I'd never before made a shlissel challah -- a challah shaped like a key.
Some Ashkenazi Jews have a custom of baking shlissel challah for the Shabbat that comes after Pesach. It's a segulah, an almost magical folk practice: a kind of embodied prayer for parnassah (prosperity).
But why a key? Some teach that God holds the key to our good fortune, so we bake key-shaped challah as a way of asking God for what we need. One of our four new years opportunities is in Nissan -- an auspicious time to ask.
Others cover their shlissel challah in sesame seeds representing the manna that fell to sustain our ancient ancestors during the wilderness wandering after the Exodus. That, too, hints at prosperity.
Or maybe we do this because counting the Omer is a journey through 49 spiritual "gates" and each gate has a key. The shlissel challah represents the key to unlock the next step in the journey toward Torah.
Or because Pesach is meant to instill awe, and the Gemara compares awe to a key, saying: anyone who learns Torah but has no awe of heaven is like a treasurer who doesn't have the key to the door of the bank.
The practice of baking a key-shaped challah turns out to have origins in early Hasidism. Hasidism is the world of ecstatic-devotional practice that began with the Baal Shem Tov, born in Poland in 1698.
One of his students, R. Pinchas Shapiro of Kovitz (b. 1726), taught that during Pesach and shortly thereafter, the gates of heaven are open. This challah focuses our prayers on (re)opening those gates.
R. Avraham Yehoshua Heshel, the Apter Rav (b. 1748), sees this as a mystical prayer to open the "gates of livelihood," as they were opened for our ancient ancestors when the manna stopped falling.
Or maybe it's connected to Song of Songs, which many read during the week of Pesach. Verse 5:2 pleads, "Open for me, my sister." Does this key open a doorway to God -- or into one's deepest room of the heart?
Some press an actual key into the challah and bake it into the bread. I recently brought home a ring full of old keys from my mother's desk, and I briefly considered embedding one in the loaf. (But I didn't.)
I did my best to shape my usual challah dough into a key shape. I always sing Shalom Aleichem while kneading. While shaping, today I sang p'tach libi b'Toratecha -- "open my heart to Your Torah."
And as it began to rise, I sang along with Nava Tehilia's setting of Libi Er. Ani y'shenah v'libi er: kol dodi dofek! "I sleep, but my heart wakes: the voice of my beloved knocks." Or, in my own words (in Texts to the Holy):
Your voice knocks.
Like a magnolia
Image: from a google image search.