I have a confession to make: sometimes I get sick of challah on Shabbat. While I love a delicious loaf of freshly baked egg bread, week after week it can get monotonous. According to tradition, we have two loaves of bread at our Shabbat evening and afternoon meals, but there is no requirement that it has to be challah.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, what we think of as challah was created in the 15th century by German bakers and caught on in the Jewish world. Eventually it became known as a Jewish food despite its origins outside the community.
Here is a suggestion to change things up on Shabbat with a basis in ancient and medieval texts: pizza. Why would a dish from Italy with no seeming connection to the Jews be an alternative to challah? It turns out that pizza is in fact mentioned by Jewish scholars.
In the Mishnah (Shabbat 1:10), the first compendium of Jewish law edited around 200 CE, the rabbis discuss an important question of Shabbat practice. We know that we are not allow to cook on Shabbat, but what if you start the cooking process before Shabbat starts and then let the dish continue to cook after sundown?
This set-up is desirable for anyone who wants to eat a fresh, hot meal on Shabbat. If you have to finish all the cooking before Shabbat begins the dish might get cold and less tasty by the time you sit down to eat. It is for this reason why certain foods are associated with Shabbat and not others. Brisket, kugel and other casseroles work well because they can stay warmed on Friday evening, while steak is best eaten soon after leaving the grill and can get tough if it sits out staying warm.
The rabbis of the Mishnah rule that “bread may not be put into an oven just before nightfall, nor a cake upon coals, unless its surface can form a crust while it is still day.” The bread or cake must be mostly done before Shabbat begins, but can then remain in the oven to finish and stay warm so that you have a delicious loaf for the meal.
The word the Mishnah uses for “cake” is chararah, which Maimonides also uses when he records the law in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Shabbat 3:18) a thousand years later. About 200 years after that, Judah Romano, an Italian commentator on the Mishneh Torah explained what chararah is by calling it “pizza”, spelled out in Hebrew letters.
While this is not the earliest recorded use of the word pizza, it undoubtedly is the first time it entered a Jewish religious text. What Romano considered pizza was probably not what we are familiar with. Unlike our local famous Trenton tomato pies, his pizza would have been the white variety since tomatoes were not introduced to Italy until they were discovered by Europeans in the New World.
Whatever toppings he chose, Romano’s Shabbat pizza seems like a great idea to me. Pulling a crispy-yet-doughy pie out of the oven on a Friday night would be a delicious way to bring on the day of rest. It certainly breaks the tyranny of challah, and it even has a basis in our sacred texts.