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.