In answer to the question in the title… well, my vote is with the latter (cast yours below in the Comments section!).
When I posted a reminder on facebook last night to think about including a key in the first post-Pesach challahs (see this old post to find out why), somebody posted a link to this article (“Shlissel Challah – The Loaf of Idolatry?”) and someone else recommended this one (“Serious Segulah or Pagan Piffle?”).
One person wrote, “the origins of shlissel challah is completely avodah zarah [idol worship].” Ouch. One commenter in a thread of one of the posts above wrote that a prominent rav “called this shlissel challah minhag "ridiculous", a violation of nichush [divination], and told his wife not to "dare" do it.”
I read the articles – really, I did. I love fascinating new information. I love controversy.
The first article (“Loaf of Idolatry?”) made me sad, partly because his article claims to be all scholarly but he doesn't really prove his point at all. It’s full of footnotes and nicely formatted, but it mainly lacks substance. Just because Christians did it did something in Europe doesn't mean they started it (he says that they did it, but not that we didn't). As one commenter pointed out, we do have (and I had seen but then forgotten) bread stamps from the time of the 2nd bais hamikdash.
As for the charge of nichush [divination], this is totally NOT the intention of that prohibition, which (in my limited understanding) is more against auguring by natural signs. Like whether, if a rodent sees its shadow, winter will end sooner, or later, or whatever. We’re not allowed to say the ending of winter has anything whatsoever to do with the cloud conditions over Punxsutawny Phil.
The author of the first paper (“Loaf of Idolatry!”) also claims those who use a key view "a die-cut piece of brass as an intermediary between them and the Almighty." Just so you know where he’s coming from.
There’s a reflex these days, in the religious community, against doing anything that smacks of “what the goyim do.” I was even told at one point that it might not be such a good idea to decorate our houses with greenery at Shavuos (a well-documented and longstanding tradition) because it’s too similar to the Christian practice of bringing a tree and garlands into the house in December.
In the case of this article, I remain unconvinced.
I am most definitely against placing too much faith in segulos [auspicious deeds or objects], which has been way abused, if frum magazine ads are any indication. There are always people willing to prey on the gullible or desperate by selling “charms” in various forms.
But if you think of the key as an object to help us focus our kavannah [intentions] at a particular time of year... I say yea… and yay (cuz it involves bread, which I love)!
There’s a BIG difference in mindset between thinking, "this holy key will 'unlock' my income!" and thinking, "I hope this key symbolizes good things to come" (presumably with effort and prayer). To me, this is a lot like what we do with various symbolic foods at Rosh Hashanah.
Israeli blogger Ester from Kosher & Frugal DID post a sensible warning we should all keep in mind:
More from Ester:
“A couple of words of warning if you are going to bake your house key into the challah. First of all, keys are notoriously dirty things, as they are found in the bottoms of purses and pockets, dropped on the floor, tossed on top of the circular in the junk mail, etc. Make sure you give that key a nice washing with dish detergent before baking it in. You should also wrap it carefully in aluminum foil before placing it in the challah dough. Second, unless you want to use up all that prosperity on an unplanned trip to the dentist's office, you should place it in a very easy to locate spot, right in the center-top of the challah, so that you can find it right away when you serve your challah. You don't want to be biting into that key. Seriously.”
So now you know.
Although in past years I have wavered on whether or not to wrap the keys, I definitely did this year and will continue to do so as long as we keep on doing this minhag… which will, God willing, be for many years to come.
(I used tinfoil this year because it provided a tighter seal than parchment paper, which I’ve sometimes used in past)
*** LATE-BREAKING NEWS! As I write this, I discovered this new article, which seems very authoritative, supporting the practice or at least not relegating it to the trash bin of “maybe Christians did it at one time so we definitely shouldn’t ever ever ever.”
This 2010 poll on the wonderful frum women’s site, imamother.com (still have no idea how to pronounce it - “imma mother” or “I’m a mother”? and I wonder if the ambiguity is intentional) reported that 61% of the 88 respondents bake a key into their challahs, while 17% don’t do anything special the Shabbos after Pesach. Another 13% bake challahs in the shape of a key, which is a fascinating variation that I do want to try someday.
SO, nu? Are you baking schlissel / key challah? If not, why not, and if so… how do YOU do it???