means of either inflicting punishment on our enemies by sympathetic magic or as a general prophylactic against evil forces. For those who want a catalog of thousands of medieval Jewish magical practices from the Ashkenaz lands, one should see Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (1939), dated but still offering a window into traditional folk Jewish practice. (The book is available online here.)
For a wonderful up to date book on magic in the Talmud and rabbinic Judaism, see here in my interview with Yuval Harari on his excellent book Jewish Magic Before the Rise of the Kabbalah (2017).
Non-Jews also do magic, have symbolism in their baked goods for the holidays, and have folk customs, not only Jews. There is no reason to assume influence. These practices go back at least a millennium. And Gruenbaum’s Kosher bakery in the Heights used to bake a variety of Christian symbolic cakes and breads during Holy Week for their Christian customers.
In the early 20th century, the most common Jewish magical practices were done to ensure a successful pregnancy, to ward off small pox, and to prevent croup, crib death, and other dangers to infants. Every child’s room had a talisman to ward off childhood illness. With the rise of modern medicine they receded from common practice. But the practices returned in the twenty first century. Much of it is due to the loss of faith in progress and science conquering all. Susan Sered, in her book Women as Ritual Experts (1992) noted the role of amulets for infertility in 1980’s Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, a current sociologist notes that there has been more magic in the West in the last 35 years than the entire 200 years prior in the age of Enlightenment
So Why Shlissel Challah?
Shaping challah into seasonal shapes was a regular family practice in the old county as part of weekly baking. Ukrainian Jews shaped the challah before Yom Kippur in the image of birds for an ascent and that sins should fly away, they shaped them into a hand for Hoshanah Rabbah for our fate to be sealed, birds also for shabbat shirah, a key for Iyyar in that the manna stopped falling, and a ladder for Shavuot for a ladder to heaven (and sulam numerically equals Sinai).
Of all the varied traditions of baking, only the custom of the challah in the shape of the key returned about 12 years ago as a quaint custom but caught on about five years ago. It became widespread 2011-2012 and continues to be mainstreamed. Of all the various Challah customs, this one was specially chosen and the others ignored because of the anxiety about making a living and as a transition back to bread baking after Passover
All of the well-rehearsed discussions of the high cost of Orthodox living show the anxiety about making a living, This ritual acknowledges the very unspoken knowledge of people unemployed or underemployed or have lost their homes.There is a real anxiety about making a living even among those with good jobs, even dual income with six figures each.
(As a 2018 update, the staying power of this custom has more to do with the return to chametz after Passover. People are looking forward to Challah this week. Now Bagel stores and bakeries make key-challah this week for the symbolism. You do not see Bagel stores engaged in other segulot, this custom has now become like the symbolism of round challot for Rosh Hashanah, not like the segulot done by faith healers.)
I must point out that this is not a general turn to Hasidic customs. People are not picking up the very traditional and pious ritual practice of celebrating the seventh day of Passover as a holiday of God’s power, or dancing through water to celebrate the splitting of the sea, despite the hundreds of sources nor are they following the dozens of other post-passover segulot.
Challah and Home
But why choose Challah? The contemporary books of segulot list many practices to insure a livelihood and most of them can also be given Hasidic approbation.
Segulot for making a living include sharpening knives for the Sabbath, buying a new knife for Rosh Hashanah, putting Havdalah wine into one’s pockets, letting Havdalah wine overflow in abundance, and not to throw out any bread. The table and Rosh Hashanah are the traditional locations where the anxiety to make a living plays itself out.
The most famous practice to make a livelihood as quoted in the Shulchan Aruch is to say with intention the section on the giving of the manna every day after prayers, a practice fallen in observance.
Rather, than these traditional practices that are in the Shulkhan Arukh, people are picking something home based and originally gendered as a woman’s activity. The anthropologist Tamar El-Or in an article “A Temple in Your Kitchen” notes the treating of the separation of challah at home as a Temple service, as a special new collective ritual activity beyond just the need to make weekly bread
She argues that there is currently an inversion in the categories associated with the Temple sacrifice: “The placement of the Temple and the kitchen side by side in the public hafrashat hallah ceremony challenges the division between the public and the private, between male and female…” The Biblical commandment of sacrifice meant to be carried out in the public space of the Temple, moves into the home. “Instead of a private act accomplished by each woman inside her house, the ceremony offers a public spiritual event.”
The renaissance of hafrashat hallah is an “event.” A halakhic practice… has been refashioned to suit contemporary audiences. It has become a celebration of womanhood, an opportunity to shop, to pray, and to learn new recipes. The mass hafrashat hallah ceremonies are policing entertainments, fun targeted toward education and discipline, and a good traded in a bustling and competitive spiritual market. These ceremonies mark a gendered old-new realm of action and a creative initiative within the teshuvah industry.
In the busy schedule of America, this is a chance to create a home ritual in the context of the recent return to cooking and being a foodie. The baking of shlissel challah is an artisan endeavor and part of the new custom of the large group challah-baking events, which I see as a related phenomenon. Far fewer people bake or cook consistently compared to a half a century ago but they like episodic cooking and baking. The bread is not baked out of necessity rather a sense of do it yourself.
