New York – Shlissel Challah – An Analysis


    New York – The custom of Schlissel Challah has become very widespread, not only in the Chassidish world but in many other communities as well. Two years ago, an article written by Shelomo Alfassa appeared that attempted to connect the custom known as Schlissel Challah to Christian or pagan sources. The Alfassa article, entitled “The Loaf of Idolatry?” stated that fulfilling this custom was, in fact, a Torah violation of following in the ways of the gentiles. In this article, an attempt will be made to trace the origins of the custom and to examine the alleged connection to non-Jewish sources that appeared in the Alfassa article. With due respect to Mr. Alfassa, it is this author’s contention that the allegations are quite spurious, error-filled and misleading, and have no connection whatsoever to this Chassidic custom.

    As far as the sources for Schlissel Challah, Alfassa writes as follows:

    “While the custom is said to be mentioned in the writings of Avraham Yehoshua Heshel (the “Apter Rav” 1748-1825) and in the Ta’amei ha-Minhagim (1891), there is no one clear source for shlissel challah. And while people will say there is a passuq attributed to it, there is not. And, even if there were, a passuq that can be linked to the practice is not the same as a source… The idea of baking shlissel challah is not from the Torah; it’s not in the Tannaitic, Amoraitic, Savoraitic, Gaonic or Rishonic literature. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of Israel’s Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim said that while baking challah with a key in it is not forbidden, “there is no meaning in doing so.”

    While Alfassa is correct in his assertion that the custom is not found in the writings of the Rishonim or earlier, for some reason he fails to point out the Chassidic origin of Schlissel Challah. As a general rule, we do not find Chassidish customs in the Rishonim because the movement itself only began in 1740. We, however, do find mention of the custom to bake Challah in the shape of a key in many, many Chassidish Seforim. These Seforim were written by genuine Torah scholars, and it is difficult to propose that a Christian practice somehow entered into their literary oeuvre. The Klausenberger Rebbe, the Satmar Rebbe, the Belzer Rebbe, Rav Moshe Aryeh Freund, and numerous Chassidishe Rebbes and Poskim all punctiliously observed this custom.

    Most of the reasons have to do with the Kabbalistic notion of “Tirayin Petichin” that the gates to Heaven are opened. This concept of opened gates is found throughout the Zohar and is discussed by such authorities as the Shla (whose father was a student of the Remah).

    The earliest reference is in the works of Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro of Koritz (born 1726), a descendent of the Megaleh Amukos and a student of the Baal Shem Tov. In his work called Imrei Pinchas (#298) he explains that the reason to bake Schlissel Challah on the Shabbos following Pesach is that during Pesach, the gates to Heaven were opened and remain open until Pesach Sheni. The key alludes to the fact that these gates are now open and that we should focus our prayers ever more on that account.

    The Apter Rebbe, author of the Ohaiv Yisroel (Likkutim al HaTorah Pesach), mentions the custom as well but provides a slightly different reason. He writes 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 Shabbos observance. Although Alfassa writes that there is no Pasuk that is referenced for this custom, the verse does indeed exist and is mentioned in the Ohev Yisroel itself. In Shir HaShirim 5:2, which is read on Shabbos Chol HaMoed the verse states, “Open for me, my sister..” Chazal darshen (Yalkut Shimoni Shir HaShirim 988), “You have become My sister with the observance of the two Mitzvos in Egypt the blood of the Korban Pesach and the blood of Bris Milah..Open for Me an opening like the eye of the needle and I (Hashem) shall open for you like the opening of a wide hall.” The Ohev Yisroel mentions two other reasons for the custom, primarily that Hashem should open His “store house of plenty” for us as he did in Iyar after the exodus.

    The Belzer Rebbe (Choshvei Machshavos p. 152) provided the explanation that although the Geulaha may not have happened yet as it was scheduled to occur on Nissan, at least the key to Hashem’s storehouse of parnassah and plenty have been opened.

    The Taamei HaMinhagim (596 and 597) provides a number of reasons as well.

