Friday, April 20, 2012

Shlissel Challah: Serious Segulah or Pagan Piffle?

On the Shabbos following Pesach, there is a custom of some to bake "Shlissel Challah" - challah with the design of a key, or challah with a real key actually baked into it. It is alleged to be a segulah for parnassah (sustenance).

Needless to say, this is not exactly consistent with the rationalist approach to Judaism. Parnassah is to be obtained via hishtadlus coupled with good-old-fashioned prayer. And there is a fascinating study of this topic on a YBT-affiliated website which demonstrates that shlissel challah is rooted in Christian and/or pagan practices. Keys used to be manufactured in the form of a cross, and at Easter time, Christians would bake them into a rising loaf of bread to symbolize Jesus rising from the dead. (This is the source of the British "hot cross buns.")

Yet, unlike the hyper-rationalists, I'm usually not so fervently opposed to such things. There's lots of things in Judaism that originated in foreign cultures; but where something originated is less important than what we've made of it. And segulos are often harmless placebos.

In this case, however, I am a little more concerned, given the wider context. In the ultra-Orthodox community, there is a prevalent message that it is wrong and futile to engage in regular efforts to obtain parnassah (i.e. education, training and work). There is a real risk of people focusing on segulos instead of doing the necessary hishtadlus.

Recently I came across a story in one of the charedi magazines which was not as heartwarming as it first appeared. The letter-writer told of how, several years earlier in the supermarket, a person in front of him paid the entire bill for a needy family, saying that "he needs the merits." After this person died, the letter-writer visited the family and told them of their father's generosity, which surprised them greatly, because they were in financially difficult circumstances themselves. So was this person's deed a selfless and praiseworthy act of generosity, or an irresponsible giving away of money that his own family needed "in order to gain merits"?

(See too my post on The Ring Of Power)

In other news, for readers outside of Israel, this week is parashas Shemini - hyrax week! And, by a remarkable coincidence, hyraxes made the New York Times this week (and Wired Magazine). My own pet hyrax is positively giddy with excitement.


  1. So let me see if I have this right. Prayer = rational way to obtain parnassah. Helping poor people = irrational way to obtain parnassah.
    Also prayers are effective and segulas are placebos. Can you elaborate on your methodology for these discoveries?

  2. No matter how wide-spread this custom may be, I can't see this as anything but a pagan practice. So, not only should one refrain from doing so, it is actually quite a serious sin.

    The custom of baking cakes for good luck is very old. See Yirmiyahu - chapter 31, I think. The women of Jerusalem are quite adament that they will "preserve" their custom of baking cakes to the Queen of Heaven (probably Astarte/Aphrodite). There was a great religious reform under King Yoshihahua about 30-40 years before the destruction of the Temple, and these practices were abolished. But the people complain that the old days were better; that since they STOPPED baking the cakes, it all went downhill. And what is amazing is that the Tanach accurately confirms this.

    Yet, from a Torah point of view, that is entirely irrelevant.

    So let's ourselves: suppose, for argument's sake, that we could make $50,000 more a year by worshipping a Hindu god. Would that be any less forbidden - just because it "worked"?


  3. Avi - As I said in the post, see
    too my post on The Ring Of Power, where I discuss this point.

  4. "And segulos are often harmless placebos."

    How often

    1. How about the Torah prohibitions against divination, magic and idolatrous modes of worship (darchei Emori)?

    2. To use your mashal: Dependence on placebo (addiction)is a well known psychiatric issue.

    3. Not to mention that many segualos come with a price tag...

  5. Amazing, they quoted specialists from Israel, but not the ONE who could have pointed out the major conjunction of the Parasha, and the Hyrax's relationship to the Bible.
    It still seems to me to be a definite winking by Hashem ( not literally of course) of approval for your works.

  6. I would be interested to hear your approach to the 'pi shnayim' phenomenon of Elisha requesting and receiving a doubling of the prophetic/spiritual powers of his master Eliyahu simply by being present at the time of his 'histalkus'.

  7. The issue is not its origins. The issue is nichush,

  8. >In fact, it seems that according to Rambam, while petitionary prayer is of great religious importance, it does not actually serve to attain the object of one's requests.