This leads to the ritual being picked up on Kosher cooking and Jewish family interests blogs even for a wider Jewish audience who do not have the anxieties. It becomes a once a year nice Jewish home activity. The internet has played a tremendous role in the rapid spread of this custom in the wider community, which in turn normalizes the activity. Synagogues now have events this week for a collective baking of challah.
Some have made claims that this is a return of chassdic custom but as stated above chassidc practice was to make special challot many times in the year since they had to bake every week. And there are thousands of other chassidc customs that modern orthodoxy is ignoring. I even have found several who say this is a way to reconnect to almost world of Europe in that it cannot be a “coincidence that Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Rememberance Day, falls around the time of the shlissel challah.” They are using the Chassidc label to create an aura of authenticity to a do- it-yourself artisan activity.
The custom also points to the role of women in needing to generate income and take on the struggles of the family. But this week, they take the time to bake a challah symbolic of making a living.
There is another element -the new found binary relationship between Chometz and Passover. A clear demarcation of donut and matzah.
In our age of Passover plenty and also weekly plenty, few are looking forward to the Passover treats. Rather we like our routines. No, I should say that we love our routines. There is a new widespread folk ritual in local modern Orthodoxy of specifically going to Dunkin Donuts for one last Coolatta and donut, or to the bagel store for one last everything bagel with a smear. You see the new Jewish ritual of waiting in the long lines at Dunkin Donuts, then sitting with the little kids on the curb in a strip mall or walking in circles around the block as one eats one’s last leaven bread.
On the other side of the holiday, the transition back to normal life after Passover is an anticlimax and involves a great deal of work in returning the house to the normal non-Passover dishes. People need a transitional ritual of a return to leavened bread and what could be a better practice than baking challah. (Update- there is an increase in pizza parties and Maimouna among Ashkenaz Jews on the night after Passover. As noted above, people are looking forward to challah this week.)
Most busy people ran back to work and had little sense of closure so challah is a treat after two weeks without fresh bread.
I received this week from two rabbis statements of the meaning of the ritual for their congregants in both cases the message is connecting to God.
The first one addressed the critics of the ritual and the second one made a spiritual case for it. “I think if you are the kind of Jew who thinks – ‘what does working have to do with earning a living, G-d will provide, especially if I do shisel chalah?’ – then they you should NOT do it. But if you are the kind of Jew who thinks ‘What does God have to do with earning a living, I have a great job?’ then you should do it!”
The second one said the purpose was spiritual engagement . One takes something mundane and elevates it to a higher level. The Biblical, Rabbinic and Hasidic sources connecting this challah making to a form of self-sufficiency and helping others as part of a community. The key message is how to improve our connection with the HaKadosh Barukh Hu (the Holy One Blessed be He)and use this as a moment to be spiritually engaged.
The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah teaches us that on Pesach we are judged on how much grain we will have for the coming year. The Apter Rebbe connects this to the Shabbos after Pesach to wit baking the challah in the sharp of a key. When Israel finally arrived in the land after Pesach the manna stopped and they ate from the produce of the land. It was at that point that they had to make their own food . So the Apter Rebbe said now they had to move from passivity and complete reliance on Hashem to actually being productive with the ability to create things and support things and move towards self-sufficiency. Parnassa then means taking the wheat and making the bread-taking what G d gives us and then in partnership building on that.
The Forward posted a nice piece on the topic similar to the second rabbi based on the need for self-sufficiency. It concluded:
The movement from manna to bread, the movement from Egypt to Israel and the movement from Passover to Shavuot are all linked through the commitment to human activity. I’m putting a key on my challah this Shabbat to remind myself of that moment, that first communal moment where we stopped waiting for bread to fall from the skies and started making it ourselves — and perhaps to remind myself that the keys to those gates may be in my hands.
Another homily was found on the Aish HaTorah website in the name of Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller. It should be noted that during her long and successful career she contributed to making many long forgotten midrashim, wild aggadah, and kabbalistic legends into mainstream Torah. She makes ordinary activities fraught with spiritual meaning. The reader should notice in this excerpt of a long article how she moves from the universal to the feminine and then to why this is not idolatry.
Everything is in its essence holy, kodesh, and always will be. God gives us permission to use His world for a “mundane, chol” purpose, under one condition: that we preserve its holy essence…”Ordinary” life has a holy source, and it is our responsibility to use it well. This is especially true in regard to bread. Nothing is more “ordinary” than eating. Yet on an intuitive level we can connect to the mystic energy of the earth itself while making bread, in its feel and texture. It is meant to touch us deeply, and halacha (literally, “the way to walk”) tells us how use its power well.
Humans, as a combination of body and soul, flour and water, are like a dough.
The Shlah explains that everything we observe in this world has a spiritual parallel… The Torah is telling us that while bread alone may sustain the body, it is the word of God — concealed within the physical properties of the bread — that sustains one’s soul. And separating challah initiates this process of spiritual nurture.
