High Holiday Challot Shape Our Prayers | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

High Holiday Challot Shape Our Prayers


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Shapes for High Holyday challot (Rabbi Deborah Prinz)

Using Challah as a Creative Outlet to Sculpt Your Wishes

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Homemade Eastern European High Holiday challot have traditionally displayed designs such as ladders, birds, and hands. These images layer onto Biblical texts and imbue the breads with almost mystical powers. The living, yeasty dough contains life itself, an especially potent theme for the season’s metaphorical Book of Life. Such artistic breads come to represent Jewish hopes and aspirations for the New Year, especially for endangered Jewish communities.

Having learned of them only recently as I researched babkas, I found a brief  account published in 1955 by ethnographer Avrom Rechtman where he recalled his mother’s fondness for such usages, a piece that he published in the journal, Yidisher Folklor. Sweetly rendered by Rechtman, these recollections of his mother’s baking stem back to pre-1900 from Proskurov(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmelnytskyi,_Ukraine) in Western Ukraine. Jews lived there since about 1569, and it was, unfortunately, the region of a series of anti-Jewish pogroms. Rechtman’s mother’s repertoire included rolling the dough into a very long string, wrapping it around and around to symbolize the unwrapping of the previous year and longing for a new year wrapped in good fortune and plenty. He further described these challah versions:

Birds: Dough formed as birds, according to Rechtman, hint at our prayers flying up to heaven. Others note that they evoke messengers who deliver the verdict for the year ahead and how it will unfold. Or, some may see it as a sign that all sins should fly away. Eighteenth century Ukrainian Jews reserved birds for the eve of Yom Kippur. All seek God’s protection (Isaiah 31:5), “As birds hovering, so will the God of hosts protect Jerusalem.” This would have been especially comforting for persecuted Jewish communities.

Ladders: Ladders were also used for the Yom Kippur pre-fast meal to suggest prayers rising heavenward, as reported by Rechtman. Motl of Pinsk says that the ladder symbolized the ups and downs of life. For me it recalls the narrative of Jacob laying his head on a rock to sleep, having escaped his angry brother, Esau. He dreamt of angels ascending and descending a ladder (Genesis 28:12). Though he was in a hard place, he felt the divine presence.

Hands: Hand-shaped challah for this time of year signified the hope that the Divine author would write a good note (kvitl) from the heavens, Rechtman recalled. His mother reserved this emblem for the end of the cycle of the fall holidays, Hoshana Rabba, the holy day associated with the traditional final day of judgment, the symbolic closing of the Book of Life. Or, the hand of friendship offered the forgiveness we seek, as Lithuanians teach. The hamsa also promises protection.

Inspired by Jewish prayers and texts, these challah designs might express our prayers for 5780.

Do It Yourself?

You could design loaves using this recipe from Smitten Kitchen. Or, you could use this shaping dough recipe to top a standard round or spiraled challah

Here are some tips for shaping birds and more creative challah designs.


No'am Ben-Yossef, Bread: Daily and Divine 

Rechtman, A. "Symbolic Figures Adorning Holiday Khale: Key, Ladder, Hand and Bird" in Yidisher Folklor I, no 2 June 1955: 45 Yiddish (Thank you to Yakov Blum for the translation of the Rechtman article)

Freda Reider, The Hallah Book: Recipes, History, and Traditions

Stella Cohen and Marc Hoberman, Stella's Sephardic Table: Jewish family recipes from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes

Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz lectures about chocolate and Judaism around the world based on her book, On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao (second edition, Jewish Lights). She co-curated the exhibit “Semi[te] Sweet: On Jews and Chocolate” for Temple Emanu-El’s Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum, New York City, now available to travel to your community. Most recently she has launched the chocolatebabkaproject, an exploration of celebratory breads.

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