Some celebrate a birthday by breaking bread with loved ones.
Batya Rosenblum celebrated by baking bread with friends old and new.
More than a dozen women gathered inside Chabad of the South Hills Jan. 19 for an evening challah bake that benefitted Loaves of Love, which provides bread to older adults and others in need.
“We are all here to knead the dough of life with hands of love,” said Rosenblum, who co-directs Chabad SH with her husband, Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum, as guests arrived. “I’ve been doing women’s events for 24 years. There is a special tradition of the power of women doing this mitzvah (good deed).”
Jewish women have for centuries baked challah, a tradition dating to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, when manna fell from the heavens. The bread is often associated with holidays like Rosh Hashanah; indeed, it plays an integral role in celebrations. But the fluffy, braided bread that can be enjoyed with sweet or savory toppings is also served weekly in Jewish homes during Shabbat, or the Sabbath.
With such a rich history, it follows, then, that baking challah is more than mixing, stirring, kneading and baking. The act of baking challah bread is symbolic and meditative.
“We call it our bread of life,” said Adah Schall, a longtime friend of Rosenblum’s and a member of Chabad SH. “We use it in all of our holidays and all of our blessings. We feed our souls with our challah. It’s food, it’s nourishment. God feeds all of us. The bread, for us, is a joyous meal as well as it means something spiritually.”
The seven ingredients used to make challah dough represent the seven days in a week, and seven aspects of life.
Sugar, Rosenblum explained, symbolizes life’s sweetness, and the yeast, which helps dough rise, represents a prayer for a family’s or individual’s growth. Flour is symbolic of physical blessings; eggs represent the blessings of life and children, and salt’s a symbol for rebuke.
“Water represents the Torah. It’s our greatest gift,” Rosenblum said.
The birthday girl led a discussion on gratitude – “have an attitude of gratitude,” she encouraged – while waiting for the challah dough to rise. Before braiding the challah which, when baked, is as pretty as it is delicious, the ladies gathered in the Chabad kitchen, where Rosenblum broke off a small piece of the batch, comprised of each individual’s dough, and prayed.
“It’s great to eat challah. It’s important to clarify it’s not the eating that is holy, it’s the separation of the dough. The first of our dough shall be given to God,” Rosenblum said, quoting the Torah’s Book of Numbers. “We take off that first piece, we say a blessing and we actually burn it. The first piece actually does not belong to me. It all comes from Hashem. A person can’t take anything physical with him when he leaves this world.”
But the women celebrating Batya Rosenblum’s birthday in communion with one another did take one ready-to-bake challah with them when the party ended. Rosenblum’s daughter-in-law, Miriam Rosenblum, led a challah dough-braiding demonstration and conversation flowed as women’s fingers weaved three- and four-strand braids with the dough.
“Salt of the earth isn’t nice enough for them (the Rosenblums),” said Deb Levy, of Upper Saint Clair, a family friend for more than two decades. “I can’t even tell you how many things I’ve done, the amount of Shabbat dinners we’ve made. She brings us together. We’re always doing something nice.”
Dough braids complete, women topped their challah loaves with everything seasoning or a sweet crumble, left one loaf on the table for Loaves of Love and headed out with a warm “happy birthday” or “thank you” or “good night!”
When the last of her guests had taken their challah and gone, Batya Rosenblum cleaned the workspace with an easiness.
“When you think about your birthday, you think about the person who gave birth to you,” Rosenblum said, noting this is her second birthday without her mother, who passed in Nov. 2021. “I thought of a mitzvah that’s connected to Jewish women. It was amazing.”
To learn more about Chabad of South Hills services and upcoming events, visit https://www.chabadsh.com/.
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