In the Torah we seem to only find this word associated with Temple related breads. In Rabbinic writings the word challa was the word referring to the amount of dough separated to be given to a kohen. We who don't give it to a kohen burn it. When, and perhaps how, did people start calling the Shabbos lekhem, the distinctive bread we make for Shabbos, by this name?

It seems extra odd on the list of colloquial expressions being that we use the name of what we treat as prohibited to refer to the product we use. Imagine people start calling a Bris Mila an Orla, or start referring to Matzah as chametz. Strange.

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    חלה means "loaf" in the Chumash (e.g. Vayikra 24:5).
    – Fred
    Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 19:00
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    @user6591 EVERY instance of the word in tanakh means loaf. All of them.
    – Double AA
    Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 19:03
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    @user6591 So is the following your actual question? "'Challah' in Tanach means "loaf" (a countable noun). When did it start to mean 'bread' (an uncountable noun)?"
    – Fred
    Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 19:25
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    @user6591 "perhaps Shmuel 2 6 19" I was thinking of that, too, but why should it be considered errant? See the מצודת ציון there: "לחם השלם תקרא חלה". And the Radak there seems to say that a חלה is just a smaller version of a ככר loaf (which is also used to describe both chullin and kodesh): "ובדברי הימי' ככר לחם והככר גדול מהחלה כי ככרות היו אלא שהיו עשויים כתכונת החלות". Anyway, this is an interesting question, but I'm not sure that it is a fair premise to say that the word חלה should be limited to non-chullin.
    – Fred
    Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 19:52
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    @user6591 "and 100%(?) In chazzal". Mishnayos in Uktzin (3:5, 3:11) talk about chullin loaves (though in those cases, the loaves are not loaves of bread - the first talks about a "loaf of saffron" and the second talks about a "loaf of honey", i.e. a honeycomb).
    – Fred
    Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 20:36

2 Answers 2


from Menachem Mendel:

The earliest apparent source for using the term ḥallah in connection with the bread that is eaten on Shabbat can be found in the 15th c. German work Leket Yosher (p. 49) [See John Cooper’s Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food]:

וזכורני שבכל ע”ש עושין לו ג’ חלות דקות הנילושות בביצים ושמן ומעט מים. וחלה האמצעית נתן בלילה על השלחן באמצע שלחנו, כי שלחנו היה מרבע, על המפה האמצעית. ותחת החלה היה ככר גדול שהוא שלם, אע”פ שהוא שחור ולא על לחם לבן קטן גלוסקא שהוא זעמל. ובשחרית נתן החלה הגדולה וככר גדול על השלחן כמו בלילה. ולסעודה ג’ לקח החלה הקטנה ולחם שלם.

I remember that on every Friday afternoon they would make three thin ḥallot that were kneaded with eggs, oil, and a little bit of water. In the evening, since the table was square, the middle ḥallah was put in the middle of the table on the middle tablecloth. Under the ḥallah was a large whole loaf…In the morning the large ḥallah and a large loaf were put on the table like in the evening. For the third meal the small ḥallah and a small bread was taken.

Not only is the use of ḥallah in the context of Shabbat relatively late, but it also wasn’t uniform. The following is from a Philologos column that discussed the use by South African Jews of the word “kitke” to describe the bread eaten on Shabbat:

Mr. Cole can find the answer to his question in Volume III of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry, in which no fewer than nine pages, complete with linguistic maps and charts, are devoted to the various words by which Sabbath and festival breads were known to the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Although “challah” has taken over completely among the Jews of the United States, effacing all its rivals, a look at Ashkenazic Europe from Alsace in the West to Belarus and Ukraine in the East reveals, in addition to Western and Eastern Yiddish khale, five other words for such a bread: berkhes, dacher, koylatsh, shtritsl and — the word asked about by Mr. Cole — kitke.

Khale was by far the most widespread of these words, thus explaining its predominance in America. It derives from Hebrew h.allah, which has the meaning in the Bible of a flat cake, baked on coals, that constituted the simplest and most inexpensive of sacrifices that could be offered on the altar. (Its association with sacred ritual was very likely the reason that h.allah later became attached to Sabbath and holiday breads.) Apart from much of Germany, Czechoslovakia and Transylvania, khale was used in almost every part of Ashkenazic Europe, often in conjunction with other terms. Sometimes but not always, khale was the general term for a Sabbath and holiday bread while another word designated to a local variety, or else khale, referred to a plain bread as opposed to a fancier one. Thus, for instance, the word koylatsh was used widely throughout Poland and Russia to denote, in some areas, a braided challah; in others, a decorated challah baked for weddings and celebrations, and in still others, any braided roll, braided yeast cake, or even filled cake or pastry. (The word koylatsh itself, though its ultimate etymology is unclear, already was in use among French Jews in the lifetime of renowned 11th-century rabbinic commentator Rashi; he speaks of a coilush as a kind of long, thin bread, like a baguette.) Shtritsl (apparently from medieval German Struz, a swelling — as of dough with yeast? — or a protuberance) had much the same range of meanings as koylatsh but was more restricted in its geographical range and was used occasionally to designate a festive Christian bread rather than a Jewish one.

I mentioned this to my colleague Rabbi Jill Hammer, and she suggested that I look into the connection between ḥallah and goddess worship. Not really knowing what to expect, I found the following in The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (p. 482):

The braided bread loaves of Germanic tradition were invented by the women of Teutonic tribes, who used to make offerings of their own hair to their Goddess. Eventually they learned to preserve their braids by substituting the imitative loaf, which was called Berchisbrod or Perchisbrod, bread offered to the Goddess Berchta, or Perchta. The name of the braided Sabbath loaf among German Jews, Berches or Barches, was copied from this tradition.

Could it be that those nice braids that my wife makes when she bakes ḥallah really have their source in pagan goddess worship? The linguist Paul Wexler thinks that the original name was actually the German Holle which was

the name of a pagan Germanic goddess to whom braided bread was once given in offering. [The German] Holle was replaced at a later date-under the pressure of Judaization-by the [Hebrew] ḥallah, which bore formal and semantic similarity. (See his book The Non-Jewish Origins of the Sephardic Jews, pp. 68-69 and numerous other places in his writings.)

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    I should add the caveat that Wexler appears to be a bit of a self-hating Jew/self-promoting "academic" who had an agenda to discredit Jewish traditions in the hopes of buttressing his theory questioning the lineage of the Jewish people.
    – Loewian
    Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 23:23
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    Wexler is known to be dishonest (see, e.g., tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/176580/yiddishland so, while the Holle theory does sound interesting and even compelling, I would find other sources to vouch for it being reasonable.
    – Loewian
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 3:59
  • see also: books.google.com/…
    – Loewian
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 4:09
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    So far haven't found any evidence that there was a ever a pagan custom to offer braided breads to Holle...
    – Loewian
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 0:46

It is because the reason we bake the Shabbos bread in the first place is to rectify the sin of Eve, who caused the death of Adam, who was the "Challah of the world", i.e. the small holy part for which everything else was made. In order to protect and emphasize this reason, we call the entire batch of dough "Challah", since the the actual challah is discarded.

  • Sources? [15 char]
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 1:04

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