Every week before Shabbat in the sanctuary of observant Jewish homes, we are graced with a special capacity to meditate and to converse with God while kneading dough to make challah. The kneading is an action meditation, best understood as the performance of commandments and rituals. While meditatively kneading, you can clear the mind for a holy intention and open the channel as a springboard to reach God.
The first step to having the right intention is through practicing breath control. When God created Adam, the Torah says, “God formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils a breath of life. Man [thus] became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7). The Hebrew word for breath is neshima, while the Hebrew word for soul is neshama. We can understand from this verse that breath and soul are intimately connected. God breathed into man and by doing so, bestowed upon him a spark of the divine – a soul. God did not breathe into any other creature but Adam. Only man has the ability to use his breath in order to control his mind and thereby body, to draw closer to God.
In the most general sense, meditation is thinking, using your mind in a controlled manner for a period of time with a specific kavanah, intention, and then actualizing that intention. One can actualize a kavanah through mitzvot – physical acts that are aimed at refining and elevating man in order to connect with God.
When we knead the dough, we feel it in our arms. The harder and longer you sweat at it, the better it will be. If you put all your strength into kneading, the consistency of the dough will change and become more refined, and ultimately, the challah will taste better. For any quality work, you need your whole body to be engaged. The power of your kneading does not stem from the strength in your arms, but rather from the strength of your love – that love is transmitted into the challah. There aren’t many other foods we make that require us to work so hard. Beyond the physical effort involved, manually kneading the dough connects us to a tradition of our ancestors that has been practiced for thousands of years, before modern appliances made our lives both easier and infinitely more complicated. It is a reminder that the choice to move at our own pace in the modern world is a conscious one, and that sometimes slowing down is best for our mental health and clarity.
The rabbinic sages practiced this mindful wisdom regularly. Although there is a common belief that meditation is an Eastern art, in fact Judaism has historically used different forms of meditation. An early example in the Torah is when the patriarch Isaac is described as going to “lasuach” (Genesis 24:63) in the field – a term understood by all commentators as some type of meditative practice.
You may have noticed that when a person is praying they have a tendency to sway back and forth or side to side. In most cases, this is done quite unconsciously; the soul is responding to the natural rhythm of the prayer. The prayer (action) elevates the soul, and that elevation is expressed bodily through swaying–syncing with the prayers. This swaying motion is a form of meditation, and it can be translated into the kneading of the dough. The action of kneading backwards and forwards, using controlled breath and kavanah, becomes the physical vehicle to spiritually elevate the dough connecting you to God through the mitzvah.
That intention is kneaded into the challah and becomes part of the spiritual wisdom transmitted to your loved ones. When commandments are seen in this light, particularly baking challah, the challah takes on a greater spiritual significance. Love and faith is infused into the challah, which then serves as both physical and spiritual sustenance to the family. With this mindfulness, one can take the tangible, earthly world and raise it for a higher purpose, which is to honor Shabbat with this holy bread.
The following article is extrapolated from Dahlia Abraham Klein’s forthcoming book, Spiritual Kneading through the Jewish Months: Building the Sacred through Challah (Shamashi Press, January 2015). It’s a book on enhancing Jewish women’s spiritual growth via the tradition of challah baking while meditating upon the Jewish theme of the month.