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Jill Crimmings smoothly rolls three balls of challah dough into even strands. She lifts them, joining them together with a pinch, before laying them down to braid.

But the loaf of challah, the traditional Jewish celebratory bread, that Crimmings is shaping is far from conventional. The associate rabbi at Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka is creating a portrait of the Torah's pharaoh in twisted dough.

Crimmings bakes a new work of art every Friday in her Minnetonka kitchen, braiding bread to illustrate a portion of the Torah. She shares the end result on Instagram (@braid_the_parashah) and her own website (braidtheparashah.com), with photos and a caption that explains the meaning she finds in each loaf.

The endeavor twines Crimmings' love for baking and parshanut, a term that describes biblical explanation, interpretation and, as she calls it, "meaning-making through the eyes of the rabbis."

Challah illustrating the parting of the Red Sea in the Book of Exodus.
Challah illustrating the parting of the Red Sea in the Book of Exodus.

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

"To me, it felt like a natural way to combine two of my passions into one," said Crimmings, who plans to bake her way through the entire Torah cycle this year. She's already braided the parting of the sea, a big-eyed, intricately plaited frog to illustrate the second plague and a fanciful well with blue sprinkles, from the story of Eliezer meeting Rebecca.

Week by week, she's finding that sharing a religious teaching via a loaf of bread feeds her congregation and her creativity.

A weekly practice

Crimmings was one of the many people who started baking regularly in the early days of the pandemic. She had baked challah before, but she started baking every week during the first wave of shutdowns.

She watched how-to videos online and sought out challah experts on Instagram (like @challah_cat and @peppelahchallah) to learn new braids and techniques. She quickly discovered an entire world of challah artists, who shared images of challah made into everything from twisting trees to a Sponge Bob Square Pants in hashtags like #challahart or #challahbraiding.

"I fell in love with the practice of baking challah in preparation for Shabbat," she said. "In addition to that, through my work as a rabbi, I am regularly giving sermons every Friday during services. So that's a parallel tradition that I have in preparation for Shabbat."

Then she realized that she could combine the two.

"Why not do it [bake challah] every week in a way that brings forward something significant from the Torah portion?" Crimmings asked herself.

In October, Crimmings created her first Torah illustration in dough, baking a challah moon and sun to illustrate the creation story of how the sun came to shine brightest.

In that initial post, Crimmings wrote, "I'm considering what it would have looked like if things had gone differently. What if the moon was the greater light? Would it have been possible to have had two great lights that wore the same crown? Equal in size and lumination, partners instead of adversaries, working together with God to bring and share light to all."

Recipe for meaning

The process begins well before Friday's baking day, as Crimmings looks over the Torah portion and thinks about what she might create.

"My first step is always trying to identify some kind of symbol or object that I think I will be capable of re-creating in bread form," she said, "I'm trying to think of something fun and creative but also not too hard."

Rabbi Jill Crimmings finished her challah with an egg wash before placing them into the oven.
Rabbi Jill Crimmings finished her challah with an egg wash before placing them into the oven.

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Thursday is her deadline to decide on what to bake. Then, she sits down to study the passage and write about it.

By 6 a.m. on Friday, she's making the dough in her KitchenAid mixer while her kids get ready for school. She punches the dough down a few hours later. Once it has risen again, the braiding begins.

While she doesn't sketch out a design, Crimmings sometimes does a Google image search to get ideas. After determining what kinds of braids she needs — three-strand, six-strand, round — she begins.

"I always try to get started with the braiding by two o'clock," she said. "It just really depends on the level of difficulty and intricacy that I'm doing that week as to how long it takes. Sometimes it'll take me 20 minutes. One time it took me over an hour."

The oven time is always the same: 30 minutes to bake.

Sharing the message

Crimmings and her three children eat some of her challah as part of their Shabbat dinner, but she usually ends up baking as many as six loaves a week.

She gives away loaf after loaf, some to members of her synagogue. Because she's been asked to share her challah techniques, she's hoping to soon teach how-to classes online and in person.

Linda Hulbert, a Bet Shalom congregant, said she has enjoyed watching Crimmings' breads become more and more inventive.

"One week she used the challah loaf for the blessing over the bread and it was the first time I had seen the scale — the loaf representing the splitting of the sea was enormous! In the photos it did not look as large," Hulbert said. "She is so knowledgeable, insightful and authentic in sharing her feelings and the messages she gets from Torah. I look forward with great anticipation each week for her next creation."

As the weeks go by, Crimmings said, the reach of her project is greater than she imagined it would be.

"I do feel that I've been reaching more people through this project than I ever have just delivering a sermon," she said. "The message might be the same, but the way that you deliver it does have an impact on how it's received and how people connect to it. And so it's been really powerful to me to be able to reach people who never come to services and are finding meaning in this project."

She's also embracing her own creativity.

"I love it. To me, it's such an important outlet," Crimmings said. "The alignment of the creativity of the art and the exploration of text and weaving that together has just been a really meaningful experience for me."