    Alfassa writes that “at least one old Irish source tells how at times when a town was under attack, the men said, “let our women-folk be instructed in the art of baking cakes containing keys.” This is Alfassa’s lead reference, but looking up his reference (O’Brien, Flann. The Best of Myles. Normal, IL; Dalkey Archive Press, 1968. Page 393) reveals that it is not really an old Irish source. Rather it is a quote from the fiction works found a collection of Irish newspaper columns that date back four decades before the publication of the book. In other words, there is no correlation between this 20th century literary statement and a custom that dates back to Eatsern Europe centuries earlier.

    Let’s now look at the second reference that Alfassa brings. He writes citing a book written by James George Frazer, entitled The Golden Bough. London: Macmillan and Co., “Another account mentions a key in a loaf: “In other parts of Esthonia [sic], again, the Christmas Boar [cake], as it is called, is baked of the first rye cut at harvest; it has a conical shape and a cross is impressed on it with a pig’s bone or a key, or three dints are made in it with a buckle or a piece of charcoal. It stands with a light beside it on the table all through the festival season.”

    The fact is, however, this source does not mention a key in a loaf at all. It mentions a cake with a cross on top of it. How was the shape of the cross made? Either with a bone of a pig or with a cross shaped key. There is no parallel to the Schlissel Challah here whatsoever.

    Alfassa further tells us in a footnote, “Small breads with the sign of the cross have been found as far back as 79 CE in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum (see The New York Times March 31, 1912). This was when Christianity emerged in Roman Judea as a Jewish religious sect which gradually spread out of Jerusalem.

    This footnote as well is extremely misleading. The city of Herculaneum located in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius was destroyed on August 4th, in the year 79 CE. At the time it was an entirely pagan city where they worshipped Hercules, and were assuredly not Christian. There was no influence on Judaism here, nor a connection to Christianity as Alfassa implies because the entire city was buried in volcanic ash, and they were not influenced by Christianity. The connection to Schlissel Challah here is completely non-existent. More likely is the fact that the “plus sign” was actually an icon before the identification of the cross with Christianity. Also connecting the shaping of a plus sign with the Schlissel Challah in this instance is quite spurious.

    Alfass further attempts to connect the practice with the idea of placing figurines in cupcakes. He writes, “Similar, there are modern non-Jewish customs, such as in Mexico, where a ‘baby Jesus’ figurine is baked into cupcakes; often, the child who finds it wins a prize. This is also practiced in the U.S. state of Louisiana beginning at Mardi Gras and practiced for 30 days after. There, a ‘baby Jesus’ toys baked into a whole cake, and whoever finds the baby in their piece has to buy the next day’s cake. In Spain, there is a tradition of placing a small Jesus doll inside a cake and whoever finds it must take it to the nearest church..”

    The connection that the author makes between this and Schlissel Challah is perplexing. There is no geographic connection. There is no timeline connection. The only similarity is the placing of an item in something else. Both the items are different and the product that they are put in are different. At best, one can say that this is scholarship that lacks rigor.

    In conclusion, there is no evidence whatsoever that this Chasidic custom was derived from or influenced by Christian practice. The scholarship behind this allegation is faulty and error-filled. This is a custom that has been practiced by the greatest of our Chasidic brethren and it is wrong to cast such aspersions on their practice.

    The author can be reached at [email protected]

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    1. So glad to have this cleared up so succinctly by Rabbi Hoffman. I read that bogus piece by Alfassa when it was forwarded to me by someone using it to question our age old tradition of Schlissel Challah. I’ve baked Schlissel Chalalh for years and am about to do so now. It’s ignorance at best and chutzpah at worst to cast aspersions on a Jewish tradition practiced by our erudite ancestors for centuries past.

      • Minor correction: APIKORSUS at worst (according to the Belzer rebbi zt”l and many others who maintain that questioning an accepted minhag yisroel is apikorsus)

    2. With all due respect to Rabbi Hoffman, now that I have read the article he refers to, I do not see how the original article has been refuted at all.

      The original author documents a long xtian history of the practice, dating to medieval times.

      Hoffman does not deny this.

      His only answer is “it is difficult to propose that a Christian practice somehow entered into their [ holy Rebbes’] literary oeuvre.”

      And that’s called “analysis”?

      • It’s not at all. He has a number of refutations which aren’t refutations at all. They’re distraction tactics that ignore the underlying issue.

        The summary of this article should be “Rabbi claims if Jews have a minhag to do Avodah Zarah, then it is kosher.”

