What I Really Think About Schlissel Challah

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This began as a Facebook post, but it turned into something substantial enough for a blog post. This week is Schlissel Challah week. For several years I have questioned the virtue of this custom by posting criticism of the practice, suggesting that it has pagan roots, or made jokes about baking keys into bread for money. In doing so I seem to have created a caricature that does not even remotely resemble my actual position on this issue (and a few others).

Here’s my actual opinion on Schlissel Challah (as opposed to quoting R’ Schachter or posting irreverent memes):

You want to bake a key in your bread and use it as a way to connect to God? Go for it. You want to be cool with religious traditions that are subjectively meaningful and clearly manmade? Amen. You want to introduce new rituals into Judaism and call that Orthodox? I’m with you.shutterstock_19456234

All I ask is that you acknowledge what you are doing. See, R’ Schachter (and to his credit, Daniel Oppenheimer) is super consistent. He is against Schlissel Challah and he is equally against modern innovations shaped by liberal ideals. I can deal with that.

The problem is when we elevate Schlissel Challah, Tu B’Shvat Seders, Hillula d’Rashby, upsherin, and even Simanim on Rosh Hashana, into hallowed rituals that are treated as the word of God while at the same time insisting that Orthodoxy does not change. Then, to make things worse, when other innovations that we don’t like start to creep into Orthodox Judaism, we become strict traditionalists and we claim that everything in Orthodox Judaism is the same as it ever was and manmade rituals are really the Word of God.

So my purpose in discussing the criticism and folly of some of these traditions is to demonstrate that they also had to leap theological and religious hurdles. Yet, they are mainstream now and to question their validity is sacrosanct.

I welcome an Orthodox Judaism that is comfortable adapting and adopting from wherever. That’s the kind of Judaism I believe in. I actually don’t agree with R’ Schachter on this issue. I think there is a legitimate version of Orthodox Judaism that is more flexible than R’ Schachter’s. But the greatest challenge to that Judaism is the willful blindness about the external forces and ideas that influence contemporary Orthodox Judaism. Spinning the Partnership Minyanim or Yoatzot of yesteryear, like Schlissel Challah or Lag B’Omer, from questionable innovations into obligation hurts the cause.

Instead, the approach should be that Judaism absorbs foreign things into its culture all the time. They are subjective and work for some people and don’t work for others. Those things continue to evolve and are voluntary. In the same vein, we should embrace other subjective innovations that work for some people but don’t work for others as long as they can be justified within a valid halachic context. Not everyone has to like them and not everyone has to think that every halachic authority would approve. But it’s wrong to freeze Orthodox Judaism in 1875. There is no frozen date for manmade innovation. If Judaism had been truly frozen in 250 or 1250, or 1520, many of our most cherished and celebrated traditions would have been jettisoned long before they reached broad appeal.

The myth that every tradition we have goes back to Sinai, and that they all came from God, and that all our customs today were never criticized or questioned when they were introduced, is a destructive and cannibalistic lie. But more than the pain of being told a lie and the pain of discovering the lie, is the insistence that there is no lie.

Own it. Acknowledge it. Things change in Orthodox Judaism. The factors that transition something from fringe to mainstream are not articulable nor do they follow a set of rules. And that is okay. We are comfortable admitting it. When new innovations (that can be justified in halacha) are proposed, don’t say Orthodox Judaism doesn’t change. Don’t say it doesn’t change unless it fits a subjective, easily debunked formula. Say, “my subjective preference is that this innovation not be adopted because of [insert subjective reason].” I think this approach can be the key that can unlock a new conversation and provide a viable path toward an evolving future.

Enjoy your Challah, key or keyless.

  • FactsofLife

    Your comment about simanim on Rosh Hashana is totally incorrect. It has a source in the Gemara and is actually a seif in the Shulchan Aruch. You can be unhappy about certain practices which have evolved with no apparent source but to deny the supremacy of Torah Shebaal Peh is kefira.

    • I don’t understand what you are saying. What do you think I said that this is a response to?

      • FactsofLife

        You said

        “The problem is when we elevate Schlissel Challah, Tu B’Shvat Seders, Hillula d’Rashby, upsherin, and even Simanim on Rosh Hashana, into hallowed rituals that are treated as the word of God”

        Simanim on Rosh Hashana is the word of G-d brought down in the Torah shebal peh of Gemara. No one disputes it and it has been formalized into a seif in the Shulchan Aruch without any detractors. It doesn’t belong with the others on your list.

        • The word of God? I thought it was Abaye?