    (From your Ring of Power post).

    Are you endorsing this as the "rationalist' position on prayer?

    I think that its important that people know this.


  9. Ezra,

    Whether or not such practices are permitted, it is not possible to worship other gods without intending to worship them.

  10. Just heard a lecture on from R Hershel Schachter on segulos and superstitions.

    He called this shlissel challah minhag "ridiculous", a violation of nichush, and told his wife not to "dare" do it.

  11. Scott ChristiansonApril 20, 2012 at 7:13 PM

    Ezra: stop exaggerating.

    " So was this person's deed a selfless and praiseworthy act of generosity, or an irresponsible giving away of money that his own family needed "in order to gain merits"?"

    So now you're not just bashing chareidim who don't work for parnassah, you're criticizing someone who gave charity at great personal cost. All because it was printed in a hareidi publication? Sounds very rational to me.

  12. Was hoping the zoo rabbi would comment on this

    You really hold by Mesora

    The same with decorating shuls on Shavuous ? or the GRA there?

  13. Per the nytimes article - you might be interested in the not-closely related but similar looking prarie dog which seems to have a rather comes language. Just google prarie dog language.

  14. Why do you say that the article is from a YBT-affiliates website? I know of no such connection.

  15. You would be amazed at how many things have crept into the tefilah,into all the mitzvahs. And they`re protected by the ` minhag k`din decree. So,kaporot, the knife on Rosh Hashanan,and who knows what else are still here.

    While i`m at it, Rabbi slifkin mentioned the Lubavitcher rebbe ,z`lb,saying that the dinosaur fossils were put there by Hashem to test us. In other words,they may look 200,000,000 years old and pass the carbon dating tests,but they really are only 5700 years old,or so.

    In other words,what they seem to our senses is not at all what they really are.

    Isn`t there a word for that ? Like,trans-substantantion ?

  16. "And segulos are often harmless placebos."

    Not only that, but segulos are always placebos, whether harmless or not.

    What makes a segulo effective or not, is how much dose the practitioner believe in them.

    The more one believes the more potent it can become.

    Hishtablus and good-old-fashioned prayer are not accually plecebos, but can work in the same way as segulos.

    Again, the more one believes the more potent it can become.

    With knowing everything comes from Hashem however, makes it simpler to believe in, because we can see the truth in this.

    But not everyone's fate is convincing enough. And here is where the Shlissel Challahs, and other segulos come in.

    Believing in a "key" that most of the one's found in the challah can not even open a door, opposed to believing in a living God, is tantamount to idol worship. Which in fact idol worship works just as well, if one believes in it strong enough.

    Even an atheist with only education, training and work (in my opinion) is more loved by Hashem then the shlissel people who shy away from these methods.

    It can be seen that those who use only education, training and work as their segulos, earn a very decent living regardless of their spritual beliefs.

    Which all this goes to show us is, that it all boils down to,
    "what you believe is true."

  17. Who says that it wasn't some Shloimy who came up with the idea to bake a key into challah, his neighbor Otto copied him, the whole Christian town copied Otto, and then the Jews followed the whole town (or Shloimy himself.)?

  18. Hyperrationalist said...
    Why do you say that the article is from a YBT-affiliates website? I know of no such connection.

    While I don't believe the website is officially affiliated with YBT in any way, one of the "board members" was a Rebbe there for many years, another is a Musmach and at least two others attended or their spouse attended. I know the proprietor and don't believe that he claims any endorsement by YBT or Rabbi Israel Chait.

    Scroll to the bottom of this page to see the names of the boad members:

  19. There's an ancient segulah to combine the Parnassah Segulahs of Parshas Ha"mon" and the Schlissel "key" fashioning a "monkey" that covers its eyes and doesn't look at the bank statements. The Makor is Mishlei 30:24,28 see here:

  20. Im pretty confident the guy who wrote that article is unreliable. He quotes an Irish satirist as historical evidence in footnote 7. Source 13, available free online, is implied to say that easter-breads were traditionally baked with keys, when in fact it merely states the the author was offered easter bread, saying nothing about keys. He doesn't offer anything convincing besides his own opinion on top of that, which makes this look like your run of the mill online pseudo-scholarship

  21. "He called this shlissel challah minhag "ridiculous", a violation of nichush, and told his wife not to "dare" do it."