    3. Then you didn’t read it well. Rabbi Hoffman refuted three of the points one right after the other. The old Irish quote is not old at all, the Herculaneum part wasnt christian, and there is no geographic or timeline connection at all to where the minhag came from. The article was attack on Chassidic Judaism – period. It had no basis in fact or history.

      • Thank you for reassuring me. I feel much better knowing that it was only idol worshiping Romans who started the minhag, not Christians. What a relief!

        As for the Geographic or timeline connection, this is just kicking up dust. The point from the quote is that there are well meaning Jews whom copy christian customs, whether out of fun or ignorance. Either way it should be protested, not rewarded.

    4. As a long standing member of The International Brotherhood Of Locksmiths we are proud to uphold and honor the longstanding practice of baking Shlissel Challah. However we believe that the original minhag of using actual keys as opposed to shaping the challahs into a key shape , is the more original and authentic minhag and kol hamachmir by sticking to Minhag Emotainu will be blessed.

    5. May I ask this question of those of you whom are more learned than me? Let’s assume hypothetically that this custom did originally have a gentile origin. However, the many people who bake and eat shlissel challas today are absolutely not doing so to honor a goyish practice, but because they find very authentic Jewish symbolism and meaning in doing so? Why would this be a problem?

      • We can’t accept a foreign practice into Judaism even if the people doing it 200 years later are doing it simply because they were taught this way. If shlissel challah is indeed avoda zara as Alfassa claims, we must purge it, even if people are doing it no longer with any associations to idolatry. This is because the way to serve Hakadosh Baruch Hu is through the method He gave us and not by introducing foreign acts especially those that have idolatrous roots because in the very essence of the act is a wrong way to relate to Hashem.

    6. Bake one inside? Or bake one in the shape of? Or bake one with a key shaped ornament on top? Something else to fight over. Personally, I prefer Challos baked in the shapes of camels, rabbits, rock badgers, and pigs for Parashath Shemini. What say you? Bad hinuch?

    7. Someone posted the link on my wall on FaceBook when I posted about Shlissel Challah. I was upset about it, until I did some research about who the author is. The guy is very anti-Kabbalah. He takes various quotes and twists them, or uses only half of it to prove his point.

      IMHO, this guy is not worthy to discuss this.

      Do a search on the authors name. There is a blog by daattorah who refutes a lot of what he says. Getting ready to put up my challah now.

    8. Is everything treif if it “follows in the way of the gentiles”? How about the use of Babylonian names for our months? Or speaking Yiddish, which is 90% German grammar? Is everything so treif around us? When they borrow from us, we think uhow clever we are. When we might have borrowed from them we think how iudirty they are. But its called “cultural assimilation” a human thing everywhere. After all its only bread that looks like a key.

    9. The website known as is a site that is foreign to the Yiddishkeit we all practice and should not be labelled as “Orthodox Judaism.” It basically calls the Ramban, Ibn Ezra, and everyone else that believes in Sefiros falsifiers of Judaism. This is a quote from one of their articles entitled “New Postings” :
      “But sephiroth are not found in God’s words, or in the words of His Prophets. Therefore, sephiroth is an invention of human fantasy, with no reflection on Torah or on reality.”
      They are worse than Conservative or Reform Judaism and Rabbi Hoffman made an error in even challenging them. Mesora is anything but our true Mesorah.

      • This is motzei shem ra at the worst. The author and contributors of the site do not reject any of gedolei yisroel, especially Ramban and Ibn Ezra and they will frequently quote them and learn them. The philosophical beliefs of the author leans towards the views of the Rambam and as a result, even if that means they reject the hashkafa of Kabalists and others who believe in sefiros and other things, does not make them worse that Conservative or Reform, unless you want to taina that the Rambam is a kofer.

