Friday, May 6, 2016

The Origins of the Non-Jewish Custom Of ‘Shlissel Challah’ (Key Bread) “The Loaf of Idolatry?”

update: Rabbi Yair Hoffman who is critical of the following article

Shlissel     By Shelomo Alfassa

Every year Jewish women, young and old, partake in an Ashkenazi[1] custom to place a key (such as a door key to a home), inside the dough of a loaf of bread that they bake.[2] This custom is known as shlissel challahshlissel from the German language shlüssel (key) and challah or hallah from the Hebrew for bread.[3] While a metal key is often baked within the bread, some form the bread itself into the shape of a key or even arrange sesame seeds on top in the form of a key.[4] Often times, these women gather in celebratory groups with the common belief that baking the shlissel challah will bring blessing into their homes, and specifically, the blessing of increased fiscal livelihood. There is also a seemingly new ‘custom’ of baking shlissel challah in the “merit” of a sick person, as a way of helping them recover from physical disease or trauma.[5] A poll on the popular Orthodox Jewish website asked participants: “How do you make your schlissel [sic] challah?”[6] The 88 respondants reported: In the shape of a key 13% [12]; With a key baked in it 61% [54]; Neither, I don't do this 17% [15]; Other 7% [7].

Non-Jewish Origins
The baking of a key inside a bread is a non-Jewish custom which has its foundation in Christian, and possibly even earlier, pagan culture. At least one old Irish source tells how at times when a town was under attack, the men said, “let our women-folk be instructed in the art of baking cakes containing keys.”[7]

Keys were traditionally manufactured in the form of a cross, the traditional symbol of Christianity,[8] a physical item all Christian commoners would posses in their home.[9]On Easter, the Christian holiday which celebrates the idea of Jesus ‘rising’ from the dead, they would bake the symbol of Jesus—the key shaped like a cross—into or onto a rising loaf.[10] This was not only a religious gesture, but the bread was a special holiday treat. Sometimes these breads were wholly formed in the shape of a cross; other times the shape of a cross was made out of dough and applied on top. In the context of historically baking a key into bread—the key itself, intrinsically, was a symbol of Christianity and by extension symbolized Jesus ‘rising’ in the dough.[11]

Connection to Passover
The modern Jewish custom of baking the symbolic shlissel challah, annually takes place on the shabbat immediately following the holiday of Pessah, when tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of religiously observant Jewish women[12] practice this observance.

In Christianity, baked goods associated with keys are commonly called ‘Easter breads,’[13] and in Europe they are also known as ‘Paschals,’[14] as the holiday of Easter in the East is known as ‘Pascha’ or ‘Pascua.’ This is most likely the reason Christians often call Easter breads baked with keys Paschals.[15] Before the Romans destroyed theBeit HaMikdash (the holy Temple) in Jerusalem, the focus of the Passover holiday for the Jewish people was the Korban Pessah (lit. Pessah sacrifice, also known as thePaschal Lamb[16]). Within Christianity, Jesus is known as the ‘Paschal Lamb.’

Geographic Origins
Professor Marvin Herzog, a world renowned Yiddish linguist at Columbia University tells that dough twisted in the form of a key (among other shapes such as a ladder) were found to top challah loafs in Poland, “…the distribution of some of these things was a regional matter.”[17] As an example of the regionality, Prof. Herzog created a map demonstrating where dough was shaped as a ladder and placed on challah, and how it was specific only to certain communities and was not universal. Insomuch as a ladder motif was regional, it can be conjectured that the use of a key or key motif could have evolved the same way. Both a ladder and a key are symbolic as tools that could metaphysically help one attain heaven, as they both help ‘gain access.’

Lack of Sources
While the custom is said to be mentioned in the writings of Avraham Yehoshua Heshel (the “Apter Rav” 1748-1825) and in the Ta’amei ha-Minhagim (1891), there is no one clear source for shlissel challah. And while people will say there is a passuq attributed to it, there is not. And, even if there were, a passuq that can be linked to the practice is not the same as a source. Micha Berger, founder of the AishDas Society, [orthodox] calls this type of logic ‘reverse engineering,’ it’s like drawing a circle around an arrow in a tree, and subsequently declaring the arrow is a bullseye.[18] The idea of baking shlissel challah is not from the Torah; it’s not in the Tannaitic, Amoraitic, Savoraitic, Gaonic or Rishonic literature. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of Israel’s Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim said that while baking challah with a key in it is not forbidden, “there is no meaning in doing so.”[19] Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim[20] of Mesora.Org [orthodox] teaches that:

The Torah teaches that Hashem punishes the wicked, and rewards the righteous. It does not say that challah baking or any other activity will help address our needs…When the matriarchs were barren, they did not resort to segulas, but introspected and prayed…Nothing in Torah supports this concept of segula; Torah sources reject the idea of a segula…baking challas with brachos cannot help…segulas are useless, and violate the Torah prohibition of Nichush [good luck charms]. It does not matter if the charm is a rabbit’s foot, a horseshoe, a challah, key or a red bendel. The practice assumes that forces exist, which do not, and it is idolatrous.[21]

Rabbi Reuven Mann, Principal of Yeshiva B'nei Torah in Far Rockaway, New York [orthodox] says one should ask themselves: “What connection is there between putting a key in the dough of a challah (schlissel challah) and the improvement of my material situation (parnasa)?”[22] He says:

The dangers of deviation are very great. For by inventing new practices not prescribed by Torah one, in fact, implicitly denies the Torah. He is in effect saying that the Torah is not perfect, for it does not work in my case, and there are other man made practices out there which will work for me. In effect this is a negation of Torah and constitutes a form of idolatry, heaven forbid….[this] indicates that a person has lost faith in the authentic prescriptions of Torah. By performing these “unauthorized actions” one is implicitly affirming that there are other “forces” out there besides God which will respond to the needs of the performer of these ritualistic practices. This constitutes a form of “Avodah Zorah.” [...]