It is instructive to note that in the biblical text (Numbers ch. 15), the mitzvah of challah is juxtaposed to the laws prohibiting idol worship. What possible connection exists between uplifting bread and polytheism? The nature of idol worship is to see the Creator as being removed from His creations… By taking challah, we are saying that God is here! He is the source of our souls, bodies, and the forces that sustain them. He is One, and nothing is separate from His transcendental unity.
Our matriarch Sarah achieved this level in her own lifetime. The Talmud tells us that her bread stayed fresh from Friday to Friday. The life force that she was able to identify — the Shechinah presence of God — did not depart. In her role as matriarch, Sarah laid the foundations for the future of every Jewish woman’s spiritual journey. God allowed her to experience a miracle week after week — leaving an indelible imprint not just on her, but on each of her future descendants.
In the last few days there have been posts from Reconstructionist rabbis and new age-Chabad rabbis and cooking blogs all giving spiritual and symbolic interpretations of the new practice.
The Best of Physicians is destined for Gehenna
The same Talmudic passage above about the the piety of sailors (and baseball players) continues by decrying that “the best of physicians is destined for Gehenna.” Why? The most common answer is because they see their lives as not dependent on God. They trust their skill and personal talents to solve problems without seeing anything higher.
The public face of Modern Orthodoxy is very professional and ordered -trusting in its skill as doctors, lawyers, accountants, and IT personal to solve problems. They do not say I wont become a physician because the Talmud condemns doctors. Their religion is very self-sufficient and not magical. But how does this play in an era of spirituality and placing greater emphasis on the spiritual self over the organizational?
Ordinary people, for whom the anxieties of life are still the traditional concerns of “children, health, and livelihood” still need to turn to divine help. They need something to relate to their fears and hopes against a backdrop of the age of spirituality. For them the magic and supernatural and the possibility of faith remains a concern, even if they live in a scientific non-magical world. For many, if not most, ordinary people, religion is about having God in their lives life.
As a side observation, last decade there was a local synagogue based drive for better prayer. They mailed everyone an Orthodox book that said that the way to pray is to ask for all your personal needs to God: health, children, job stress, cooking stress, laundry stress, computer problems, burnt food. It had follow-up by speakers teaching the same points. One turns to prayer in order to solve daily problems. In a ritualized world, it was inevitable to generate ritual. This was one of the many moments of the last decade that laid the groundwork for seeing God in one’s daily problems.
It is interesting to note that members of both the right and left of the Orthodoxy world unite in having written articles condemning the practice as superstition For them, their deep anxiety is over the boundaries and purity of Orthodox. The left is anxious about the perceived right wing distortion of Orthodoxy and the right is worried about the left wing distortion of Orthodoxy. For both of them, the practice of turning to God does not relate to their concern for the future of Orthodoxy. And for both of them it does taint their rational visions of a legal centered Orthodoxy that keeps direct experience of God out of their lives.
The critics mistakenly think that the performer of segulot is practicing bad science and superstition in the nineteenth century E. B. Tylor patronizing way of telling the natives that their practices were just bad science. It also similar to the 19th century works ascribing Jewish rituals such as dietary laws to bad science.
The same 19th century anthropologists such as Tylor and Frazer cited to show the cross-cultural phenomena of such practices also showed the pagan superstitious totemistic sources of tefillin, shofar, and four species. Many books of the early twentieth century use these arguments to show that all Jewish ritual is just pagan. The current Orthodox rationalist critics of the practice are selectively using sources that undercut the very roots of any observance. There are magical aspects to spilling drops of wine at the seder and many other practices.
The critics think that the person baking a key in the challah needs to be demeaned by being told that if they want a job they should learn to polish their resume or get job training. They are oblivious that every modern Orthodoxy article and sermon viewed it as a holiday of self-sufficiency or as only symbolic. They are not using it as magic, just a nice shape of challah. At most it is the need for the relief of anxieties of making enough of a livelihood done in a spiritual content. The critics are projecting magical thinking onto others when those who do it only treat it as a symbol, and even a symbol of self-sufficiency.
In addition, many of the critics have a clear sense of mansplaning against gendered women’s challah practices and practices outside of communal synagogue life.
There are similar phenomena among Evangelical Christians who create a rational understanding of their faith and then decry the popular practices of Christmas and Easter with their eggs, bunnies, and magical practices, which they reject. These Evangelicals separate out a core rationalist belief from their personally perceived popular and pagan elements. They assume that if one removes these practices as non-rational then the rest of their belief system becomes rational. One sees the same trends here. In both, the rationalism of their personal views overrides the imaginative, symbolic, and human.
In the end, I do not think one needs to accept all the functionalism of Malinowski and almost no one takes it as primitive science the ways the critics portray it. All we have is a ritual of challah baking, new women’s customs, and using the mundane a a way to turn to God, nice for families, and a special event of challah after Passover done in an age of anxiety.
h/t and deep thank you to all those who responded to my FB call as I was writing this and the two years of FB comments that modified the original.