Right about now, my Facebook feed is beginning to fill up with images of stunning braided challahs just out of the oven. There will be others as the day unfolds, even more in the lead-up to candle lighting.
The pictures speak volumes about the irresistible lure of freshly baked challah, not to mention the magic of those first few bites on the Shabbos after Pesach. The moment is something akin to a lover’s reunion, one filled with anticipation, desire, and longing. Sure, we’ll look forward to challah the following Shabbos and every one after that until next Pesach, but it won’t be with the same intensity.
And then there’s the matter of the keys.
It’s the Shabbos of schlissel, or key, challah. As the custom goes, bakers place their keys into their challahs as a segulah, or good omen, for livelihood. Though I’m a late blooming challah baker, I dove head first into the key ritual from the beginning. I loved the mystery of secreting keys in the loaves, and the metaphor of opening up the doors of blessing. I ignored each counter story that insisted the ritual had pagan roots. So many challah bakers I knew did it, though when I asked, I learned that most, like me, had adopted rather than inherited the custom.
I carried on, grateful for the spiritual meaning behind it, until – in an odd twist of events – I misplaced our house keys several years in a row in the process. I was sure I’d positioned them in the loaves. Once, I thought I’d mistakenly given the loaf with our key in it to a friend, but her family didn’t find it either. Honestly, it was getting creepy. Where were all our keys disappearing to?
I never got an answer, and the keys still haven’t turned up. I did try one other approach to the custom after the last key went missing, baking challahs shaped like keys instead. Frankly, they emerged from the oven looking nothing like keys, though they tasted just fine. The final straw came when a loaf a patient had baked for my husband using his office key disappeared from his desk, the empty pan left behind and the key nowhere to be found.
This whole schlissel challah endeavor is about signs and omens, and here was one staring us right in the face. God had given up on subtlety and I finally took notice. Still, it’s been hard to let go, even as my husband reminds me over and over that our livelihood is determined on Yom Kippur. And so I try not to put too much stock in a key in a loaf, even one with powerful symbolism, even one I long to bake.
Today, then, is a big day as I pull out the ingredients to bake challah for this Shabbos and refrain from schissel challah-ing. I’ll miss it, but I’ve promised not to do it again. I’ll keep the house key stowed in my purse as I watch the parade of beautiful key challah images in my Facebook feed and read the accompanying stories about the power of this particular segulah. I’ll look for signs and wonders and good omens in the kneading and the shaping instead. But mostly, I’ll wait for the blessings to burst forth when we break the loaves open and savor every post-Pesach bite, because blessings, like keys, come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s magic power in both.