    I think you misquoted Rav Schachter. There's a parallel here with the simanim on Rosh HaShana.

    It all depends on one's attitude. If one believes that the key challah is a segulah, then there's a potential nichush violation. If, however the key-challah is merely symbolic that God holds the key to livelihood, and the challah only serves to encourage prayer, then how could it be nichush?

  22. The article to which Rabbi Slifkin provided a link cites Ta'amei HaMinhagim as bringing the explanation of the Oheiv Yisrael of Apta. The article didn't bring what Ta'amei HaMinhagim wrote--with Rabbi Slifkin's permission, I'll provide my own loose translation (not that I'm trying to convince anyone about the validity of the practice, just for completeness' sake):
    1) "It is known that on Pesach all the [Heavenly] gates were open, and afterwards the gates were shut, and we are required to reopen them. Therefore we dot the breads for this Shabbos in the form of keys, to hint in this manner that we open [the gates] slightly by observing the mitzvah of Shabbos, and Hashem in His goodness will open up His storehouse of Goodness and command the Heavens above and the gates of Heaven to open, as He gave manna to our forefathers in the month of Iyyar, which we bless on this Shabbos.
    2) Once Israel started eating the produce of Israel, from the time of bringing the Omer onwards, they no longer ate manna. Israel were then in need of parnassa, since until then they relied on manna. It is known that everything has its gate, as we pray that Hashem should open for us the gates of parnassa. From here developed the minhag of making the form of a key on the challos, to hint that Hashem should open for us the gates of parnassa."
    So, with this explanation, perhaps it could be said that we're beseeching Hashem to open for us the gates of parnassa--not that the actual form of the challah does the trick, other than to arouse that feeling in us.

  23. I really like your blog, because it gets to the bottom of why I am so bothered by the Shlisel Challah thing.

    I've got 2 great segulas for parnassah:
    1) Work
    2) Be honest!!

    My distaste for Shlisel Chalah is definitely compounded by the ridiculously unhealthy attitude towards work in the yeshiva world. In all my years in yeshiva I must have heard hundreds of Mussar Shmoozen about the severity of 2 minutes of Bitul Torah, but I cant recall 1 that dealt with the importance of integrity in business.

  24. Ephraim

    I didn't "misquote" him, but yes, he seems to be talking about the minhag the way it is widely practiced nowadays with a supernatural mindset involved. He implies that the original minhag was more of a symbolic thing and with that mindset it would be permissible.

    But then, you have to wonder why he was so against his wife doing it.

  25. I'm surprised nobody has posted a copy of this:

    The history is right there. If this isn't pure Avodah Zarah, I don't know what is.

  26. Stating blankly that it's nichush is like stating blankly that chalav stam is assur. Please. You might be able to support what you are saying, but the other side has no problem showing why it's not a problem (Open up a SA YD 179). Just goes to show how you have intolerant people on both sides of the spectrum.

  27. DR writes: "but I cant recall 1 that dealt with the importance of integrity in business."

    Were you under 20 at the time? Schools for younger folks don't see the need to talk about business.

  28. The actually fascinating aspect of this custom, that has long since forgotten is that back during the second temple, Jewish bakers did this often.

    But instead of a key they used a stamp in the shape of a menorah.

    Akko Bread Stamp

    Now it's the christian bread which has stamps and the Jewish bread is menorah free.

