Raise your hand if you’ve heard the following: On Friday evening, we cover the challah until after we’ve blessed the wine because we don’t want the challah to be embarrassed that it comes second! I bet there are a good many hands in the air right now. Okay, you can put your hand down. For those who have and who haven’t heard that explanation before, most of us have wondered why we cover the challah before we begin our meal.
The story of why we cover the challah is a lot like the story about the congregation whose congregants would bow before going up on the bimah.
There is an old tale about a synagogue who had a chandelier that was hung too low above the bimah. It was so low that, every time a congregant came up to open the ark or remove a Torah, each person would have to duck to avoid it.
Years later, the synagogue was renovated and the chandelier was raised, but people kept ducking — a person would come up for an honor and bow before going up on the bimah. A generation passed and a new generation of leaders taught their children that it is tradition for Jews to bow before going up to the bimah.
One day a child was learning this lesson and asked her teacher “why.” Her teacher was stumped because she did not know why, she only knew to bow because that’s what her teacher taught her. So the teacher goes to ask the rabbi why we bow before going up on the bimah. The rabbi tells her student that many decades ago there used to be a very low chandelier above the entrance to the bima hand, in order to not bump your head you had to duck. Ever since then, it’s become tradition!
So how does that relate to our poor ashamed challah?
Our traditions always need to be seen in light of their context and history. Today, and for many decades, we have recited the blessing for the wine and challah at the same table. But that wasn’t always the case! In the time of the Talmud (between 200–500 CE), we learn the rabbis would eat Shabbat dinner on small tables that were only brought out after the kiddush was recited. The rabbis would cover the challah, and the rest of their food, to remind themselves that the meal could not start until Shabbat was welcomed in with kiddush.1 This was a fence put in place around the law, that the meal cannot begin before the time was made holy.
Just like the congregants who bow before going up to the ark, we cover the challah because generations past have done it. Even though we do not eat our meals like the rabbis of the Talmud, we cover the challah because it honors the chain of tradition.
Covering the challah is more about the framing of Shabbat than it is about the feelings of gluten. Whether we cover the challah because we’re concerned for its emotional wellbeing or we honor the fence that the rabbis put around the Torah, the rituals around our gatherings are what binds us. I love the games we play around our challah covers. They beautify our tables, they add suspense and drama to our meals, and they give us a moment of awe and gratitude for the bounty we are so privileged to enjoy on Shabbat!
1. Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 100b