Holy Schlissel?

schlissel challah

If it's the first Shabbos after Pesach, you know everyone's looking forward to their challah. If you use social media your feeds are no doubt filled with pictures of challahs in the shape of oversized keys (or, more often challahs that you can sort of tell were supposed to look that way). Schlissel challah, (literally: key challah), are the special challahs that many Jews make for the Shabbos after Pesach, which by tradition (i.e., minhag) are either baked with a key inside or formed into the shape of a key. (Judging by the internet it seems like the Insta-friendly key shape has become the popular choice, though me may just be biased from seeing all those pics.) While this practice is well known, it's far from universal and denigrated by many. That raises the question: what do you do when you think another Jew's inspiring minhag is foolish?

Why bake schlissel challah?

The reason and symbolism for the minhag of schlissel challah is not clear. Some, including to focus awareness on the gates of Heaven that are believed to remain open during the month after Pesach, and as a thanks and request for material sustenance. The source of the tradition is also unclear. Schlissel challah is not mentioned in the Talmud or any halachic codes. However, schlissel challah is discussed widely in the works of the hassidic masters dating back to the beginning of the hassidic movement, by Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro of Koritz (born 1726), a student of the movement's founder, the Baal Shem Tov. 

Those Jews who don't bake schlissel challahs, hold a wide range of opinions of the practice. Many think of it simply as a quaint yearly ritual, but others are actually against it. Some dismiss it as an "inauthenic minhag." Others strongly decry the practice, calling it a "loaf of idolatry" rooted in paganism or Christianity.

A sacred symbol

However, before we sneer at schlissel challah, let's remember that this minhag has taken on real spiritual significance for many, many people. In all our zeal for enlightened authenticity in our religious practices, we can't forget the meaning and emotional significance that those practices hold for others, or for ourselves. 

Social scientist James Fowler describes a stage of typical spiritual development in which a person during adolescence connects with stories, practices, and beliefs that symbolize the person's connectedness to his or her community. Educator, Rabbi Jay Goldmintz, in an important article in the journal Tradition, applies this to the development of today's (modern) Orthodox teens:

Consider the fact that, according to Fowler, an adolescent at this stage sees symbols as being inseparable from their meaning. Worthy symbols are themselves sacred. They are depths of meaning. “Any strategy of demythologization, therefore, threatens the participation of symbol and symbolized and is taken, consequently, as an assault on the sacred itself.” Much as we may value lomdus, much as we may be motivated to teach our students all kinds of hakiras and fine distinctions, we must also recall that the unexamined nature of belief is such that, for some, it helps maintain kedusha. Conversely, breaking down that belief when a student is not yet ready may have the effect of robbing the symbol of its kedusha and its uniqueness. One might tell some students that the halakha does not require one to stand when the Aron Kodesh is open, but is it the appropriate thing to say to all students? What is true of symbols may be true of concepts as well: the teacher who tells his students that Judaism is opposed to “spirituality” may have precedent to rely upon, but he may be doing more harm than good by assaulting a key part of a student’s religious sensibilities. 

This may be a signature of adolescent spirituality, but for many people, the importance of such symbols continues throughout their adult lives and mature spirituality. Those feelings may not be very scholarly, but they are no less real. 

Critical, intellectual analysis may, for some of us, form the basis of our faith, the flavor of our frumkeit. But we have to take care that we don't let our own stuff burst the bubbles of others whose faith may be more experiential and emotionally-based than ours. Just because one key can access my soul, that does not mean it will unlock yours, too.