          • FactsofLife

            So you mean that any statement in Shas with a name attached is human based and not Torah?

            • You mean that if God didn’t say something, it’s not Torah? Chazal disagree.

              • FactsofLife

                What do you do with the beginning if Pirkei Avos where it says that Moshe kibail torah misinai umusruah and then provide a long list of humans. See also the Rambam in his preface to Seder Zeraim where he greatly expands the list. What Torah are they talking about?

                Mishne and Gemara, all of it, is Torah shebal peh. If not these, then what else?

                • There is a finite corpus of law that given to Moshe and passed via tradition. Not everything in the Gemara is from Sinai.

                  • FactsofLife

                    What do you do with the Rambam? What do you include into the tradition and what do you exclude?

                    • The rambam actually holds the way I described it. I hope to publish an article explaining the whole thing sometime soon.

                    • FactsofLife

                      You have not provided any evidence of this at all.

                  • FactsofLife

                    So what? Why are statements with names better according to your view? Who said those statements and who established the content of our gemara and other Torah shebal peh sources?

                • SDK

                  Wow. I’m not even O and even I know that Mishna is Torah sheb’al peh and Gemarrah is not. That’s why the Gemarrah has *names* attached to its statements. What in the world are they teaching in yeshiva these day? Gemarrah is be’al peh? Do you want to maybe try asking your Rav about that statement again?

                  • Yoel Keren

                    Roughly half of the hazalic literature, including the Bavli, is “Stammai” unnattributed statements.

                • Yoel Keren

                  Sadly, this is another of the myths that has become a pillar of today’s folk Judaism.

                  If one simply examines the laws in the Mishnah, Tosefta, Sifra, Sifrei, Yerushalmi and Bavli, one quickly finds that almost nothing, (if anything) in the Gemara is from Sinai.

                  Even the few (31 or so?) halakhot that are called Halakha l’Moshe MiSinai are simply laws not derived from the written Torah, that all agree on (but in reality, we see that there is no such agreement on all of them), and for which we have no source.

                  Like it or not, the Oral Torah is legislative and exegetical in nature, not revelatory. Hazal learned their laws in an exegetical fashion from the text of Tanakh and even from a few books that never made it into Tanakh.

                  I have yet to find anyone who is able to demonstrate otherwise with Hazalic sources. The Oral Torah is binding. We are commanded to obey the rulings of the Judges. This is a fact and it is in no need of myths of divine revelation to prop it up.

                  • FactsofLife

                    Your comments have the flavor of a college freshman writing a term paper about an esoteric topic from total ignorance.

                    An examination of the texts of the written Torah to determine what is oral law without understanding the basic premise of oral law in that it was originally totally oral is certainly doomed to failure and is absolutely the wrong approach. In order to know what is oral torah one has to associate with the sages of the Torah that have carried the traditions of our holy people for generations. Any post facto superficial analysis is doomed to failure.

                    There was a point in Jewish history before the Mishna was written that everything in the Oral Torah was not written down and it was even forbidden to do so. What texts could be analyzed then?

                    The comment that statements in the Gemara are just boich sevaros is outrageous, demeaning to Torah and simply kefira of the first order. There is no basis to declare whether something is from Sinai or not except for our Oral tradition which dictates that it is. If you’re outside of this, all your arguments are empty nonsense.

                    Your opinion that everything stems from the texts of the written Torah and without a reference there has no basis is simply ignoring the reality of the second half of Torah, the oral torah.

                    Your myth of divine revelation is the basis of all of Judaism and without that you have nothing because man is fallible. You are also ignoring myriad medrashim which indicate the primacy of the Oral Torah and if this is where you stand then call your fake religion some other name but it surely isn’t Judaism.

  • nomi

    This article seems to get very, very close to admitting that the rituals and customs that make up Judaism are manmade or adopted from other cultures. Once you start looking at and objectively analyzing the origins of particular customs, why stop at Schlissel challah? I don’t mean to troll, but, to me, the distinction here seems awfully thin.

    • Yoel Keren

      The Torah is meant to be a truth system. Are we here to defend everything that has ever taken root among the Jewish people, or are we meant to arrive at an objective truth?

  • Thren

    The problem, as I see it, is that if Orthodoxy admits to picking up bits and pieces along the way it endangers the belief that it is the One True Judaism. As in , ‘we do this because this is REAL Judaism, unlike those other fakes’. And if that cherished belief of being the One True Judaism falters, that means that Conservative/Reform/etc are not by definition false Judaisms and may eve be (gasp!) valid streams of the same religion. And that would upset the apple cart liek woah for a lot of people.