Taking Challah

By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute

This week’s parashah should have been a party for all of those involved in the mitzvot tied to the Land of Israel. In Shelach, which powerfully brings home the holiness of the Land of Israel, we would expect to find a list of all of the mitzvot expressing this holiness. Hashem apparently thought otherwise. We will only read the extensive list next week in Parashat Korach — and only in the context of the sanctity of the kohanim and levi’im, not of the Land of Israel. But so as not to leave us empty-handed, it seems, we get the mitzvah of challah this week.

To complicate matters, this mitzvah — part of the group of land-dependent mitzvot — is markedly different from the others and seems to downplay the Land of Israel’s sanctity; it is a Biblical injunction to take challah, even when the flour is not milled from grain grown in Israel’s sacred soil. This is because the defining stage for dough being subject to the obligation of challah is the place where the dough is kneaded, not where the grain is grown.

That’s not all. Even on a rabbinic level, the mitzvah of taking challah is exceptional. It is the only mitzvah tied to the Land of Israel that the Sages enacted in the Diaspora, so that “the laws of challah will not be forgotten” (Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 322, 3). Why weren’t they concerned about the laws of shemittah or terumot and ma’aserot being forgotten?

We believe that it is precisely in this parashah that the mitzvah of challah was commanded since it reveals more than any of its counterparts the Land of Israel’s exalted nature.

In Shiurei HaRav, Rav Soloveitchik, zt’l, explains (based on the Ramban) that, contrary to popular belief, the spies did not reject the holiness of the Land of Israel. They believed that it was of a most spiritual, exalted nature but claimed “אֶפֶס כִּי־עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד וְגַם־יְלִדֵי הָעֲנָק רָאִינוּ שָׁם.” “However, the people living in the land are powerful and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the giant’s descendants there” (Bamidbar 13:28).

Their sin was tied to the word “efes,” which in this context can be rendered as “we have zero chance.” If they had said we would face a difficult challenge, there would have been nothing wrong with their report; they were sent to scout out the Land, and they had to report back what they saw. The problem, though, is that they believed not that it would be difficult, but that “efes” — it would be impossible. According to the spies, the Land of Israel is sacred, but it is impossible to access its sanctity. It can be likened to huge gas deposits that are inaccessible and cannot be exploited. The problem, they believed, lay not in the Land, but in the people.

Had the Torah listed one of the regular land-dependent mitzvot, this would not be enough to negate the spies’ assertion. The holiness of Israel’s fruit, on account of which terumot and ma’aserot must be taken, shemittah, etc., is due to land’s sanctity, a concept the spies readily accepted. The mitzvah of challah is different. While it is a mitzvah tied to the sacred soil of the Land of Israel, for the dough to be subject to challah, it must be kneaded in Israel. That is, man’s actions are the defining factors that unleash this sanctity. In truth, there are two factors working together here: man’s actions and the sanctity of the Land of Israel (the place where the dough is formed). This mitzvah expresses — more than any other — our ability as Jews to bring out sanctity from the Land of Israel, in total contrast to the spies’ argument.

Now we can understand why the Sages were only concerned about the laws of challah being forgotten, and instituted this mitzvah in the Diaspora, while they did not do so for the other land-dependent mitzvot. Had the Sages instituted all of Israel’s Land-related mitzvot for fruit and vegetables abroad, no difference would be felt between the Land of Israel and the rest of the world; this would downplay the Land of Israel’s unique status. Challah, on the other hand, is very different from the other mitzvot. Not only is it a mitzvah tied to the Land of Israel, it is also a personal obligation, just like the other mitzvot in the Torah, and as such would not deemphasize the Land of Israel’s uniqueness. 

Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email h.moshe@toraland.org.il or call 972-8-684-7325.

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