Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Challah With Keys? Give Me Bagels With Locks.

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).

There's a debate about the origins of this custom, with some claiming that it is rooted in Christian and/or pagan practices, while others defend it as having Jewish origins. Yet, unlike certain hyper-rationalists, I'm usually not so fervently opposed to such things even if their origins are questionable. 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.

But what about the very idea of such a segulah? While the rationalist Rishonim were obviously not into segulos, I'm not militantly against them. Segulos are often harmless placebos, and may also be time-honored tradition.

Yet 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). Chazal's directive that a person must teach his child a trade, i.e. to be financially self-sufficient, is widely ignored in charedi society. There is a real problem of people focusing on segulos instead of doing the necessary hishtadlus. And the segulah industry is rife with problems.

Instead of trying to get parnassah via an unproven and unlikely custom of unclear origins, why don't people try get it via a proven method ordered by Chazal themselves? The answer, of course, is that Chazal's way is much more difficult. But such is the way of the world. "By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread" - not by the key in the challah.

(Regarding segulos in general, see my posts on The Ring Of Power and Manipulating with Mysticism for Money.) 

39 comments:

  1. I'm finding it hard to disagree with this post ;), so I'll play a little devil's advocate on your concluding sentence. ""By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread" - not by the key in the challah." Is that an ideal or just a curse - and therefore not a desirable condition? After all, how do you view והוא ימשל בך? Or, are they both simply factual statements about the natural order and its psychology/biology/ecology?

    R Stefansky

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  2. From the article you link to defending schlissel challah as an authentically Jewish custom:

    "We, however, do find mention of the custom to bake Challah in the shape of a key in many, many Chassidish 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. "

    Has he never seen Christmas lights in a Rebbe's succah?

    I agree that borrowing customs from other cultures doesn't automatically invalidate the custom. But in this case, since the key was baked into the bread because keys usually had a cross on them, isn't this a halachic problem? Something like borrowing the format of the symposium for the Seder is one thing. Imitating another religion's superstitious rituals is avoda zara, no?

    Then there's the issue of trying to manipulate the metaphysical world with magic, and the belief that there is a metaphysical world that mirrors the physical one and has its own set of natural laws that allow segulos to work.

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    1. Why argue about it? Let's do this scientifically.

      Take a few dozen people struggling for parnoso. Get half of them to bake schlissel challa this week and the other half to not do so.

      Then let's check their financials in 6 months time.

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    2. Similar things have been done, especially with prayer, and it doesn't change anyone's mind.

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  3. I don't see the problem. Round challas are eaten on Rosh Hashana, and no one seems to object. So why not key-shaped challas at roughly the other pole of the Jewish year? In fact, perhaps one of the reasons they're not made exactly half a year later is because that's usually two weeks before Pesach, and that's the time when we're trying to get rid of the chametz we already have, not trying to make more.
    And segulot aren't what prevent people from hishtadlus. Some try segulot for refuah, but still go to doctors (and even make sure through various avenues that they are getting the best doctor). People use segulot for shidduchim, and still employ the best shadchanim. If there are those who do not make efforts to work for a living nor teach their children to, it's probably not because they eat key challahs.

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    1. Round challos on RH are symbolic and are meant to help people maintain a certain frame of mind. They're not a way to magically make something happen.

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    2. According to some opinions, shlissel challa inspires one to pray to God for sustenance.
      And incidentally, I never saw shlissel challa, and never heard of it until two years ago or so. And I have no intent to bake or buy it. But I do want to defend those who have this custom, and/or observe other "segulos" from those who throw around terms like "idolatry", "chukos hagoyim", "darkei haemori" etc. Unless there is a clear halachic ruling that these aveiros are being committed, it's not for us to be judge and jury.

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    3. It's one thing to bake a key-shaped challah, sit and the table and say "Boy, I hope God brings us success this year" and another to say "Boy, I hope God brings us success this year because we bakes this key-shaped challah"

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    4. Garnel, people don't do either of those. The segulos don't work by reminding people to daven or as a zechus. They are thought to directly make something happen. God doesn't bring you success because you baked schlissel challah, baking the challah in itself gives you a good parnassah.

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    5. > According to some opinions, shlissel challa inspires one to pray to God for sustenance.

      And it's a coincidence that this inspiration takes the same form as a pagan/Christian ritual?

      > Unless there is a clear halachic ruling that these aveiros are being committed, it's not for us to be judge and jury.

      For the record, I don't care if people want to worship other gods. The issue is that withing their own belief system, schlissel challah should be assur. And it doesn't matter if there were a clear halachic ruling. There was a clear halachic ruling that kapporos was avodah zara, and that was edited out of the shulchan aruch.

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  4. I am not sure you are corect, look at all the rich celebrity mekubalim (the ones in jail and out) they are doing great financially without any secular knowledge.

