By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
“Mommy, what does the key mean? Why do we put it in the challah dough?”
Last Shabbos, we read a fascinating pasuk in Shir HaShirim—the standard reading for Chol HaMoed Pesach. The verse (Shir HaShirim 5:2) states, “I was asleep but my heart was awake. A voice! My beloved was knocking: ‘Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my perfect one!’” In this verse, Hashem is talking to Klal Yisrael.
Chazal darshen this pasuk in Yalkut Shimoni (Shir HaShirim 988), “You have become My sister with the observance of the two mitzvos in Mitzrayim—the blood of the Korban Pesach and the blood of bris milah. Open for Me an opening like the eye of the needle and I (Hashem) shall open for you like the opening of a wide hall.”
The Gates Have Closed
Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, zt’l, known as the Apter Rebbe or Apter Rav (1748–1825) is the author of the Ohev Yisrael. In his Likkutim al HaTorah (Pesach), he explains that during the entire yom tov of Pesach, the tefillos of Klal Yisrael achieved entry into the gates of Heaven. But slowly, they closed. It is now time to reopen them.
How To Reopen?
But how? How do we reopen the gates of Shamayim so that our prayers can once again receive entry? What is the key?
He answers that the key is through the merit of Shabbos observance. This, according to the Apter Rav, is the reason for schlissel challah—baking a key inside the Shabbos challah. It brings home the fact that it is the merit of Shabbos observance, and honoring it, that will reopen the gates of Shamayim and bring us berachah in all areas—parnassah, Torah, nachas, and more.
Anyone who has ever truly experienced Shabbos knows the following truth: Shabbos is very special. Perhaps the prayer of Lecha Dodi recited every Friday evening captures it best: Ki hi mekor ha’berachah—Shabbos is the source of all blessing.
Shabbos has always been viewed as the symbol or flag of the Jewish nation. Just as patriots look at their flag as more than a mere dyed cloth with fancy designs, so too is Shabbos viewed similarly in the eyes of the Jewish people. It is a sign of our deep belief in G‑d—that it was He Who created the world. But it is even more than this.
Our belief in G‑d is not just limited to the notion that an omnipotent entity created the world. An integral aspect of Torah theology is that this omnipotent entity is the source of all good. He rewards good and punishes evil. The Jewish understanding of G‑d and His unique Oneness is that ethics and monotheism are intrinsically interwoven with each other.
In other theologies they may be two separate concepts; not so in Judaism.
A belief in the Oneness of G‑d perforce includes the notion that He defines what goodness is. Altruism, goodness, and ethical behavior are not the results of evolutionary biology—they are part and parcel of the Creator Himself. This is the raison d’être of Creation itself—so that Hashem can reward those who do good and follow His will.
If, in the path of life, we successfully attempt to emulate G‑d, then we will be rewarded. The observance of Shabbos is thus the flag of the Jewish people—the idea and notion that represents all this. The Apter Rav’s explanation highlights this remarkable flag of the Torah nation.
The custom of schlissel challah has become widespread, not only in the chassidish world but in many other communities as well.
There are also other reasons for this custom in Klal Yisrael. Most of the reasons have to do with the Kabbalistic notion of “Tirayin Petichin,” that the gates to Heaven are opened. This concept of opened gates is found throughout the Zohar and is discussed by such authorities as the Shelah (whose father was a student of the Rema).
The earliest reference is in the works of Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro of Koritz (born 1726), a descendant of the Megaleh Amukos and a student of the Baal Shem Tov. In his work, called Imrei Pinchas (#298), he explains that the reason to bake schlissel challah on the Shabbos following Pesach is that during Pesach, the gates to Heaven were opened and remain open until Pesach Sheni. The key alludes to the fact that these gates are now open and that we should focus our prayers ever more on that account.
The Apter Rav also mentions other reasons for the minhag—primarily that Hashem should open His “storehouse of plenty” for us as he did in Iyar after the Exodus.
The Belzer Rebbe (Choshvei Machshavos, p. 152) provides the explanation that although the geulah may not have happened yet as it was scheduled to occur in Nissan, at least the gates to Hashem’s storehouse of parnassah and plenty have been opened.
The Taamei HaMinhagim (596 and 597) provides a number of reasons as well. Some have questioned the origins of this beautiful minhag; however, those conjectures are filled with serious scholarly errors.
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.