Some of them proudly show photographs of a home made challah in the shape of a key (with an accompanying wish to friends for “prosperity”); while others include derisory memes berating the “Christian or pagan” custom of “Schlissel Challah” as yet another “segulah” that cheapens God into a sort of “vending machine for superstitious people”.
So what is it really?
The custom as it stands
The custom is to make a challah in the shape of a key, or with a real key embedded in it, for the first Shabbat after Pesach. It’s recorded in numerous Chassidic works, and was observed by Klausenberger Rebbe, the Satmar Rebbe, the Belzer Rebbe, Rav Moshe Aryeh Freund (Av Beis Din of the Edah Chareidis), and numerous Chassidishe Rebbes and poskim.
- The earliest reference is in the works of R. Pinchas Shapiro of Koritz (b. 1726), a student of the Baal Shem Tov. In his work Imrei Pinchas (#298) he explains the reason as being that during Pesach the gates to Heaven open and remain so until Pesach Sheni (a month later). The key alludes to the fact that these gates are open and that we should focus our prayers ever more on that account.
- The Apter Rebbe, author of the Ohev Yisroel (Likkutim al HaTorah Pesach), suggests that the gates to Heaven were opened to our prayers the entire Pesach and we must now re-open them with the Mitzvah of our Shabbat observance.
- The Belzer Rebbe (Choshvei Machshavot p. 152) says that although the redemption has not yet occured, since it is scheduled to occur on Nissan, the key to Hashem’s storehouses of parnassah and plenty must be open.
- The Taamei HaMinhagim (596 and 597) suggests a number of additional reasons.
The custom is not mentioned in Jewish sources before the eighteenth century, and is clearly limited to Eastern Europe. It is unknown among the Sephardim and, until recently, was not practiced among non-Chassidic Ashkenazim either.
When a variety of different reasons are offered for something without a clear source, we are usually witnessing “reverse engineering”. That is, the rabbis are trying to justify a custom, that already exists in a certain Jewish community, for which there is no known Jewish source.
But is there necessarily anything wrong with that?
Another obvious case of reverse engineering is the egg on the Seder plate. This was originally another piece of meat, and the various explanations as to why we use an egg today studiously ignore the fact that at precisely the same time of year our Christian friends and neighbours are celebrating Easter with eggs.
Dissenters claim the Schlissel Challah is too closely related to hot cross buns and their culinary ancestors “Rosca de Reyes”. Although the cross is today usually made with thin strips of pastry, apparently it was originally impressed onto the bun using a cross-shaped key (see thumbnail at top of page). According to this theory making a Schlissel Challah is forbidden as copying non-Jewish practice.
Frankly, that’s too far fetched: the connection is not close enough to create a prohibition.
There certainly is a risk with any “segulah” of people coming to rely on the physical act rather than view it as a focus for prayer (which was clearly the attitude of the Chassidic writers quoted above), but is that a reason to forbid it outright? I don’t think so.
One caveat before we get to the bottom line: I don’t think embedding a real key in your dough is a good idea. Even supposing that you sterilise it, I understand that brass can contain traces of lead and you should not be baking that in your food.
But apart from that…
If you want to bake a challah in the shape of a key and use it as a way to connect to God – go for it!
There are plenty of other accepted customs in the same category, including Tu B’Shvat Seders, Lag Ba’Omer bonfires, upsherin (haircuts at the age of three), and even Simanim (auspicious foods) on Rosh Hashana.
As long as we use them as catalysts for prayer, understand that they are relatively modern innovations, and don’t invest them with magical powers, I’m fine with them (while not personally observing most of them).
Like many things, they carry the potential to be misunderstood and misused…
…but that is part of the challenge of life.
PS Interestingly we have two distinct groups in our family: those who like Shabbat to be identical every week and those who need to have change. For me a key shaped challah would indeed be a welcome change and conversation starter. If only I’d thought about it earlier I might have made one!
PPS The above was written last year. This year our nod to this quaint Chassidic/Christian/Pagan custom was these Schlissel garlic croutons. If you joined us for Shabbat dinner the week after Passover this year, you got one in your soup! They were delicious!