Challah, Sefiras Ha’omer, and Chodesh Iyar

 I have to start by admitting that only recently did I start baking my own challos (the picture in the heading is actually of one of my first attempts). However, even before, I did try to make just one yearly effort to bake for this Shabbos, the Shabbos after Pesach. In many communities, women will gather this week for an evening of inspiration and challah baking. Not only because our freezers are empty of previously baked batches of challah, and not only because we are craving soft and warm challah after a Pesach full of matzah, but there is also a minhag that some have of making a key challah this week.

The reasons for this minhag are many, with different seforim talking about what this segula is for and what the source is. The Karbon Omer, pessukim in Shir Hashirim, and the cessation of the manna at this time are all reasons brought down for this minhag. In this article, we’re not going to focus on the minhag of the key challah specifically, but will focus instead on challah in general and its connection to the time we now find ourselves in.

 Challah, of course, is one of the three mitzvos that are primarily in the domain of women. Although men are equally obligated to separate “challah”, customarily this is seen as a woman’s mitzva. (A couple of years ago, while in a pizza store with my third-grade class, the baker called me, as the only woman in the store, into the kitchen to separate challah and to make the bracha. He told me he rarely makes it himself and has both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi versions of the bracha ready, so he can accommodate whichever woman he drafts to fulfill this mitzva. Of course, he knew that he could make the bracha himself, but he took pride in reinforcing its true ownership.)

This Shabbos, we will read Parashas Shemini. It is also Shabbos Mevorchim, where we will bentch the new month of Iyar. Sefiras Ha’omer, has of course started, entering us into a period of mourning, introspection, and of planning and preparation. Let’s examine each of these topics to help us understand more about Challah.

Bringing Moshiach

There’s a common question that’s asked regarding the coming of Moshiach: How can it be that our generation can possibly bring Moshiach when so many other, greater, generations have failed? Previous generations were unquestionably greater than us. Their prayers were purer and they were closer to Hashem. If the tana’im, amora’im, rishonim, and achoronim and all the gedolim who succeeded them couldn’t bring Moshiach, how can we?

Rabbi Shimon Schwab famously answered this question. He writes that if our generation has one zechus, one merit with which we can come before Hashem and say that we deserve the geula it is this: that we, after thousands of years of galus and its hardships, still want Moshiach and still wait for geula. It’s a mental avoda– that we want it, and that we hope for it and aspire to it. After all, says Rabbi Schwab, we say daily in Yigdal:

 ישלח לקץ הימים משיחנו.

Hashem will send at the end of the days our Moshiach;

To save who? Who will be the ones worthy to of seeing Moshiach?

לפדות מחכה קץ ישועתו –To save those who waited for the end of His salvation. 

(In galus Mitzrayim a large number of Yidden perished during makas choshech. We know that those who were redeemed were on the brink of the deepest levels of impurity and needed to be given mitzvos to earn their redemption. What, then, differentiated them from those who perished? The midrash tells us there that those who died were the ones that didn’t want to be saved, who had found contentment in the land of the Egyptians and had managed to gain their favor and had no desire to be saved.)

An old joke is told of a simple Jew who rushes home after hearing the Rabbi speak and tells his wife excitedly that the Moshiach is soon coming to redeem them and take them to Israel, where they’ll be given land to start anew, safe and free from the evil goyim who persecute them. The wife thinks for a minute and says, “Our crops are doing really well…we’ve just fixed up the house…I don’t really want to move…can’t this Moshiach fellow just take the goyim away instead?!”

The waiting and longing, both of which are in our hearts and minds, are our saving zechus and our strength. We were born into galus and are deeply rooted and comfortable here, and yet we want Moshiach and pray for his arrival daily. At the time of geula, we can be the generation that declares, לישועתך קיוינו ה’– Hashem, we hoped and longed for Your salvation.

It’s something we have to believe באמונה שלימה. We have to wait for it, everyday- אחכה לו בכל יום שיבוא. We have to want it and live it, and that way, though we’re not worthy, through the strength of our minds we can earn it.