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  5. The irony, of course, is that while us rationalists (and Chazal) have no problem taking harmless (or helpful) practices from foreign sources, the very people who are most "into" practices like these are the very same people who scream bloody murder at any practice with even a whiff (to them) of "goyish influence." That's why they dress as (they think) Jews did hundreds of years ago.

    Also, if we want to take things to a ridiculous level, consider this: The Shabbat after Pesach was, this year (in Israel) last week, when it was impossible halakhically to bake bread. So did the opportunity go stale, pun intended? Or does it all go by chutz laaretz?

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  6. But the segulah industry offers jobs to so many upstanding hareidim!
    Perhaps R. Slifkin can foment a counter movement, also for hareidim, to disprove them. Then you have full employment, indeed a perpetual employment machine. Half of their communities will be employed in contriving segulohs and half in disproving them.

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  7. Baking keys into a challa might be a segula for your dentist.

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  8. Or a segula for a successful prison break. Rich celebrity mekubalim, take note.

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  9. Outsiders always give insiders too much credit. They view a roomful of people davening and think they are all in communion with God, when insiders know that (depending on the minyan) great numbers of them are just going through the motions, and God is the furthest thing from their minds.

    Same thing with the segulos you write of. The vast majority of people who do them don't really believe they have magical powers, and truthfully don't really think about it at all. It's just a fun thing to do, and part of tradition. We bake shlissel challah, and I promise you neither my wife nor I rely on it to pay the bills. Just because people DO things doesn't mean they believe in or even think about the reasons why these things were (allegedly or truly) invented.

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    1. Of course, those are exactly the conditions that make something "Darchei Emori"... an apparently meaningless custom with gentile/pagan origins...

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  10. My opinion is that believing in segulot is idol-worship:you seek help from a hand-made object and not from Hashem!

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    1. I must protest this witch-hunt against various customs that Jews have. Because just about no one comes out of this clean. Allow me to elaborate in a paraphrasing of Martin Niemöller (no intent to compare with the atrocities denounced by Niemöller himself):

      First they came for the schlissel challa bakers, and I did not speak out—
      Because I did not bake schlissel challa.

      Then they came for the gravesite daveners, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a gravesite davener.

      Then they came for the kaparos shluggers, and I did not speak out—
      Because I did not shlug kaparos.

      Then they came for the tashlich goers, and I did not speak out—
      Because I did not go to tashlich.

      Then one Shabbos night I was singing "barechuni lesholom" - and there was no one left to speak out for me.

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    2. Some people are Meikil to use machine made. Is that also AZ?

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    3. @David Ohsie: nice sarcasm!
      @Yehoshua R:I think we'd be far better off without grave-worshipping,kapparot and talismans;even if this means alienating a part of Jewry.

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    4. So you're saying, "Don't make fun of other people's indefensible beliefs, because someone might make fun of your indefensible beliefs." Wouldn't the better approach be to rid yourself of indefensible beliefs?

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  11. George Smith - and, more or less, Rambam's opinion too. - תמים תהיה עם ה' אלקיך.

    I wonder why no one has raised the halakhic issue of בחקותיהם לא תלכו?
    R Stefansky

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    1. I believe the Rambam says that superstitious practices are prohibited because they can lead to idol worship, not that they are idol worship. Also, I believe that he was arguing with the vast majority of Rishonim who believed in Astrology and various other superstitions. So following precedent, we should not be so strict :).

      In order that we may keep far from all kinds of witchcraft, we are warned not to adopt any of the practices of the idolaters, even such as are connected with agriculture, the keeping of cattle, and similar work. [The Law prohibits] everything that the idolaters, according to their doctrine, and contrary to reason, consider as being useful and acting in the manner of certain mysterious forces. Comp. "Neither shall ye walk in their ordinances" (Lev. xviii. 3). "And ye shall not walk in the manners of the nation which I cast out before you" (ibid. xx. 23). Our Sages call such acts "the ways of the Amorite"; they are kinds of witchcraft, because they are not arrived at by reason, but are similar to the performances of witchcraft, which is necessarily connected with the influences of the stars; thus ["the manners of the nations"] lead people to extol, worship, and praise the stars.

      http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/gfp/gfp173.htm

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    2. @David Ohsie
      "more or less", and אביזרייהו דעבודה זרה כעבודה זרה דמי.
      But yes, the practical permissibility of segulot certainly, and lamentably, has "precedent" :(, its flexible rationale notwithstanding. Interestingly, the application of בחקותיהם לא תלכו to all irrational practices of non-Jewish origin, (the opinion of R. Yosef Colon, מהרי'ק, IIRC), is a mainstream view. However, many of our more superstitious brethren would no doubt resist a witch-hunt, for, well, witchcraft, by claiming that they do in fact work and/or are of Jewish origin, and therefore not subject to this prohibition.
      Perhaps, though, there is an argument to be made to differentiate between use of precedent on matters of strict halakha, which is fundamentally a system of law, and whose practice derives its substance from adherence to the law, and therefore if precedent is indeed an accepted halakhic legal principle, precedent-based halakha is equally substantive and legitimate, and matters which border on, or comprise, fundamental tenets of Judasim, such as AZ, and whose performances are not at their core simply fulfillments of halakhic statutes, but are defined in import by the nature and practical ramifications of the act itself, i.e. to cleanse ourselves from all forms of AZ, and therefore the place of strict precedent is less applicable.

