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The Origins of the Non-Jewish Custom Of 'Shlissel Challah' (Key Bread)

by Shelomo Alfassa

Introduction

Every year Jewish women, young and old, partake in a custom known to many Ashkenazim, to place a key (such as a door key to a home), inside the dough of a loaf of bread that they bake. This custom is known as shlissel challah -- shlissel from the German language shlüssel (key) and challah or hallah from the Hebrew for bread. While a metal key is often baked within the bread, some form the bread itself into the shape of a key or even arrange sesame seeds on top in the form of a key. Often times, these women gather in celebratory groups with the common belief that baking the shlissel challah will bring blessing into their homes, and specifically, the blessing of increased fiscal livelihood. There is also a seemingly new 'custom' of baking shlissel challah in the "merit" of a sick person, as a way of helping them recover from physical disease or trauma. A poll on the popular Orthodox Jewish website imamother.com asked participants: "How do you make your schlissel [sic] challah?" The 88 respondants reported: In the shape of a key 13% [12]; With a key baked in it 61% [54]; Neither, I don't do this 17% [15]; Other 7% [7].

Non-Jewish Origins

The baking of a key inside a bread is a non-Jewish custom which has its foundation in Christian, and possibly even earlier, pagan culture. At least one old Irish source tells how at times when a town was under attack, the men said, "let our women-folk be instructed in the art of baking cakes containing keys." [continued]

Letter to the Editor - A Response to the 5 Town Jewish Times


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