Theoretically, one could simply place a plain napkin on top of the challah loaves, but since we are enjoined to beautify and embellish our fulfillment of the mitzvahs, and making a blessing over bread is indeed a mitzvah on Shabbat, there is a centuries-old custom to adorn the Shabbat table with a beautiful challah cover. Often the challah cover is a centerpiece that sets the look and tone of the entire Shabbat table.
Covering the challah loaves leaves can be an “artistic expression of the Jewish heart,” writes Rabbi Berl Wein. “The variety of challah covers that exist today is almost infinite, as is the pleasure and beauty that each one of them brings to the Shabbat table. Usually a special breadboard and bread knife, again reserved for Shabbat, also find their place on the table under the challah cover."
Why is the purpose of a challah cover?
A challah cover is used primarily as a remembrance of the miracle of manna. During the forty-year sojourn in the Wilderness, Bnei Yisrael subsisted on manna, which was between layers of dew to maintain its freshness (Rashi on Exodus 16:14). Therefore we always serve challah with a tablecloth or challah board beneath, and a cloth cover above, thereby re-living the miracle of manna during the Shabbat meals.
Challah cover as a wedding present
Challah covers make a fabulous wedding gift -- regardless of the couple's level of observance: you can find one to fit your budget (prices range from $15 to $100 and more), they are light and not fragile if you need to ship them, and you don't have to worry that maybe another wedding guest also brought one. They also are a fabulous gift idea for birthdays, anniversaries or anyone who simply wants to enhance their Shabbat table.
Materials & Sizes
Challah coves are most commonly made of velvet, terylene, satin or silk. Velvet challah covers are generally a very dark navy, while terylene, satin and silk challah covers usually have a white base cover. The type of material used determines not only the durability, texture and sheen, but also what type of design elements feasible. Brocade fringes are often added.
The most common fabric is velvet. Keep in mind that good quality velvet costs significantly more than cheap velvet. You won't be able to see the difference in a product image on a computer screen, but you can discern the difference immediately if you see two in front of you. It should not come as a surprise if one velvet challah cover costs $25 and a similar looking one costs $45.
Another fabric option is raw silk. With this type of challah cover you are not paying so much for the material, but more for the embroidery work. A charming machine-embroidery design might cost just $20 or $25, but on the other hand you might find yourself irresistibly captivated by a hand-embroidery design that increases the price to $40 or $50. The complexity of the embroidery often contributes to the price.
A third possibility is linen. A linen challah cover looks luxurious and stately, and will hold up very well over the years. Hues tend to be more subdued compared to a raw silk challah cover.
You may note a correlation between the type of material and style of the embroidery work. Velvet and cloth challah covers tend to be on the more conservative end of the design spectrum, while silk and raw silk tend to feature modern designs. But that's not a hard and fast rule! Today, many top-notch Judaica artists have moved beyond the classic use of velvet, and they now use this plush fabric to create fresh, contemporary styles. For example, Kaftor Vaferach, which is based in Jerusalem, employs designs halfway between classic and contemporary, using vibrant colors on velvet.
Pay attention to the size. In recent years manufacturers have begun offering very large velvet challah covers. High-end traditional embroidery companies, such as Malchut Jerusalem, often make many of their challah covers in small, medium and large. Obviously this is also a factor in the price you pay. Since high quality velvet is costly, larger challah covers are priced higher.
The bigger the better? Not necessarily. A large challah cover makes a big impression when given as a gift, but may not be so practical for a young couple. While a large, high-end challah cover may make a strong impression and greatly enhance the appearance of your Shabbos table, keep function in mind as well.
Traditional or modern?
If you're a traditionalist, you'll likely be drawn to deep, dark velvet. Classic velvet covers feature a monochrome background of royal blue, dark blue or burgundy velvet paired with silver (or contrasting silver and gold) embroidery threads. Gold or silver fringe typically completes the look.
Like velvet, crisp white satin offers a traditional look. Shiny satin covers tend to feature elaborate silver or gold embroidery, and a fringed or scalloped edge. Like velvet challah covers, satin covers are now available in up-to-date styles.