      R Stefansky

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    3. @David Ohsie
      "more or less", and אביזרייהו דעבודה זרה כעבודה זרה דמי.


      Is בחקותיהם לא תלכו Yehareg Ve'al Yaavor?

      Perhaps, though, there is an argument to be made to differentiate between use of precedent on matters of strict halakha, which is fundamentally a system of law, and whose practice derives its substance from adherence to the law, and therefore if precedent is indeed an accepted halakhic legal principle, precedent-based halakha is equally substantive and legitimate, and matters which border on, or comprise, fundamental tenets of Judasim, such as AZ, and whose performances are not at their core simply fulfillments of halakhic statutes,

      Your distinction makes some sense, but it cuts both ways. If something has been fairly universally accepted, doesn't that mean that it can't be contrary to a fundamental principle of Judaism?

      Stated another way, is it really possible to say that rejection of, for example, Astrology is a fundamental tenet of Judaism? That would mean that Jews for most time did not know the tenets of their own religion.

      Marc Shapiro has used this to argue that the concept of "Shituf", by itself, is not outside the Jewish mainstream (despite the Rambam's opinion), since Kabbalah implies that God is constituted of various parts (Sefirot, Ein Sof, etc). What appears not to be acceptable according to all streams of traditional Judaism is God assuming a human form.

      I fundamentally agree that acceptance of all kinds of superstition is something to be strenuously avoided, but I have a hard time justifying that with Jewish practice alone. It's Judaism + my own view of the world, if I'm honest with myself.

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    4. " If something has been fairly universally accepted, doesn't that mean that it can't be contrary to a fundamental principle of Judaism?"
      This is very close to the subject of a famous dispute between Rambam and Ra'avad in Hilchot Teshuva 3.

      "Stated another way, is it really possible to say that rejection of, for example, Astrology is a fundamental tenet of Judaism? That would mean that Jews for most time did not know the tenets of their own religion."

      Firstly, didn't know or transgressed? v. idolatory in tanakh. But Rambam held that way. He did claim though that the majority of Chazal rejected astrology, its historicity notwithstanding. (I'm not concerned about the majority of Jews re this, only the learned leaders).
      Secondly, maybe yes. Astrology in and of itself isn't the elemental tenet; it's a consequence of the rejection of paganism, which was known. Maybe not all of the manifestations of the tenets needed to be known immediately. Rather the acceptance of the tenets was meant to, through the generations, to eventually rid the Jews of astrology and the like. Similar to Rambam and korbanot weaning BY off paganism.

      R Stefansky

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  12. Actually, the Minchas Pinchas brings the real reason for this custom. It seems that Talmidei Chachahim going to jail isn't a recent phenomenon and one of the Pidyon Shevuyim methods was, of course, delivering challah with a key or nail file baked inside it to the inmate. Over time, in order to remember which challah of the several baked for that Shabbos actually contained the key, righteous Jewish women started shaping that particular loaf into the shape of a key to remind themselves. This had a bad outcome, unfortunately, as the nasssssty goyish jail guards weren't quite as stupid as thought to be.
    Also, nowadays with electric locks on jail cells keys are pretty useless. But the custom remains.

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  13. I don't even know why this is debatable. Why as a Jewish society would we allow so many people to abstain from the workforce indefinitely is so antithetical. I am not sure I could trust the kashrut of someone who subscribes to this theory. I am certainly not going to pony up any serious wads of cash when the schnorers show up at the door. It is time to create tests that weed people out so the numbers in yeshivot. It should be a staged approach. You get 2 years automatically post-huppah. Then to be allowed to continue on a 3rd year, you have to pass a test that is on a curve, which then forces out a certain percentage. Then subsequent years that group is again tested with a curve and more are forced out until you have a handful of top talent who would be allowed to stay on for a longer period of time. And, when I say it's time we do this, I mean the time is today!

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  14. I find this whole discussion objectionable. Even rationalists put on Tefillin wear Tzitzis and daven, hoping that performing these Mitzvot will bring them health and wealth in this world and the next . Why shouldn't a person also bake a Challah and pray that this will be a fruitful and prosperous summer? Why is this different from Rosh Hashana simanim?
    The connection to Chodesh Iyar is simple: that is when the original manna fell and therefore is hoped to be an auspicious time for new Parnassa. Nobody expects the manna to fall from heaven, but we all know that a person's sustenance is like splitting the Re(e)d Sea and Divine help is required.
    BTW, I started with this minhag two years ago and it seems to have reaped rich dividends- this year even more overtly than last. I do not ascribe my parnassah to the key bread but it certainly helped open some doors for me!

