When we welcome Shabbat into our homes, we light and bless the Shabbat candles, say Kiddush and bless the wine/grape juice, and then bless the Challah. When setting up our table before we begin, we cover the two loaves of Challah. Often this cover is a beautiful art piece, like the photo above.
However, neither Jewish law nor custom requires the Challah cover to be anything specific. The Challot just need to be covered. You can use a napkin, paper towel, even a piece of paper.
A Jewish tradition called Hiddur Mitzvah (beautifying a Mitzvah) teaches us that if we are able to make a ritual more beautiful, and therefore more enjoyable, then we should make the effort to do so. Giving a Mitzvah, a commandment, enhanced beauty and enjoyment makes it more likely that we fickle humans will continue to perform that Mitzvah. This is why ritual objects are often quite artistic, and why we have traditions like placing flowers on the Shabbat dinner table.
Now that we know why the Challah cover is so beautiful, why do we even cover the Challah in the first place?
Our sages tell us that the order of the Shabbat blessings was simply logical. The candles come first, because they usher in the beginning of Shabbat. Blessing the Challah comes last, because it begins the meal. And so, the Kiddush, blessing the wine, is naturally nestled in between.
The Rabbis were concerned that, even though each of the symbols and rituals were equal in significance and meaning, that the Challah might feel sad, or even jealous, because it comes last. And so, we adopted the practice of covering the Challah, so that it doesn’t see the other two items being blessed first.
Of course, we know that the Challah can’t see, and doesn’t really have feelings. But this tradition teaches us that if Judaism has a practice to ensure that we don’t hurt the feelings of a Challah, how much more important is it that we ensure we don’t hurt the feelings of our family and friends!