What Rav Schwab is teaching us here is the greatness of a person’s mind, and the life-changing strength of a person’s aspirations. He isn’t attributing the geula to the tremendous Talmud Torah of our generation, or the philanthropy, or to the amazing, large-scale initiatives that we know so much about. Rav Schwab is saying that our saving grace will be the strength of our minds. Wanting something (in this case the geula), wanting it with all our hearts and longing for it daily, has power, and it is this zechus that can save a nation.

In truth, we see this reality throughout the Torah. We’ll go through a few quick examples, but there are many others where you’ll see the same lashon used in pessukim and in Chazal and the same message can be gleaned.

1.     One example is the famous gemarah that says: “One who wants to be wise should daven towards the south…one who wants to be considered pious should learn such-and-such laws”.

The language of the gemarah is clear–it doesn’t simply say that one who davens towards to the south will be wise, and one who learns the certain halachos will be pious but adds in the word “wants”. The wanting, the intention and desire are an essential part of the process.

 2.    Another place we see this is with Basya, daughter of Paroh. She sees Moshe and understands who he is and what she can and cannot do. She can’t physically reach him as he’s positioned beyond her reach. And yet, she aspired to save him, and her mind wanted it, and she reached for him—and, bypassing the laws of nature, Hashem let her grasp it because of her will.

(We see this truth in nature and science as well, when we hear stories about mothers lifting a cars off their children. Because of her love for her child, the mother’s mind overcomes and overrules her body, giving her supernatural strength.)

 3.    When Moshe Rabbainu is at the burning bush, the סנה, he covers his face from the Shechina. The gemarah (brachos 7:1) seems to document a machlokes, a disagreement as to whether this was the correct action or not.

R’ Yonason says that it was praiseworthy that Moshe Rabbainu covered his face, and that it was in this merit that the light of the Shechina rested on his face (קרן עור פניו ).

In contrast, R’ Yehoshoua Ben Korcha says that Moshe was punished: Later, when Moshe entreats Hashem: הראיני נא את כבודך—Show me Your Glory!, Hashem answers him, “When I wanted to show you [My face], you didn’t want to look. Now I won’t show you: ופני לא יראו”.

 If we examine their words, R’ Yonason and R’ Yehoshoua are not truly disagreeing. Both really agree that Moshe did the right thing by covering his face, as he was not yet on the level to see the Shechina. He was, indeed, rewarded with the highest level of nevua and with the Heavenly light on his face.

Look closely at R’ Yehoshoua’s words: “When I wanted to show you [My face], you didn’t want to look.” It doesn’t say that Moshe was punished for not looking, but for not wanting to look. While covering his face, he should have wanted to look, and desired and aspired to it, ached for it. R’ Yehoshoua is telling us that the reason Moshe never reached that level of seeing Hashem later is because he didn’t aspire to it early on.

 4.    Finally, we see that when B’nai Yisrael leave Har Sinai it says, “ויסעו מהר ה’”—’and they travelled from the mountain of Hashem’. This is puzzling because we know from Chazal that Har Sinai was not inherently kadosh and did not retain its kedusha after Matan Torah. Why does the possuk here seem to go out of its way to refer to it as the mountain of Hashem? Rashi on this possuk tells us that by leaving they sought to move away from Hashem and the intensity of Matan Torah. That’s where their thoughts and minds were, so the possuk ascribes to them the action of leaving the mountain of Hashem.

We see the tremendous potential that the human mind can create. What we want, and what we put our minds too is powerful.

Let’s now switch gears and talk a bit about the month of Iyar and Sefiras Ha’omer.

Chodesh Iyar

Iyar is the month in which wheat—from which we get the most basic staple of human sustenance, bread—ripens. The only food more nourishing than bread was the mann, which gave the ultimate nourishment, both physical and spiritual, to those who ate it. The mann had the power to heal and cured all who partook of it. Significantly, the mann first began to fall in the month of Iyar. Meforshim write that when the mann began to fall in this month, it forever imbued the month with powers of healing and health. In fact, we even see it in the name: אייר  stands for אני ה’ ראפך.