  29. "Rabbi" Slifkin seems to have substituted pagan rationalism for traditional Jewish intellectual theology. If the naysayers would just open a few chasidic seforim they would see that the minhag of schlissel challah, although a segula for opening the gates of parnoso, is also a segula for opening your heart and allowing the holiness of Pesach and its meaning to enter. Exactly what is a segula? If you think by doing this action you magically "make" Hashem give you want you want, yes that paganism. If you do the action of the segula because you feel that this will bring nachas ruach to Hashem, then you're doing exactly what the Tannah said in Pirkei Ovos, do the will of Hashem in order for your will to be Hashem's will. In general those who are "rational" are completely ignorant, purposely so, of chasidic theological thought, feeling that chasidic rebbes aren't intellectuals. Look at the end of the Tisha B'av haftorah. Haskeil V'yodeah osi, comments Rashi, haskeil, means daas, the holy accumulation of Torah knowledge. Further Rashi says, haskeil daas intellect b'laaz. The true Jewish intellectual acquires intellect from learning the holy Torah.

  30. "He implies that the original minhag was more of a symbolic thing and with that mindset it would be permissible."

    The idea that a minhag like this from hundreds of years ago was likely to have been less superstitious in intent rather than far, far more is pretty far-fetched to say the least.

  31. As a reader of this blog I am very aware of your opposition to the claim many people make that the "one-siman animals list" is proof of the divinity of the Torah. This week I was looking at both parshiyos in the Torah that discuss kosher animals (Shemini and Re'eh), and I was disturbed to find the Artscroll Stone Chumash English comments section make just that claim in parshas Re'eh. They didn't give a citation, either.

  32. David Ohsie:

    The article was reprinted on But the original author and his website have no affiliation with YBT.

  33. Commenter Abbi:

    "I'm surprised nobody has posted a copy of this:"

    And what precisely do you believe is this whole post about?

  34. To Commenter Abbi:
    Rabbi Slifkin already linked to the article you cited in the second paragraph, on the words, "fascinating study of this topic".
    Other commenters here have called in question the scholarship of the article, that it's too rash to point out the possible Christian origin of the practice.

  35. Challas with keys? I prefer bagels with locks. Sorry, but on some level this whole thing strikes me as utterly ridiculous.

    'Segula' means symbol. If that's how it's understood, fine. If you want a symbol of income in your bread, I don't see a problem.

    But symbols are ambiguous. Is it a symbol, a hint, a call to action? Or is it efficacious: doing x causes y to happen. Here Judaism draws a line, and that line has been crossed. Because clearly, that is what some think a 'segula' is.

    Their defenders argue that centuries ago, people believed in things outside contemporary science. But what is that supposed to prove? Centuries ago, science was based on philosophy, not evidence. It was not very scientific, not very good at predicting outcomes, and not very different from magic. Alchemy and astrology were sciences. So, yes, some believed in demons. But without the microscope, believing in demons was not categorically different from believing in bacteria.

    That's not the case today. We can say, absolutely, that challah + key = money is not, and cannot be, a statement about how the natural world works. It can only be supernatural.

    And how is that supposed to work? You do an act that's not a mitzvah, that's not even mentioned in the Torah, that has no relationship to morality, and (my favourite part) was apparently only disclosed to special Jews in certain parts of Eastern Europe (lucky them). And this password, this cheat code (or is it an Easter egg after all?) makes God alter the supernatural order, not to mention His judgment, so you get more money?

    Why on earth should God do such a thing? Why should things work that way? If they did, why wouldn't the Torah let the rest of us in on it? What does that say about what you think about God?

    According to Rambam, one who merely attempts to con someone into believing in such a thing is guilty of witchcraft. To not only actually believe it, but to actively attempt to control the supernatural by means not sanctioned by the Torah is arguably idolatry.

    Okay, you say, but that's just Rambam. Other rishonim disagree. Maybe. To some extent.

    So, let's summarize: On the one hand you've got a machloket rishonim about a chiyuv karet, maybe even a yehareg ve'al ya'avor. On the other hand, money might fly into your pants.

    Another commenter compared the situation to halav stam, about which there is also a debate. Call me crazy, but if I were picking humrot, I'd give idolatry priority over milk.

  36. "Challas with keys? I prefer bagels with locks."


  37. Wow, clear xtian origins... Keep it far, far away!

  38. Even if it's only a safek A"Z, we should probably stay far away from it!

  39. If anyone wants to see a rebuttal to the
    "Shlissel Challah is rooted in Christian and/or pagan practice"


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