Chaya Paltiel, 5, watches as her dad, Rabbi Berel Paltiel, slices a piece of challah during a celebration of the Jewish Festival of Sukkot hosted by Iris Shamas at her home in Lynnwood on Oct. 23. Shamas and her husband, Richard, host regular gatherings with their friends to celebrate Jewish holidays and traditions. (Daniella Beccaria / For The Herald)

Chaya Paltiel, 5, watches as her dad, Rabbi Berel Paltiel, slices a piece of challah during a celebration of the Jewish Festival of Sukkot hosted by Iris Shamas at her home in Lynnwood on Oct. 23. Shamas and her husband, Richard, host regular gatherings with their friends to celebrate Jewish holidays and traditions. (Daniella Beccaria / For The Herald)

Many meanings are woven into traditional Jewish bread

LYNNWOOD — Every ingredient has meaning.

Iris Shamas, 52, makes challah, a traditional Jewish braided bread, nearly every week at her home in the Meadowdale neighborhood. She says special prayers during the baking, which is done in advance of Shabbat, the day of rest.

Shamas was born in Israel and later lived in Arizona. She and her family moved to Lynnwood about a year ago when her husband got a job with Boeing. Their house is within walking distance of the Chabad Jewish Center of Snohomish County.

At the synagogue in Arizona about six years ago, Shamas learned about the deeper meanings behind making challah. She was intrigued and did more research. She found many interpretations and adopted a set of them into her routine.

The flour, which gets divided up, is a reminder to separate the good and the bad, and to shed negative traits. Sugar is sweet, so you “make a request to God to give you a sweet life, to have a sweet eye, which means you basically do good deeds with good intentions and good feelings,” she said.

You shouldn’t have too much salt in your diet, so with the salt, she asks God to help her set limits in life. Yeast is for protection. Oil represents health. While adding the oil, she also thinks of the ways people step up for others during hardship. Water is a connection with the strength found in faith and the texts of the Torah, in each other and in unity, she said.

Her challah is egg-less, because of an allergy in the family, but for other bakers, the eggs may be a reminder to be humble for each new week and new beginning. Others associate eggs with fertility.

The challah is served at the start of dinner Friday, after a brief service and a blessing for the wine.

Over the years, people started asking for her recipe. They wanted more than printed instructions, though. They wanted to learn the ritual and prayers, too. Her first class for women, who make the challah in many households, was held at the synagogue earlier this fall. It was called “Loaves of Love — Challah Bake with our very own expert Challah baker.” Sharing challah brings more love and light into the world, the invitation said.

Shamas would like to teach another class, maybe after Passover next year. Challah is not eaten during Passover. In some parts of the world, the first challah afterward is made in the shape of a key, or with a key hidden inside, Shamas said. From Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, through the traditional harvest festival of Sukkot, which this year fell in October, Shamas served a round challah, which represents the beginning and the end of a year.

Round challahs also are baked for births, weddings and deaths.

“It’s the representation of the round life, the cycle of life,” she said.

Some people add poppy seeds, herbs, or cinnamon and sugar. Holidays might bring into the mix chocolate chips, raisins or honey. Just like the ingredients and the prayers, the details vary for every family and their traditions and tastes.

“In Judaism, there is always many meanings for the same thing,” Shamas said. “There are so many interpretations for everything. That is why you can never learn enough.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; Twitter: @rikkiking.

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