By Shelomo Alfassa
The gentleman (Rabbi Yair Hoffman) whose opinion differs from mine (as well as many rabbanim) on the historic development of schlissel challah [see the preceding article] is certainly entitled to his opinion; yet, to call my essay “faulty” is a somewhat feeble method of trying to advance his statement that schlissel challah was “practiced by the greatest of our chassidic brethren.” There is no question that it was practiced—that is not what my paper is about; my paper demonstrates some of the non-Jewish origins of this custom.
Differentiating opinions is a foundation of the Jewish educational process; it is the basis for most of the Gemara—which is filled with thousands of opinions, some in agreement, and some in disagreement, on a variety of subjects. The Baalei Tosafos who later commented on the Gemara also left behind copious arguments and disagreements on matters of the Jewish people, sometimes meticulously (and sometimes strongly) argued over the smallest everyday matters. So how do we know who is correct in an argument? Well, Jewish tradition has a colloquial answer. For thousands of years the Geonim have said, “One day, Eliyahu HaNavi will come and answer these questions and problems!”
Yet, until that day, let me clarify. Chassidic Judaism only started in the 18th century, and the Tanya wasn’t even in distribution across Europe until the mid-19th century. When Chassidus was created, the Baal Shem Tov and his followers certainly didn’t just instantaneously devise a new custom for their women to bake keys in their bread. As I clearly demonstrated, the idea of the key-loaf baked goods was old, and certainly pre-existing in Europe. There is historic provenance to demonstrate this—and as I stated, it has its foundation in non-Jewish tradition. v
Rabbi Hoffman Responds
When the Baalei Tosafos argue, rigorous proofs are marshaled and lobbied back and forth. To establish a supposition that Jews copied a religious practice from a foreign religion that surrounded them requires rigorous proof, as the tendency among observant Jews is not to do that. This article has shown that three of Shelomo Alfassa’s proofs do not meet this criterion. Casting aspersions on a practice in Klal Yisrael is something that cannot just be thrown around willy-nilly by conjecture; it must have strong geographic and historical proof. The Jewish practice of schlissel challah appears in Poland in the latter 18th century. No mention of it is found earlier. Nor is there any evidence that Easter breads were shaped like crosses in that geographic place or time. Finding dubiously similar practices in places divorced by time and geography does not a rigorous proof make.
Even if the author were to successfully demonstrate these links, there is another issue as well. Sometimes a practice can develop as a repercussion of a surrounding gentile practice. For example, the practice of conducting a chuppah under the sky may have developed in reaction to the commonly held Christian belief that a marriage was not valid unless held in a church and led by a priest. The older reader may recall that the “We Never Lost It” bumper sticker of the 1970s was a reaction of the “I Found It” bumper sticker and billboards of the born-again Christian movement of that era. To label a repercussion as following the ways of gentiles, however, is also incorrect. v