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Challah and death in childbirth

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Rabbi David Sperling

Elul 2, 5778
Question
What is the context of this Mishna for our times regarding challah, since an unknown large number of pious women have died in childbirth after the destruction of the Temple, when challah couldn´t be offered to the cohanim? How to talk about this Mishna to 21th century women when it´s read in our shuls on Shabbes? "Women die in childbirth for three transgressions: If they are not careful with [the laws] of menstruation; and if they are not careful [to separate some] dough [when baking to give to the priest] (i.e. challah); and if they are not careful with the lighting of the [Shabbat] lamp. (Mishnah Shabbat 2:6)"
Answer
Shalom, Thank you for your question. I am not entirely certain that I understand exactly what you are asking – none the less I will try to explain (and please feel free to write again if I have missed your point). The Mishna lists three sins that can sometimes be the spiritual cause of death at childbirth. Obviously there are many causes for death, and only G-d understands fully the divine calculations that determine the life and death of each person. However, the Mishna is teaching us that there are three sins in particular that can sometimes be the deciding factor in the case of death at childbirth. This is not to say that all those who die in childbirth sinned in one of these issues. Nor that everyone who sinned in these issues dies at childbirth. Only that these three sins can be the cause of such a death. The idea that our deeds are judged, and that G-d deals with us based on our deeds is a basic principle in Judaism. This Mishna comes to point out a connection between these particular sins and death during childbirth. The sin of not separating the Challah portion for the Cohen perhaps needs some explination. The Mitzvah of Separating Challah is found in the Torah. When making a dough (to bake bread) [of a certain volume] we are commanded to separate out a small portion (called “Challah”- not to be confused with the loaves of bread we eat on Shabbat, which we also call Challah), which is given to a Cohen. He gets to eat this dough (in holiness). You are correct that we do not fulfill this mitzvah to it's fullest nowadays. This is because of two reasons. Firstly, the Cohen today cannot eat the dough in holiness, as we lack the purification process of the Red Hefer. Secondly, the Torah states that this command is dependent on the whole (or at least majority) of the Jewish people living in the land of Israel. Please G-d, we will merit to fulfill this mitzvah in it's fullest soon – but until that time (perhaps when the Messiah comes, perhaps before) we fulfill the mitzvah in a more limited fashion. The Rabbis decreed a Rabbinic mitzvah to continue to separate Challah even today. This is done by removing a small amount of the dough after saying a blessing. This “Challah” that has been removed is then burnt or deposed of – and not given to a Cohen. In Jewish houses and bakeries this mitzvah is preformed regularly, and many many Jewish women go to great lengths to merit to preform this mitzvah weekly (or as often as they can). This mitzvah, together with Shabbat candles, and the laws of family purity (which deal with the intimate life of the husband and wife) make up the basis of the Jewish home. The light of the Shabbat candles, representing the light of holiness and peace. The love between a wife and her husband. And the task of elevating the very bread of sustenance to a holy plane. These three things taken together are the essence of a Jewish home that are given over (mainly) to the woman of the house. She has these tasks in her care and responsibility. Perhaps the Mishna is teaching us that the very purpose of childbirth, of creating a family, goes hand in hand with the efforts to bring that family to it's fulfillment. A woman who neglects those tasks, who disregards the purpose of family, is sinning in the very makeup of what that family is. And thus, the Mishna states, that she is punished at the very point of childbirth – the creation of family. If one cannot take upon themselves the holy task of building a Jewish home, that opportunity is denied one, and thus the punishment mentioned in the Mishna. I hope this is of some help. May we all merit to build holy healthy and happy homes of love and light. Blessings.
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