By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The custom of schlissel challah has become widespread, not only in the chassidish world but in many other communities as well. Two years ago, an article appeared (http://www.mesora.org/Shlissel.html), written by Shelomo Alfassa, which attempted to connect the custom known as schlissel challah to Christian or pagan sources. The Alfassa article, entitled “The Loaf of Idolatry?” stated that fulfilling this custom was, in fact, a Torah violation of following in the ways of the gentiles.
In this article, an attempt will be made to trace the origins of the custom and to examine the alleged connection to non-Jewish sources that appeared in the Alfassa article. With due respect to Mr. Alfassa, it is this author’s contention that the allegations are quite spurious, error-filled, and misleading, and the gentile customs cited have no connection whatsoever to this chassidic custom.
As far as the sources for schlissel challah, Alfassa writes as follows:
“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 HaMinhagim (1891), there is no one clear source for schlissel challah. And while people will say there is a pasuk attributed to it, there is not. And, even if there were, a pasuk that can be linked to the practice is not the same as a source. . . . The idea of baking schlissel 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.’”
While Alfassa is correct in his assertion that the custom is not found in the writings of the Rishonim or earlier, for some reason he fails to point out the chassidic origin of schlissel challah. As a general rule, we do not find chassidic customs in the Rishonim, because the chassidic movement only began in 1740. We do, however, find mention of the custom to bake challah in the shape of a key in many, many chassidic seforim. These seforim were written by genuine Torah scholars, and it is difficult to propose that a Christian practice somehow entered into their literary oeuvre. The Klausenberger Rebbe, the Satmar Rebbe, the Belzer Rebbe, Rav Moshe Aryeh Freund, and numerous chassidishe rebbes and poskim all punctiliously observed this custom.
Most of the reasons have to do with the Kabbalistic notion of “Tirayin Petichin,” that the gates to Heaven are opened. This concept of opened gates is found throughout the Zohar and is discussed by such authorities as the Shela (whose father was a student of the Rema).
The earliest reference is in the works of Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro of Koritz (born 1726), a descendant of the Megaleh Amukos and a student of the Baal Shem Tov. In his work called Imrei Pinchas (#298), he explains that the reason to bake schlissel challah on the Shabbos following Pesach is that during Pesach, the gates to Heaven were opened and remain open until Pesach Sheini. The key alludes to the fact that these gates are now open and that we should focus our prayers ever more on that account.
The Apter Rebbe, author of the Oheiv Yisrael (Likkutim al HaTorah Pesach), mentions the custom as well but provides a slightly different reason. He writes that the gates to Heaven were opened to our prayers the entire Pesach and we must now reopen them with the mitzvah of our Shabbos observance. Although Alfassa writes that there is no pasuk that is referenced for this custom, the verse does indeed exist and is mentioned in the Oheiv Yisrael itself. In Shir HaShirim 5:2, which is read on Shabbos chol ha’moed, the verse states, “Open for me, my sister.” Chazal explain (Yalkut Shimoni Shir HaShirim 988), “You have become My sister with the observance of the two mitzvos in Egypt–the blood of the korban Pesach and the blood of b’ris milah. Open for Me an opening like the eye of the needle and I (Hashem) shall open for you as the opening of a wide hall.”
The Oheiv Yisrael mentions two other reasons for the custom, primarily that Hashem should open His “storehouse of plenty” for us as he did in Iyar after the Exodus.
The Belzer Rebbe (Choshvei Machshavos p. 152) provided the explanation that although the Geulah may not have happened yet as it was scheduled to occur in Nissan, at least the key to Hashem’s storehouse of parnassah and plenty has been opened.
The Ta’amei HaMinhagim (596 and 597) provides a number of reasons as well.
Alfassa writes that “at least one old Irish source tells how at times when a town was under attack, the men said, ‘Let our womenfolk be instructed in the art of baking cakes containing keys.’ This is Alfassa’s lead reference, but looking up his reference (O’Brien, Flann. The Best of Myles. Normal, IL; Dalkey Archive Press, 1968; page 393) reveals that it is not really an old Irish source. Rather it is a quote from a work of fiction found in a collection of Irish newspaper columns that date back four decades before the publication of the book. In other words, there is no correlation between this 20th-century literary statement and a custom that dates back to Eastern Europe centuries earlier.
Let’s now look at the second reference that Alfassa brings. He cites a book written by James George Frazer, entitled The Golden Bough (London: Macmillan and Co.): “Another account mentions a key in a loaf: ‘In other parts of Esthonia [sic], again, the Christmas Boar [cake], as it is called, is baked of the first rye cut at harvest; it has a conical shape and a cross is impressed on it with a pig’s bone or a key, or three dints are made in it with a buckle or a piece of charcoal. It stands with a light beside it on the table all through the festival season.’”
The fact is, however, this source does not mention a key in a loaf at all. It mentions a cake with a cross on top of it. How was the shape of the cross made? Either with a bone of a pig or with a cross-shaped key. There is no parallel to the schlissel challah here whatsoever.
Alfassa further tells us in a footnote, “Small breads with the sign of the cross have been found as far back as 79 CE in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum (see The New York Times, March 31, 1912). This was when Christianity emerged in Roman Judea as a Jewish religious sect which gradually spread out of Jerusalem.”
This footnote as well is extremely misleading. The city of Herculaneum located in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius was destroyed on August 4 in the year 79 CE. At the time it was an entirely pagan city where they worshipped Hercules, and were assuredly not Christian. There was no influence on Judaism here, nor a connection to Christianity, as Alfassa implies, because the entire city, which was buried in volcanic ash, was not influenced by Christianity. The connection to schlissel challah here is completely nonexistent. More likely is the fact that the “plus sign” was actually an icon before the identification of the cross with Christianity. Also connecting the shaping of a plus sign with the schlissel challah in this instance is quite spurious.
Alfassa further attempts to connect the practice with the idea of placing figurines in cupcakes. He writes, “Similar, there are modern non-Jewish customs, such as in Mexico, where a ‘baby Jesus’ figurine is baked into cupcakes; often, the child who finds it wins a prize. This is also practiced in the U.S. state of Louisiana beginning at Mardi Gras and practiced for 30 days after. There, a ‘baby J . . .’ toy is baked into a whole cake, and whoever finds the baby in their piece has to buy the next day’s cake. In Spain, there is a tradition of placing a small J . . . doll inside a cake and whoever finds it must take it to the nearest church.”
The connection that the author makes between this and schlissel challah is perplexing. There is no geographic connection. There is no timeline connection. The only similarity is the placing of an item in something else. Both the items are different and the product that they are put in are different. At best, one can say that this is scholarship that lacks rigor.
In conclusion, there is no evidence whatsoever that this chassidic custom was derived from or influenced by Christian practice. The scholarship behind this allegation is faulty and error-filled. This is a custom that has been practiced by the greatest of our chassidic brethren, and it is wrong to cast such aspersions on their practice. v
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.