At each of the three meals eaten on Shabbat, the meal is started with a piece of bread. How this bread is distributed differs by tradition – Sephardic Jews tear the bread with their hands and Ashkenazi Jews cut the bread with a knife. Any knife can be used to cut the bread, but most people show respect for Shabbat by cutting the bread, or Challah, with a Challah knife.
A Challah knife is at its essence a fancy bread knife. It is usually between 10 and 15 inches long and has a stainless steel blade. The blade may have engravings on it; however, it is the handle that usually has Judaica artwork on it.
When picking out a Challah knife, the options are endless as there are no rules defining the Challah knife’s shape, size and what may be engraved or painted on it. The most common Challah knives are made of wood, glass, ceramic and metal, although it is also possible to buy a knife with a stone handle.
Challah knives with wooden handles are usually hand-painted and lacquered. They usually are painted with views of Jerusalem, scenes from the Torah, the 7 species or something else related to Judaism. Challah knives with glass handles are usually brightly colored and there is often metal surrounding the glass. Ceramic handled Challah knives are usually fancy, brightly colored and usually have designs such as flowers and Jewish stars along with phrases such as the blessing made on bread or the word "Shabbat".
Metal Challah knives are usually sterling silver handle, and in particular 925 sterling silver, and have a stainless steel blade, although there are pewter handles as well. These silver Challah knives are usually engraved with a design such as Jerusalem, the name “Jerusalem” in Hebrew or English or a phrase like "Shabbat Kodesh", "Holy Sabbath", on either the handle or the blade. The handles of these knives can also be molded; some common shapes are Challot or sheaves of wheat. If you would like to mix the materials used to made a Challah knife’s handle and create a fancy Challah knife that is practical and will also make a beautiful heirloom, you can embed pewter and Swarovski crystals into a ceramic handle and paint the handle to match the crystals.
Challah Knife Guide
It’s that wonderful golden-brown, braided bread that everyone loves. It’s at the heart of every Shabbat and holiday table, and it makes the best French Toast around! It’s Challah, of course, and it’s no ordinary bread.
What’s So Special About Challah?
For forty years, while the Israelites wandered in the desert after having been freed from slavery to the Pharaoh in Egypt, G-d provided sustenance for them. Every night along with the drops of dew, the manna fell on the camp . . . every night, that is, except Shabbat, the Day of Rest. Instead, on the night before Shabbat, a double portion of manna fell so the Israelites would have enough to sustain them. To commemorate this double portion of manna, it is traditional to begin each Shabbat and holiday meal with two loaves of Challah.
After the Shabbat or holiday Kiddush, the Motzi, the traditional prayer for bread is recited: “Blessed are You, Adonai our G-d, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” With that, each person at the table shares a piece of the Challah, and the festive meal begins.
What is Challah?
Challah is especially delicious bread, made from many eggs, flour, water, yeast, and sugar. Challah dough is usually rolled into long strands and braided before baking, creating an especially beautiful bread. It is brushed with egg, which gives it its lovely golden-brown color, and it is often sprinkled with poppy or sesame seeds. The sugar (or sometimes honey) gives Challah its special sweetness. The extra eggs give it its distinctive yellow color. And the Shabbat gives it its special meaning.
Challah is also part of the celebration of each Jewish holiday (except for Passover, when matzah takes its place). For Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to make a special Challah, which is twisted into a round shape instead of braided. This round shape symbolizes the cycle of the Jewish year and the round shape of the world (whose creation is celebrated on Rosh Hashanah). Many people also add raisins to the Rosh Hashanah Challah to make it especially sweet in the hope of a sweet New Year.
Given its central role in Shabbat and holiday meals, Challah occupies a special place on the table and is treated as something of an honored guest. It is traditional to keep the Challah covered until the Motzi prayer is recited, and most families have a beautiful Challah Cover especially for this purpose. Challah is generally not sliced prior to the meal, so many people have special Challah Boards and Challah Knives which they use to slice the Challah just before it is eaten.
Challah Knives as Judaica
All of these items--Challah Covers, Boards, and Knives--can be quite beautiful works of Judaica and are often handed down from one generation of a family to another. Challah Knives are often made of silver and inscribed with the words of the Motzi prayer. Their handles can also be crafted from wood, ceramic, or stone, and painted or decorated with Jewish symbols. Challah Knives are often sold in sets with matching Challah Boards.
A Challah Knife makes an especially lovely wedding gift, as it can be used by the bride and groom when saying the Motzi and cutting the Challah that is eaten at their wedding reception.