        • Well said. I have also noticed a trend that those that defend the “R’ Alfasi argument” vs. the “R’ Hoffman argument” have tended to bring more text proofs and have displayed a greater analytic thought process behind their comments AND have refrained from simple dismissal or calling people kofrim because they disagree with their beliefs about kaballah (show me where in the 13 principles we’re required to “believe” or not criticize kabbalah. Maybe we should know the halacha about such things before labeling others which is a serious aveirah). I don’t write this to embarrass or make the pro R’ Hoffman crowd feel bad, but it’s something to notice and think about. All the pro-Shlissel people reacted like they just got a heter (you didn’t, ask your rav–mine said to STAY AWAY from shlissel challah and he’s the av beis din of a large community), and it was a very emotional reaction–not a well thought out or documented response (in my opinion). Also, it seems pro-Kabbalah people here are not very informed about it. The RambaN himself doubted the origin of the Zohar and the Ya’avetz said it was a forgery, and the RambaM banned an early kabbalistic work as being full of heresy.

    10. You are right. I looked at that site too. It is filled with Kfirah. They deny Zohar, deny Sefiros, and have their own form of Judaism. It seems they have trolls here on this site too. They call themselves “strict Rambamists” but, they are anything but mesorahniks. This guy SK2K1 is one of them also. Anyone out there know anything about this group? Where are they located? Who are they?

      • A Google of the author indicates that he has published several books, including a translation of Tomer Devorah, so I would doubt that he subscribes to everything that appears on the site that posted his essay.

        Now, let’s get back to the substance.

        Don’t see that Rabbi Hoffman refuted the historical facts.

    11. Yes, they are a group of very nice well meaning people who follow Rabbi Yisroel Chait. Rabbi Chait is a big talmid chacham, but some of the sheetos of this group are wierd. They don’t belive in mayim achronim, they disregard almost every rishon but the rambam, they view themselves as modern orthodox and many of them disagree with the zohar, and other basics. On the plus side, they have taught a number of people and made bnei torah out of a lot of people. They are honest people too, which cannot be said for many of the rest of us. As far as #22 goes – I reade and re-read it. Rabbi H won on the Irish quote. I looked up the reference on Google Books, Alfassi blew that one. Score 1 to 0 for #2 – there is no key in the boar cake 2 to zero. Hurculeum? Wikipedia and Google searches say it wasnt Christian – 3 to zero. Figurines? 4 to zero.. Sorry R H won hands down.

      • Oh, don’t get me started. Us Yekkes don’t do Mayim Achronim either and most agree that German/Scandinavian tradition is most accurate and not based on Kabbalah, just tradition. The Chassidic Rebbes embellished upon existing chumros and minhagim and made it halacha. Btw, most yekkes have no clue as to Shlisslach and Challah. As an aside, many Christian practices are based upon our Mesorah in addition to the Avodah in the Mishkan, so those of you baking with keys may indeed be following tradition.

      • While I applaud you for standing up on the side of Rabbi Chait and his talmidim, I believe it would be prudent to refrain from saying they disagree with “other basics.” The articles on their website imply no dispute with the 13 ikarim or the basics of anyone. I would imagine belief in zohar, kaballah (at least Madonna’s version), and anything else aren’t fundamental basics in yahdus. There is a machlokes between Rambam and Ramban on whether kaballah was lost and they follow by the Rambam. I see no reason to impugn their reputation for following one Rishon over another.

      • They don’t believe in mayim achronim?!? Oy gevalt! What kofrim. Worse than the reform!

        Whereas you, Flatbusher, on the other hand, are clearly highly educated in Torah and Jewish history, as you display so clearly.

    12. Dear Rabbi Hoffman,

      I am trying to understand your argument about O’Brien’s work. Yes, the book in question is a collection of O’Brien’s best columns from decades earlier, but they weren’t fiction, they were satirical.

      While it is true that he does not date his reference to baking keys, the context is obviously referring to the distant past in Ireland (thus the reference to “ancient leixlip” and the old Keane and Hernon families). It seems obvious that O’Brien is referencing a colloquial of that past era that his readers would understand.

      Perhaps that understanding is based on myth rather than fact, but it seems clear that O’Brien felt that Irish people in the 1920’s would associate baking keys with an old Irish custom or ritual for protection….