We would therefore expect, perhaps, that Iyar would be a uniquely joyous time. It’s a month with a great segulah for health, and it coincides with Sefiras Ha’omer, where we count up to the giving of the Torah.

But as we know, the tone of Iyar has become anything but joyous. Since the time when the 24,000 talmidim of R’ Akiva died, we abstain from all signs of happiness, and go into a state of mourning for most, if not all, of Iyar.

How can we understand and reconcile this tragedy happening particularly in the month of healing, and at this time of year?

To answer this question, we’re going to have to go deeper and discover what Sefiras Ha’omer is really about and what really happened to R’ Akiva’s talmidim.

Sefiras Ha’omer

Let’s start with the basics: What is Sefiras Ha’omer? Paraphrasing the possukim in the Torah that give us this command gleans us this information: we count 49 days, which begin after the korban omer, a barley offering, until Shavous. After the process of counting, on the 50th day, we bring what’s called a “מנחה חדשה לה’”, the totally unique korban of Shavous.

What makes this korban so unique? The name hints to it: if you take the first letter of each word of מנחה חדשה לה’, you get the letters that spell out lechem, bread. This korban of מנחה חדשה לה’ consisted of the שתי הלחם, two loaves of bread. This korban is remarkable because it is in direct contradiction to a possuk in Sefer Vayikra that prohibits any chametz, any leavened dough, to be brought as a korban: כל המנחה אשר תקריבו לה’ לא תעשה חמץ.

Why is it that chametz cannot be brought as a korban? Chometz, bread, as the staple of physical sustenance, represents physicality and our limited physical selves. The whole year we refrain from bringing bread as a korban for this reason. What is it about the process of Sefiras Ha’omer that allows us to be able to bring the מנחה חדשה לה’ upon its completion?

The answer to this too lies in the words themselves: the first letters of מנחה חדשה   spell out מח (mo’ach), the human brain that is capable of thought. Recognizing the power of our minds, and understanding that our aspirations can raise us, even if we aren’t quite holding on the level yet, is what allows us to bring this korban. Let’s explain.

Sefira starts with the korban omer, the barley offering. Barley is widely recognized throughout the gemarah as the food of animals.  Our minds are what differentiate us from animals. Through the process of counting Sefiras Ha’omer, we are supposed to elevate ourselves by recognizing the power of our minds, and raise ourselves to the level of wheat, human food, and the שתי הלחם korban.

The possuk in Shir Hashirim (7:2) addresses B’nai Yisrael and says “מה יפו פעמיך בנעלים” – How beautiful are your feet in your shoes. The meforshim here say that this refers to Yom Kippur. The question then arises that shouldn’t it say, how beautiful are your feet, when you remove your leather shoes [for Yom Kippur]? What is the beauty seen in the leather shoes?

A story is told of a Rebbe who explained this to his talmidim with a parable. “I was once travelling,” he told them, “very urgently to the next town to help them with a matter of life and death. I was not able to even stop to feed or rest the horses, and travelled through the night, not stopping at any of the inns or stables I would typically stop at. As I travelled past our usual stops, I heard one horse remark to the other, ‘Look at that! We’ve become human! Usually our master would stop and feed us and give us water, even if he himself is too rushed to stop. It must mean that we’ve been promoted!’

The Rebbe continued: “My dear talmidim, as I reached the house of the Rav in next town, and sought to stop the horses at his house, the horses saw the stable and the trough full of fresh hay and food, and despite my urgings and commands to stop, the horse pulled straight there. You see, the horses were not elevated to human status because status depends on where your thoughts and dreams are! It is true that they went through the motions of not eating and travelling through the night, but a human controls his mind and doesn’t go straight for the food.” 