Some shoppers prefer the look and feel of non-traditional, natural fabrics. Popular lightweight fabrics include cotton, linen and raw silk, all of which have more "flow" than velvet. Suede and faux leather are luxurious heavyweight options that hold their shape beautifully over time. Artisans who work with unconventional fabrics have a thorough understanding of color, texture, and design.
Modern designs have their own advantages: They add flare to the table, and the challah cover may match your table settings and your room décor better if you choose something more contemporary.
Traditional challah cover designs
Usually the base color for classic challah covers is a very dark navy blue, but white ones are also sold. In recent years many of the manufacturers have begun incorporating metallic decorative elements that enhance the design -- and increase the price.
It's very common for the design to frame or surround the words Shabbat v'Yom Tov in Hebrew, which is sort of a “default” text element.
Traditional design elements include wine, Shabbat candles, challah loaves and vine patterns. Velvet challah covers often feature relatively conservative designs.
The price is a significant factor in the beauty of the final product since quality velvet costs significantly more and professional embroidery work costs the manufacturer much more than mediocre embroidery.
For the budget-conscious, cotton and terylene challah covers with tassels are widely available.
In a departure from typical design concepts, in recent years challah covers with no design, and just the words of Kiddush, have appeared and become popular. Whether this should fall under the rubric of traditional or modern is somewhat debatable.
Velvet has long been the fabric of choice for traditional challah covers, since the plush look of dark velvet lends a stately look to your Shabbat table. Typically the more expensive challah covers are made of higher quality velvet and employ superior embroidery work, and may be further embellished with decorative elements that add a unique sparkle.
In recent years many manufacturers of traditional velvet challah covers have begun offering them in small, medium and large. The smaller sizes suffice for most people, but a larger size might be right for those who would like a very impressive challah cover on their table, or who simply serve two very large challahs.
Traditional challah cover makers have also begun offering a large selection of white brocaded items, rather than dark velvet, often with the same or similar designs.
Contemporary challah cover designs
In recent years that has been a shift from dark challah covers, generally velvet with silver embroidery, to modern challah covers with a light base color and vibrant designs.
Modern and creative designs are made on various different types of fabric. Some of the leading names of contemporary challah cover designers in Israel include Yair Emanuel, Barbara Shaw, Rikmat Elimelech, Ronit Gur and Avi Luvaton.
Modern designs can include almost anything, but the more common elements include pomegranates, the Seven Species, wheat stalks, Jerusalem scenes, Oriental designs and floral patterns.
Challah cover makers whose styles are difficult to pigeonhole include Rikmat Elimelech, Ronit Gur and Dorit Judaica.
On the modern end of the spectrum, among the best-known challah covers makers in Israel are Barbara Shaw and Yair Emanuel. Barbara Shaw's designs are highly original, with color schemes and motifs that nearly jolt, even though the design elements are not very complex.
Yair Emanuel has amassed a very large repertoire of modern challah cover designs over the years. Using organza silk and raw silk, as well as linen and faux leather, he often makes use of motifs including abstract Jerusalem panorama sketches, the Old City Gates, the Western Wall, pomegranates, floral patterns, vines, wheat sheaves, patchwork designs, the Seven Species and Oriental designs.
Differing from Yair Emanuel somewhat, Ronit Gur's challah cover designs imbue a certain sense of modernity while favoring subtler colors and designs. Many of her challah covers, in fact, make use of a empty space, with localized, but striking design elements. A few of her designs seem to be influenced by contemporary and abstract art. Working out of her design studio in Northern Israel, Ronit Gur’s work boasts superb stitching and finishing work.
Dorit Judaica offers a half dozen challah covers featuring modern designs that make full use of the available space -- like a painter filling his or her entire canvas. Some have very vibrant colors, while two or three of her designs are almost stark, making us of a single hue on white.
Why sell challah covers?
Although Ben’s Tallit Shop has always focused primarily on tallit and tzitzit products, we ventured into the realm of challah covers for a very simple reason: there is considerable overlap between tallit bags and challah covers.
Many of the Judaica companies that manufacture tallit bags also offer a selection of challah covers. In fact, some of the design elements can be identical. For example, Yair Emanuel has a wheat stalks design they use on one of their challah covers as well as on one of their tallit bags.
This overlap allows us to leverage our deep, longstanding connections in the Judaica industry in Israel to offer a unique selection of challah covers.