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    1. yoel, your objection to the criticism of the key challah business should get a response. You confuse doing biblically mandated mitzvot with some custom from Eastern Europe of recent centuries. If you can't see the difference, then my words will not be of any use to you. However, you are not my primary intended audience. It is absurd to consider that "religious rationalists" (the phrase itself can be considered an oxymoron) do things purely on the basis of reason. Religion is primarily a matter of belief rather than reason. Nor do "rationalists" perform mitzvot strictly on the basis of some expectation of reward. I haven't noticed evidence that putting on tzitziot and tefilin prolonged life, nor should that be the primary reason for such action. These are commanded actions for the people of the Covenant. They should be done to maintain a relationship with the Deity, rather than for some selfish motive. I suspect that your perceived favorable outcome to your recent use of shlissel challah is due more to a prayerful attitude towards divine assistance than to the practice itself.

      Y. Aharon

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    2. "Religion is primarily a matter of belief rather than reason"
      No, not really. If by reason you mean mathematical logic, then yes, it's not a matter of reason. But if by belief you mean the willful suspension of critical thinking, then it's not that either. Moreover, the motivations for human actions cannot be divided binarily into simple categories.
      There are sociological benefits, emotional benefits and moral benefits. Not to mention the complex philosophical basis for religion. If I had to pick an english word to describe the basis for religion it wouldn't be belief or faith - neither of which Rambam used, and are incredibly misleading - nor would I use reason, which although in my estimation is a more accurate description than faith - at least for rationalists -, I don't think it is entirely appropriate; I would use something like conviction, (which is very close to what Rambam calls emunah).

      " They should be done to maintain a relationship with the Deity, rather than for some selfish motive."
      Firstly, isn't wanting a relationship also a selfish goal? After all, the diety, unless we're talking about Zeus, doesn't need your relationship, i.e. you're not doing it for Him.
      Secondly, is that really what the core of religion is? Interesting. Not tikkun olam? (And not its contemporary feel good appropriation).

      R Stefansky

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    3. Rabbi Stefansky, my comment to yoel was not intended as an exposition of my views on religion other than to claim that religion is not strictly rational. I was thinking primarily of the accepted basic tenets of Judaism, the idea of a Creator who is involved with the world, who has established a relationship with a particular people, and has provided life guidance via communicated teachings. Little of this is strictly rational; even the existence of a Deity or divine providence. As you stated, it's a matter of personal conviction. Nor are the biblical narratives including the exodus of several million people from Egypt, their experienced theophany at mount Sinai and their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness more than a matter of belief in the face of the absence of any evidence of such extraordinary events.
      Wanting to maintain a relationship with GOD certainly involves self, but is not selfish if it is primarily other directed. I hadn't touched on the the subject of our relationship with other covenantal people and the world, but I certainly feel that such a relationship and responsibility is a vital part of the Judaism of the torah and prophets. That attitude is associated with the belief first enunciated in the torah that we are like the traditional first born of a family - the parental surrogate to the younger siblings (b'ni bechori, Yisrael) and the priestly/holy nation serving the rest of humanity (mamlechet kohanim vegoy kadosh). The idea of chosenness is not a matter of self-centeredness and ego satisfaction, but of a sense of purpose and mission.

      Y. Aharon

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    4. Y. Aharon
      Yes I am well aware that this is but a custom and not a divinely ordained command, just as I know that one performs Mitzvot for G-d's sake and not for personal benefit. Yet even a custom should not be shunned simply because it is not commanded or doesn't fit our mindset. A little humility regarding these customs wouldn't hurt, as many were established by great people (or at least greater than us).
      The insinuation that the shlissel challa is a way to eschew hishtadlus is baseless and wrong. Nobody who baked the challa sat back and waited for the segula to perform its magic, it is just an omen, a portent, a prayer and nothing deeper than that.

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    5. Y. Aharon,
      I was referring more to the rationale for mitzvah performance as opposed to the historical beliefs Judaism may demand. Judaism is, after all, a religion of deed over creed.
      But I don't think this is the place for such a discussion.

      R Stefansky

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    6. joel, I am not attempting to dissuade you from the practice. I would only offer my 'religious rationalist' opinion that it may have symbolic value as a tool to invoke a prayer for parnassa, but it is not an omen or portent for anything. The same could be said for the various items eaten the night of Rosh Hashana. In the latter case, the prayer is part of the ritual. You could improve on the shlissel custom by reciting such a prayer (without shem and malchut).

      Y. Aharon

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