The Rebbe message was clear. It’s easy to take off our shoes on Yom Kippur, to refrain from eating and to imagine we have risen to the level of angels. The real test comes after Yom Kippur when our shoes are back on, and we’re back in the world. How do we act then? Do we go straight for the food (literally and figuratively!) or do we have loftier aspirations?

When Hashem created Adam, the possuk tells us: ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים, Hashem breathed the neshama into Adam. The neshama, the intangible piece of Hashem, which is called נשמה שבמחי (neshama she’bi’mochi), the soul in myמח  (mo’ach), in my conscious brain, my mind, is what initially transformed Adam to something other than a physical form. This Heavenly aspect is unlimited and unrestricted by physical limits (like the word nishima, a breath) and can soar from the power of our מח  (mo’ach) and our thoughts.

The month of Iyar is symbolized by an ox, as opposed to the sheep that is Nissan. A sheep is led and follows (this is not always bad-see our previous article!), but an ox goes forward on its own strength, building its potential and pushing its limits to work and accomplish.

That is the mission of Iyar and Sefiras Ha’omer: to get us from the korban omer to the שתי הלחם korban by aspiring and striving to grow using the power of our minds. We count upwards and try to make the days count towards moving us up as well.

Talmidai Rebbe Akiva

What, then, went wrong with the talmidim of R’ Akiva?

The midrash tells us a rather esoteric story: Once, R’ Akiva was giving shiur and his talmidim were falling asleep. To wake them up, he told them: 

What did Esther see that allowed her to rule over the 127 provinces (of Achashvarosh)?

Let the descendant of Sara Imainu, who lived to be 127 come and rule over 127!

How do we understand this question and answer? The מכתב מאליהו  explains that the students lost interest in the shiur because they felt that the level R’ Akiva wanted them to reach was too high. Disillusioned and despairing, they could no longer focus on the Torah he was teaching. R’ Akiva wanted to point out their mistake. He taught them that Esther was able to reach the level she reached only because she aspired to be like Sara Imainu. Because of her striving, she was able to reach beyond her original potential and grasp the unattainable. R’ Akiva was telling his students that they too could grab onto his aspirations and expectations for them and could attain higher levels than they ever would have thought.

This point brings us fully back to where we started—the amazing power of the mo’ach, the mind, to not only fulfill potential but to even create what previously didn’t exist.

Yitzchak Avinu had no brachos left when Eisav walked in. He had already given everything he thought he had to Yaakov Avinu. Yet, when Eisav cried out, the strength of his mind and his forced Yitzchak Avinu to create a new bracha for him. (And what a bracha it was! משמני הארץ יהי’ מושבך ומטל השמים מעל… ) 

The midrash points out a contrast between Yaakov Avinu and Paroh: Yaakov Avinu had a dream in which there was a ladder on the ground that ascended to the Heavens. This represented the correct way to live: to harness and use physicality, but to continue to desire and aspire to spiritual heights. Paroh’s dream, by contrast, had him standing in the Nile river. Not on the ground, not in the Heavens: denying physical realities and limitations, all while faking spirituality to feed his own ego.

Iyar presents itself to us with two faces; a double-edged sword of sorts. The powerful and strong ox that we mentioned represents Iyar is not a friendly pet. It can gore a person if he’s not careful! The mo’ach, too, for all its amazing ability, must only be used carefully. The Torah, which we received right before we brought the שתי הלחם  karbon is the guide we need to use for our mo’ach, so that we will use the power of our minds in the right way, and not let it lead us to trouble. (The gemarah in Yoma even states that certain sins are more damaging to the neshama in thought than in action, due to the power of the mind being used in the wrong way. Such a person is taking what separates us and elevates us above animals and using it in a depraved manner. To explore this fully is beyond the scope of this article, but I felt remiss not to mention it.)

The talmidim of R’ Akiva died of a plague that afflicted their throats—the vessel used to communicate their Torah. The students were proud of their individual strengths and minds, just as, you might say, an ox is proud of his brute strength. They failed, however, to appreciate and honor that strength in each other. That failure, small though it may seem, changed the Torah, which is typically a סם חיים, an elixir of life, to a cause of death, and changed the month of Iyar, with its special segula for healing, into a month of mourning.

