Begin Shabbat peace by baking challah

I make bread every Friday. More specifically, I make challah for Shabbat. I made my first batch of challah dough more than 10 years ago, almost on a dare. It turned out so well, I did again. Before I realized it, I had found my meaningful ritual.

I have made challah on the east and the west coast. I have made challah while mourning the loss of both my father and my father-in-law. I have made challah while working as a busy physician at one of the world’s top hospitals and while working as a stay-at-home mom. I have made challah alone and with other women – some of them my dearest friends and some I had not even met before we started to bake bread. I have made multiple challahs at once, even carrying seven on a plane to Portland to share with my twin brother and his family when my nephew celebrated his bar mitzvah four years ago.

Why have I, a physician who espouses healthy eating and healthy living, made a loaf of white bread every Friday? Because countless demands on my time and energy overwhelmed me. Because one night when my children were little I even convinced myself that running in place in the upstairs bathroom while I sorted the day’s mail counted as exercise. Because as a physician I know all too well that stress like this makes us sick – not just theoretically sick, but actually sick. Because I learned I could change this pattern.

In taking this time each Friday to sink my hands in a bowl of dough, I learned that I could stop for a half-hour and breathe while I cracked eggs and measured flour. I could stop and make something nutritious and delicious with my own hands and, in the process, I could reconnect with myself and with other women. I used to just prescribe medications such as calcium-channel blockers and beta-blockers; now, I also prescribe making challah.

Challah is not any ordinary bread. It nourishes us both physically and spiritually. The longer I made challah, the more I wanted to learn its nuances and history. I didn’t know, for example, that challah isn’t the loaf of bread but actually the little nugget that you break off and say a prayer over. It’s a blessing to separate the dough and recite this prayer. I always feel calmer when I do this. Saying this blessing connects me to a larger world. This helps to ground me, keeps me in the here and now, keeps me present.

Once the bread is baked and cooled, I place two loaves on a special platter and place a special covering on it, one that I purchased in Israel for this very purpose. We wait until dinner, until we say the prayers for Shabbat. Then we dive in. All is quiet for that first moment when everyone takes a bite of this week’s challah.

Beth Ricanati, MD, adapted this essay from her upcoming book, Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challahs to be published on Sept. 18 from She Writes Press.

Shabbat: The weekly holiday

The peace and beauty of Shabbat gives us the opportunity to step off the hectic train of the modern world and connect with friends, family and a sense of holiness.

Candles mark both the beginning and end of this weekly holiday.

Lighting the Shabbat candles 18 minutes before sunset signals the beginning of the day of physical rest and spiritual restoration. For many families, the Friday evening Shabbat dinner is one of the few family dinners where the flurry of the week takes a back seat to family time. Taking a break from chores, shopping and the ever-present electronic interruptions can make Saturdays both spiritually and physically rejuvenating.

Twenty-five hours after it begins, the weekly holiday ends at nightfall (when three stars can be seen in the sky) when we light the braided Havdallah candle to light the way into the new week.

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