      • The article above lacks real staying power in my opinion as well. #24 above asked probably one of the best questions on here, and it shows (respectfully) deeper thought about this topic than was displayed by the author and others. If you’re “Google”ing answers that’s not deep enough. We also seem to be forgetting the halacha against nichush (superstition) that the Rambam makes clear in his Hilchoth Avodah Zarah, as well as the Sefer HaChinuch who cites the Gemara that says it’s assur to even recite Tehillim for someone’s healing (what we do today is a problem–even my rav agrees it’s a problem and he’s pretty “mainstream Charedi”, and as as I wrote before an Av Beis Din.) Using a ritual or object to provoke a response from G-d is nichush plain and simple (let alone a dubious ritual/object). You want something from Avinu Sh’bashamayim?–that’s what our tefillot are for!

    13. Yeah I also read the original article and rabbi Hoffman’s analysis quotes footnotes and does not address the main thesis of the article that segulas are very problematic if you think they work. Anyway, my wife already baked shlissel challah this year, and not for any voodoo reasons so I think we are good but if I want to make some trouble maybe I will ask my Rav if it is ok to use it.

    14. “shelomo alfassa” is a Christian Missionary who was trained at an Orlando Bible College. His real name is Scott Marks. I have known him for 20 years.

      • There is a Scott Alfassa Marks (who appears to be a different person from Shelomo Alfassa, though possibly a relative?) and he has published a paper that is very much opposed to so-called messianic Jews and their attempts to violate Israeli law by making aliyah. If your idea of a Christian Missionary is someone who calls leading Jews away from our faith and from Hashem “spiritual death”, then we need more of such people.

    15. Bottom Line. This “minhag” has NO source in Gemara, Halacha, Rishonim or Poskim. The earliest reference to it is in 1726 less than 300 years ago. Even according to Rabbi Hoffman there are many sources that show that Goyim baked key bread and these sources are dated earlier than 1726. It should therefore be clear that those that are chasidim of Rebbes that did “shlisel challah” should follow their custom but all others should beware of possible “darchei emori”.

      This same logic would apply to the rapid adoption of “upsherin” even though it has no source before the mid 1500’s and even that source is questionable. Furthermore many goyim had a custom to refrain from cutting a child’s hair. Bottom line if its your minhag fine but if it isn’t be prudent and realize that a strong possibilty of “darchei emori” exsists.

      • Why would it be so surprising that people who insist Hashem wants us to speak Medieval German and dress ourselves in a pastiche of the costumes of the 18th century Polish gentry, might also maintain that goyish customs such as upsherin and shlissel challahs are also quintessentially and importantly Jewish?

    16. Even if we assume Shlisel Challah does not have its roots in pagan custom the obsession that many people have with performing this segula for parnassah may very well qualify as avodah zarah itself. Furthermore believing that baking a key into bread can provide you with wealth would quite possibly qualify as “nichush” .

    17. Some of his arguments seem a little weak. I mean, between the bone and key… Would he also say that the braisa that says putting a red string on your finger is darchei emori is different from the red bendel because the red bendel is on the wrist and not finger? That doesn’t seem to be a sophisticated argument or valid.

    18. In Austria, in Carinthia, the Schlüsselbrot was baked right before the start of Advent when all the bread for the Advent holiday had been baked. The baker would take the key of the communal oven and imprint it on the last loaves, indicating that the oven would be closed until Christmas. Since Jews had communal ovens for most of their existence in Europe, I would assume something similar was being communicated with those shlissel challatot. Maybe that the communal oven was open again for business after being closed during Pesach. No?

    19. While I think that it is historically untenable to not link the key/cross bread loaves of non-Jewish idolatrous cultures both preceding and following the rise of Hasidism, I do not think that this is the main issue.

      In my opinion, there are two:

      1) The basis of the of the article was the widespread acceptance of Hasidic beliefs, practices, customs, and literature. However, there were/are many who reject the ideas and literature of Hasidism. Are we forgetting the GR”A? Even according to the article there is no source for such a custom outside of Hasidism. But what of those who do not (for all of the reasons that the GR”A did not)?

      2) We do not do things on the basis of movements and currents within Judaism. Rather, we derive the permissibility and authenticity of Jewish custom from the body of Talmudic Literature (i.e. Yerushalmi, Bavli, Tosefta, Mekhilta, Sifra, Sifrei, etc.) and the writings of the Geonim and Rishonim who help us understand this literature. If this is not our standard, then we are adrift on a sea of disastrous impossibilities. And when an error creeps in, we correct it (cf. Rambam MT, Hilkhot Issurei Biah 11:14).


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