The mo’ach, which contains our dreams, thoughts, and aspirations, must be fully defined and guided by the Torah in order for us to rise above the animal-like instincts of our physical selves (represented by the barley offering) to the high level of the שתי הלחם (made of the highest form of human food, bread). And that leads us into this week’s parasha and the incident with Nadav and Avihu.

Nadav and Avihu

We discussed in a previous article ( the events that led up to the day of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, the יום השמיני of the inauguration of the mishkan, but we’ll do a quick recap. Nadav and Avihu are tzaddikim, righteous men. They’ve lived through galus Mitzrayim, and the witnesses the makos and the wonderous hand of Hashem in the redemption. They witnessed the splitting of the Yam Suf, and the war with Amalek. They watched B’nai Yisrael stumble and build the eigel and watched as punishment was wrought upon them. They waited with bated breath as Moshe again ascended the mountain to beg Hashem to spare the nation, and to forgive them. And they witnessed the joyous words, סלחתי כדברך. Along with the rest of the nation, they threw themselves into the building the mishkan, awaiting the day that they would serve in it and bring the Shechina back into their camp. They waited with building excitement from the day the mishkan was completed in Kislev, until the end of Adar when the inauguration began.

They dreamed, they anticipated, they wanted and they aspired so badly to be a part of it, but they didn’t let the commands of Hashem shape those aspirations. They went and brought a korban that was not k’halacha, and they decided halacha instead of seeking Moshe’s counsel, and did not curb their aspirations to the guidelines of the Torah.

When we make a bracha we declare: אשר קדישנו —[Hashem] has made us holy. We don’t just do holy things but have in essence been made holy by Him.  Our physical beings are infused with holiness. How? במצוותיו–Through His commandments. It is only through following His commandments and setting our aspirations and dreams by them that we can be holy.

That was the difference between the usual karbonos which are מכפר  (atone) and grant life, and the offerings of Nadav and Avihu that brought death.

(It is worth noting too that the mishkan was built as a fix to the problems caused by the eigel. In essence, the main difference between the two—the mishkan, which brought atonement and brought the Shechina back, and the eigel, which was physically similar but caused the estrangement in the first place—was that one was commanded by Hashem and one was not.)

Back to Challah

When dough is kneaded for Challah, we elevate that which is the core of physicality by separating a piece that is designated for the kohanim. That is the first elevation that our dough goes through. But there is a second elevation as well.

R’ Akiva was one approached by a Roman leader who asked him: which is greater, the work of man or the work of G-d? He assumed, of course, that Rabbi Akiva would answer that the work of G-d is far greater. R’ Akiva surprised him by showing him a pile of wheat versus a pile of baked goods, saying that clearly the work of man is superior.

When Challah is baked, the bracha changes. Wheat, in its original form gets a האדמה bracha. Challah, bread, gets the inclusive bracha of המוציא לחם מן הארץ, a bracha that is at the top of the hierarchy of important brachos, and exempts other brachos from being made. Why is the Challah elevated like this? Why, indeed, is the work of man (or woman, as the case may be!) greater than the work of G-d?

The ground produces ready-to-eat vegetation, but doesn’t produce ready bread. Consider the many steps that go into readying a field and planting wheat, then harvesting it correctly and turning it to flour, which must be mixed and kneaded and only then, finally, made into bread. This special potential can only be actualized by human input of effort and will. The bracha of bread changing is a sign that it is now elevated through our efforts.

On the day that I wrote this article, there was a rather humorous piece of news out. Two goats had wandered away from their farm in Pennsylvania and had somehow walked to the nearby interstate highway. They proceeded to begin crossing an 8-inch ledge that was elevated over 100 feet up. About halfway across, they stopped and calmly stood. There they waited for 18 hours, unmoving, until a crane was lowered from the highway above to save them.

