Shabbat Shalom
Shabbat Vaera / 23 Tevet  5775
Exodus 6:2-7:7 | Ezekiel 28:25-29:21 

This Shabbat, Debbie Render shares 
It's All About the Challah

For me, Shabbat is very much about challah.  It's been this way for more than 20 years, ever since a friend suggested we try baking challah together one Friday, using a "Famous Challah" recipe she found in an old Jewish cookbook. 

Never having baked with yeast before, we handled it with trepidation and respect, following the recipe to the letter.  Turned out no need to worry - the dough rose, my house smelled heavenly as the loaves baked and the challah was infinitely tastier than its store-bought kin.  I was hooked.

It took a few years for me to get into the rhythm of baking challah nearly every Friday, but now it's hard to imagine not doing it.  I'm fortunate to work from home, so I generally head down to my kitchen late morning to start the dough.  I still use the same recipe, long ago committed to memory. No matter how harried I am, it's both relaxing and energizing to mix the ingredients in my trusty metal bowl. The highly physical act of kneading the dough helps me begin letting go of the week's frustrations and stresses and preparing emotionally for the change of pace Shabbat promises.  


I find the small act of "taking challah" powerfully connects me to umpteen generations of challah bakers who came before me. It also vividly reminds me to be thankful for the food and the blessings in my life - and the importance of sharing them, especially with those I love.  So after the dough rises and before I braid it, I separate a piece about the size of an olive and burn it in my toaster oven after reciting the traditional blessing:


Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu, l'hafrish challah.


Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to separate challah. 


Writing this essay has encouraged me to think a lot about my Shabbat observance, or lack thereof. Observing Shabbat has always been a work in progress for me, my husband Bob and our three (now grown) children. I've come to realize that every Shabbat is a little different, just like no two challahs are exactly the same. My challahs look and taste a bit differently depending how long I let them rise, how humid/hot/cold it is in my kitchen, how much I knead them, how much flour I work in, how large/long/thin I make the six strands I use for braiding. Sometimes I put sesame seeds or poppy seeds on them, sometimes I don't.  


Similarly, each Shabbat varies depending on my mood, what my week was like, who comes for Shabbat dinner, how many plans or activities we do or don't have, which parasha (Torah portion) we discuss at Kahal, whether I'm focused or distracted, whether our kids are in town.  But for 24 hours, I at least try to put aside work and stay away from the computer. Instead I aim to linger over Friday night dinner with friends and family, worship and study at Kahal, relax, spend time pondering profound topics  rather than mundane ones and do things I'm often too busy to do during the week, whether it's reading the backlog of The New York Times or going shopping.  


But no matter what they ultimately look like, both Shabbat and home-baked challah are special, good for my stomach and my soul. Even our dog Malcolm gets excited every Friday when he sees us setting the table in the dining room instead of the kitchen.  Crazy about challah, he waits more or less patiently for his share (most likely sizing up which guests are likely to sneak him the biggest pieces), while we light the candles and recite the Kiddush and hamotzi. 

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min haaretz.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

Finally, finally we break off pieces of fresh-from-the-oven challah (no neat slicing with a knife at our table).  Truly, the arrival of Shabbat is a welcome treat for Malcolm - and all of us.  Shabbat shalom.


Debbie Render is no longer anxious about working with yeast. She has even been inspired to occasionally bake other kinds of bread besides challah.  A freelance copywriter, Debbie lives in Skokie with her husband, Bob, and their dog, Malcolm.  

Each Friday during 5775, we will be featuring writings from you, our congregants, sharing reflections on Shabbat. We hope you will be inspired to share your reflections with the community. If you are interested in contributing to this project, please contact Stacey Zisook Robinson
This Shabbat at Beth Emet

Friday, January 16
6:30 p.m. 
Kabbalat Shabbat including a D'var Torah by Rabbi Andrea London and a birthday blessing for Ruth Wintroub. 
Saturday, January 17
9:00 a.m. Tot Shabbat in the Weiner Room
9:30 a.m. 
ONE JEWISH EVANSTON (please note service options below)
  • Orthodox Minyan in Room 208. 
  • Beth Emet Kahal / JRC Minyan in the Weiner Room
    • Torah Readers Robert Render and Marc Blumenthal
    • Torah Discussion Leader Stacey Robinson
  • Contemplative Service in the Chapel
  • Egalitarian Traditional Minyan Room 201 
10:45 a.m. Unified Torah and Concluding Services in the Sanctuary 
                  Orthodox Minyan continues in Room 208
12:00 p.m. Kiddush/Luncheon in the Crown Room followed by Learning Sessions 
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