On the Chocolate Trail

What’s a Key (shlissel) Challah?

On the first Shabbat following Passover, after a week deprived of yeasty breads, hassidic custom serves up not just any challah, but a shlissel or key challah. About seven weeks or fifty days later at Shavuot, challot boast ladders and other symbols signifying ascension to heaven. This key shaped bread or bread embedded with an actual key suggests such access. It pops out of the oven during the days of the Omer, marking the wilderness trek between the Exodus from Egypt and the gift of Torah at Mount Sinai.

The shlissel has several hassidic sources, including the Belzer and the Satmar rebbes. An early reference, perhaps the first, comes from a student of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro of Kovitz (b. 1726). He taught that during Pesach and for a short period following, the gates of heaven are open. In his view, the key challah focuses prayers in that interlude. Another early source, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel, the Apter Rav (b. 1748), refers to it as an ancient custom citing Kabbalistic interpretations about opening the gates of livelihood when manna ceased as the ancient Hebrews entered the Land of Israel (Sefer Ohev Yisrael). There may also be a connection to the reading of Song of Songs for Chol Hamoed (the week of) Pesach, particularly the verse (5:2) “Open for me, my sister.” In addition, some views about the Omer identify each day of the counting with a gate and entrances. Kabbalist Jacob ben Sheshet of Spain connects gates with the five books of Moses as in “Fifty gates consist of five sets of ten gates, each set suggesting one of the five parts of the Pentateuch.”* In the middle of the night of the Shavuot study, the tikkun, the heavens are said to open briefly. The key embodies this heavenly aura.

Here are some tips for implementing a key design in your challah:

1. Find an elegant old key, clean it well, and impress it deeply into the top of the challah, using your favorite challah dough. Bake the challah as usual and serve with the key in place.

2. Shape the challah into a key form using a twisted or braided dough.

3. Create several knots from the dough and align them into the shape of a key.

4. Use a shaping dough recipe to mold a key to place on top of a braided challah.

Guided by the stunning shlissel challah, the spiritual journey of the omer progresses. This expansive season of growing sun and warmth, symbolized by its decorative challot, culminates at Shavuot, promising the opening our minds to Jewish learning and our hearts to God’s presence.

*See: “Schlissel Challah: An Analysis by Rabbi Yair Hoffman”

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