From some reason, I was very tickled by this article and spent the day making horrible goat puns and excessively using my goat emoji (yes, there is indeed a goat emoji, and if I was more tech-savvy I would insert a few here).

But this story also made me wonder: how is it that two fairly large goats balanced on such a high and narrow ledge for so long. If a person were to be stuck in a similar situation, fear and panic would likely cause him to stumble!

Therein, I realized, was the key to balancing on high ledges and cultivating soaring ambitions: to know no fear, to be steadfast in your aspirations of Heavenliness, and to be directed from Above. Aim high, balance carefully, and proceed with caution as you follow the path of Hashem. Replace fear with faith, and you wont stumble.

This week, if you’re making Challah (or even just eating it 😉), take a moment to consider and reflect….

As you sift through your flour, sift through your goals and aspirations, and pick the very best ones, the ones that are in line with the Torah…

Mix them with your eggs and oil, that is, your middos and kochos, strengths,

And as you braid, create the shape that you want your life to take.

As you watch your dough rise, don’t be afraid to let your aspirations and dreams rise, and take you to high levels that you never thought were possible.

It takes time for dough to rise; don’t be discouraged as you work and wait for your dreams to come to fruition.

And just as we will eat our challah, and watch it nourish ourselves and the ones we love, and we will taste that accomplishment,

May we merit to taste the sweet taste of reaching our highest potentials in this world, growing closer to Hashem and bringing His will to this world.


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Sources for this article will be posted as the first comment, as they are somewhat lengthy.



2 Comments on “Challah, Sefiras Ha’omer, and Chodesh Iyar

  1. Sources:
    As always, these are roughly in order appearance in the article, and as always, this excludes sources mentioned within the article. If I’ve left something out, or for further clarification, please feel free to leave a comment and I will answer!

    1. Rav Shimon Schwab, Selected Speeches article entitled “Waiting for Moshiach”. I don’t remember which one of my teachers in seminary brought this article in for us to read, but I instantly fell in love with it and purchased his books. Rav Schwab’s books are among my favorite that I own, and this article in particular resonates deeply with me.
    2. The Midrash about the Yidden who died during makas choshech is found in שמות רבה יד: ג
    3. The piece about Basya stretching her hand despite the fact that she knew she couldn’t physically reach Moshe is from Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, שיחות מוסר
    4. Rav Zev Leff, Festivals of Life (essay entitled “Creating the Potential to Achieve”) Several of the examples about aspiration prompting growth and parts of the theme were from this essay.
    5. Although I didn’t go too into it, the sefer אהל רחל talks about the nourishing and healing powers of bread, as do some of the meforshim around the inyan of Amnon and Tamar.
    6. The acronym of Iyar and its healing qualities is quoted in many places and seems to be attributed to the Bnai Yissaschar.
    7. The pieces about Sefiras Ha’omer and the mincha chadasha, as well as some of the theme, are from the Nesivos Sholom, as quoted in the book with that name on Pesach and Sefiras Ha’omer by Rabbi B. Ginsburg
    8. The piece from Shir Hashirim, as well as the mashal, is recalled to the best of my ability from my high school Yahadus elective class (mentioned in the last post!). If I recall correctly, the Rebbe in the story is the Baal Shem Tov, but I wasn’t able to reach the Rav who taught the class to verify and get a source but will update when I do!
    9. Gemarah Yoma 29:b הרהורי עבירה קשים מעבירה
    10. Gemarah Yevamos 62:b says that the talmidim died of a throat affliction, and Taanis 7:a says that the Torah, used correctly, is a potion of life.
    11. Nadav and Avihu. I basically followed pshat when incorporating this into the article, but I did later find similar ideas in the sefer דרש דרש משה (Discourses of Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik) on parashas Shemini
    12. The idea about wheat’s bracha changing upon its elevation to Challah (as well as the idea from source 10) is also from an article I read years ago that I’ve not been able to source.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love how you pieced together so many different pieces and events from so many different places all connecting to the same theme! Looking forward to making challah today!


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