"From the time of the Talmud, a fanciful combination of word play, visual association and flavors designated a whole series of foods as totems for the year to come," wrote Ruth Abusch-Magder in her 1998 doctoral dissertation on domestic Jewish culture.
"The head of a sheep or fish, like the round challah, was traditionally eaten because of its physical form. It symbolizes our desire to come out 'ahead' in the coming year. Dates, fenugreek, pumpkins and leeks were all eaten because of linguistic links between the Hebrew names of these foods and requests for the year to come. The puns are subtle and often stretch meaning and pronunciation, such as Gilda Angel's blessing for leek: 'Like as we eat this leek may our luck never lack in the year to come.'"
According to the same principle, some studiously avoid certain foods. These include nuts, because the Hebrew letters of the word for nut, egoz, have the same numerical value as the Hebrew word for sin, and garlic, because the Hebrew word for it, shum, also means "nothing."
Of all these traditions, the most widely observed is that of the round challah, whose very form speaks volumes. It may even be the closest to universally practiced traditions among Jews, irrespective of their ethnic origins. What's more, the round challah is the true form of the original round showbread loaves that were kept on the Temple altar — 12 flat loaves, for each of the tribes, in two stacks. It wasn't until the 15th century that challot were made in any other shape.
"Then many German Jews adopted a new form of Sabbath bread, an oval, braided loaf modeled on popular Teutonic bread," writes Gil Marks in "The World of Jewish Cooking." "In some places, the Sabbath bread took on the biblical name challah. Eventually, this braided loaf… made its way eastward, becoming the most prevalent form of Sabbath bread among eastern Europeans."
While the style may have been adopted for its beauty, some justified this borrowing on the basis that braiding or twisting was a pun on twisting off the little piece of first dough as a reminder of the Temple sacrifices. Impelled by the concept of hiddur mitzvah — enhancing and elevating the mitzvah — "the braided challah loaf was further embellished, the shape and appearance usually reflecting Jewish legend and lore, most notably the biblical manna," Marks writes. These additions included eggs and saffron, to emulate the yellow color of manna, sweeteners symbolic of its taste, and seeds "sprinkled over the dough, as the manna fell in the form of coriander seeds."
While Sephardim have since extensively adopted the braided loaf as their Shabbat bread, Marks notes that this frenzy of enhancement led some Sephardi authorities to question whether the Hamotzi blessing "could properly be recited over these enriched loaves, since adding large amounts of eggs and sweetener actually transformed the finished product into a cake…"
Today, many reserve these extra enhancements for the challot of Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot. The traditions developed centuries ago in the Ukraine and Lithuania are the most imaginative in terms of symbolism.
A crown shape is a classic for Rosh Hashanah, alluding to God as the King of Kings. A challah in the shape of a ladder or a round one with a ladder on top serves as a reminder during the prefast Yom Kippur meal that God decides who will ascend and descend the ladder of life. Similarly, for Hoshanah Rabah, the ladder is meant to help our prayers reach heaven. A lesser-known tradition is embellishing the round challah with birds or shaping the entire challah in this form, recalling the phrase of Isaiah: 31:5, "As hovering birds, so will the Lord protect Jerusalem." Yet another theme is shaping the challah like a hand beseeching Heaven, or adding a motif of hands to the top of a round challah.
The advent of automatic bread makers has awakened many to the fundamental satisfaction of baking their own bread, often resulting in the creation of unusual shapes. Even those intimidated by working with yeast dough have learned to put away their concerns and enjoy the rewards.
Raisins are a classic addition to challah dough, but almost any dried fruit can be used. One Sephardi tradition is to add anise seeds to the dough. If using the ball technique, one can stick a date into each ball for good luck. But a favorite for many is lacing the dough with chunks of fresh apples, thus incorporating two holiday traditions in one.
Another best-of-all-worlds technique involves patting out the kneaded dough after the first rise, filling it with chopped apples (peeled, or not) which have been sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, sealing the dough over the filling, then cutting it into segments about five inches long. These are then placed in a round, 10-inch springform pan for the second rise and baking. The result? A beautiful round challah, which appears to have been ornately braided, filled with the fresh tastes of autumn and the loving hopes of the baker for a sweet and full New Year.
The Sweet Round Raisin Challah is from Montreal baker Marcy Goldman and appears in her book "Jewish Holiday Baking" (Doubleday, 1998).
SWEET ROUND RAISIN CHALLAH
Makes 1 large or 2 medium loaves.
2 Tbs. yeast
1-3/4 cups warm water
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup light honey
3-1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup oil
2 egg yolks
6 to 7 cups bread flour
1-1/2 cups dark or yellow raisins, plumped
2 Tbs. water
2 tsp. sugar
sesame seeds for sprinkling
In a large mixing bowl stir together the yeast, water and pinch of sugar. Let stand for 5 minutes to allow yeast to swell.
Briskly stir in remaining sugar, honey and salt. Then add oil, eggs, yolks and about 5 cups of the flour. Stir briefly and let stand 10 to 20 minutes to absorb flour. Knead, by hand or with a dough hook, adding remaining flour as required to make soft and elastic dough (about 10-12 minutes). Dough should leave sides of the bowl. If it is sticky, add small amounts of flour until dough is soft but no longer sticks. (Note: if you find dough too bulky for your mixer, divide in two. Knead one portion at a time).
Let dough rest on a lightly floured board for 10 minutes, then flatten and press in raisins as evenly as possible, folding dough over raisins. Place dough in a greased bowl and cover with greased plastic wrap and a damp tea towel or with a damp tea towel and place entire bowl inside a large plastic bag. Let rise in a draft-free place until doubled and puffy looking – anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes.
(If you are doing an overnight, cool rise, place dough in a large, lightly greased bowl and insert it into a large plastic bag. Refrigerate overnight. If you see the bread rising too quickly, open the bag, deflate dough and reseal. The next day, allow dough to warm up then gently deflate and proceed.)
Divide dough in two. For a turban-shaped New Year's challah, shape each section into a long rope (about 12 to 14 inches) that is thicker at one end, and coil it, starting with the thicker end and tucking the end in on top. You can also divide each dough section into three ropes, around 14 inches long, and make a traditional challah braid.
Place on a cornmeal-dusted baking sheet. In a small bowl, whisk together egg glaze ingredients. Brush loaf with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Let rise until puffy — around 20 to 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake bread for 12 minutes then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake another 25 minutes or until bread is evenly browned.
Can be frozen baked or unbaked. If freezing unbaked, let bread rise slowly, overnight in the fridge. Bring to room temperature before baking.