Monday, April 28, 2014

Keep your shlisel challah, but...

I've been told that its "silly and pretentious" to discuss the true origins of shlisell challah. They say this is "mockery" and that revealing the true origins serves to "tear down" the custom.

Let's take a counter example: Thanksgiving Turkey. All of us know the real reason behind the custom. No one thinks the custom of eating Thanksgiving turkey was invented by prophetic Sages, or that eating a drumstick carries any mystical, spiritual or magical significance.  Yet, to the dismay of the turkeys, this knowledge has done nothing to blunt the American eagerness to consume the bird on the last Thursday in November. The custom prevails, and shows no sign of weakening, despite the fact that all of us know, or at least intuit,  that this is a custom invented by ordinary people for mundane reasons.

The success of the turkey custom is why I feel rather certain that the shlissel challah custom is in no danger. The practice of sticking keys into our challahs will not be abandoned if it becomes widely known that we do this only because our Jewish forefathers, in imitation of their non-Jewish neighbors, thought it festive or fortuitous to bake their breads in symbolic shapes. (The custom has evolved from baking key-shaped loaves to inserting actual keys into the bread)

But - second argument -  let's say that I'm wrong and all this truth-telling about the origins of shlissel challah causes it to be forgotten. So. Freaking. What.  Exactly how are we, as a people, harmed if a relatively new custom, copied from Catholics, is left on the dust pile of history? Sure, the first Saturday after Passover would be a mite less interesting, but otherwise? You can't sue before you've incurred damages, and I fail to see how losing shlissel challah hurts anything.

My advice on this subject is, therefore, the same as my advice on all matters of custom and tradition: If you like shlissel challah please enjoy it with my blessing. I ask only this: Tell the truth about it, and permit others to do the same. 

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