“You shall take choice flour and bake of it twelve loaves, two-tenths of a measure for each loaf.” (Leviticus 24:5)
The American sociologist William Graham Sumner coined the term folkways to describe the informal norms or customs of a society (as opposed to behaviors legislated by law). So, for example, placing two challot (plural of challah, the Shabbat loaf of bread) on the Shabbat table is a matter of halacha, Jewish law (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 117b). Using braided challot, on the other hand, is simply a custom, or Jewish folkway.
Chana Weisberg, Director of Editorial Management at Chabad.org explains that the six days of the week represent the diversity of life, while Shabbat represents the unity of life. Now, most challot are made from three dough strands, so if there are two challot, there are six strands, each representing one day of the week. Braiding the strands brings them together in a unified manner, just as Shabbat does with the diversity in our lives. The challot, then, are not only used on Shabbat, but also represent Shabbat physically.
Parashat Emor, which focuses on the ritual aspects of the Jewish calendar, directs the kohanim, the priests, to bring twelve loaves of bread to the Temple every Shabbat, and to arrange them in two rows of six, as an eternal commitment to God. The braided challot on the Shabbat table evoke the memory of this ritual, with the “bumps” in the braid multiplying the two challot into twelve.
Of course, it is impossible to know if these explanations are the true reasons for braiding challah for Shabbat. It may not really matter, though, because a folkway with thousands of years of tradition behind it carries its own historical weight. Ultimately, the question is what meaning does the braided challah carry for you?
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,