  1. I can't believe you publish this crap, Rabbi! Making leitzunes of a minhag yisroel? Shame!

  2. The Talmud brings a whole list of simanim we do for Rosh HaShana ma tehe oleha? Indeed, it says to use such items that reflect positive kelashon hamdina, medina umdina kiksovo.

  3. the point is that this is not viewed simply as a simon but is a segula

  4. Wait until you start looking for the mekor of not cutting boys hair until three years...

    Modern scholarship points out the similarity to the custom found amongst Arab tribes that used to inhabit EY. They say this spread to sephardim, then onto chasidim and then on to pretty much everybody. Now, if you don't keep it you are 'modernish' although although you can be modern chasidic (husband dresses like Polish noble, wife out of Vogue type) and keep it.

    I have now idea myself but I am always scepticle of things not found in Rishonim...

  5. I've read this article last year... well... I agree that many women today do the first hafrashat challah after Pessach thinking more about the key than the mitzva itself but... people like superstitions, what can we do? For example, where did the custom of making challah in the shape of a ladder come from? What about that sort of 'offering' many Moroccans do during their mimunas, with a plate of flour, beans, coins, herbs and a fish inside a plate with water? There are all sort of segulot out there...

  6. In times of the Bais Hamikdas, those who traveled to Yerushalyim for Pesach would begin their trip home after the Regel. To keep the kids distracted ("Are we there yet?!") the mothers would bake the house key into the Shabbos Challah of the Shabbos they spent on the road home. The child who got the slice with the key would be awarded with the honor of opening the house when they finally arrived home.

    In other words, the Goyim often borrow and twist from us. Without hard data, difficult to accurately conjecture who took what from whom. (Obviously my own guess is pure fantasy.)

  7. what about the ka'ara at the seder: zroah and beitzah "in remembrance" of korbanot sacrifices. sounds like a segulah to me.

  8. And here is my guess and boich svara. Lechem mishneh is zecher leMann. To say parshas haMann is, in order to believe that mezonos/parnassa is behashgacha protis and is a segula for Parnassa bli tza'ar, bechavod ubheter etc according to the Ari z'l. We therefore bake the challah in a shape of a key to remind us of the Mann and have bitochon in haShem. SInce the first shabbos after pesach is the new batch of the Chodosh flour for the coming year, it is the key reminder for parnassa. The matza is not be shaped during Pesach and chol hamoed in specific shapes and forms as per halacha, and it so seems that hiding a key inside the dough is not the best choice of a reminder. What they call pascha or pascal bread is all derived from the word Pesach, so we are the originals and no need to imitate anyone. Have a delicious Challah and wishing you all a wonderful Shabbat!

  9. I like that! Traditionally, most bread was "sourdough" which requires a Chametz starter. So besides being able to use the new grain, the Challah of the first Shabbos might also be utilizing a new sourdough starter, and in all seriousness could be related to the key bread.

  10. It is a holy minhag, which is quoted in "Ohev Yisroel" of the Holy Apter Rav 200 years ago. Check the sources before you build imaginary theories.

  11. Calling something from 200 years ago "an ancient minhag" definitely exhibits ignorance. You may not be aware, but there are many who actually want to explore, based on all the available information, how certain Jewish practices developed. Saying "The Apter Rov said it is holy" and giving his post facto justification for a pre-existing practice does not add anything to the discussion.

    The important questions are: What is the earliest mention of this practice in Jewish sources? Are there mentions of a similar practice in non-Jewish sources from after that time, around that time, or that predate that time? If yes, can we trace the Jewish practice to the gentile one, or vice versa? What reasons are given for the practice in the earliest sources? Was there a gap in time between the first mention of the practice and the first mention of a reason, which would indicate that that is in fact not the true reason?

    I do not know if Alfassa did a good or lousy job of any of the above, but if you want to join the conversation, at least learn the language.

  12. The great minhag yisroel. So 200 years is old enough to be a minhag? Thats news to me. And since when is adopting someone elses minhag a minhag? If the only sources for the minhag are chasidish and chassidim have no "authentic minhagim" if you go by what a minhag should be meaning its a family tradition passed unbroken . Then quite frankly use your logic. That means it can't be older than 300 years old withen the jewish community. Especially since nobody but chassidish sources mention it.

  13. So what? Are Alfassas lies more authentic than a min hag from the Apter Rav?

  14. What do Alfassas lies have to do with anything?
    Two wrongs don't make a right.
    "Minhag" from apter Rav? So again do people pick their minhagim now? And segulahs have morphed into minhagim?


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