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Challah: a bread baked to celebrate Adam and Eve’s birthday

At first sight, it looks like an oddly-shaped French brioche: sweet, aromatic and generally made of braided dough made with flour, eggs, sugar and honey. There’s no dairy in it (neither butter nor milk), as commanded by the dietary regulations of the kashrut. That’s challah, the bread eaten in the great Jewish festivities. For it to be suitable for the celebration, the person who has made it must set aside some of the dough, as a reminded of the tithe that was once given to the Levites.

It is one of the many contributions of the Jewish cuisine to world gastronomy, although much less known than another baked Jewish delicacy: the bagel, brought by the Ashkenazim immigrants to New York –and, from there, to the world. Like the bagel, the challah is usually decorated with poppy or sesame seeds, in memory of the manna that rained down on the Israelites as they wandered through the desert on their way to the Holy Land. A subtle and delightful reminder of what a pilgrimage means.

Pilgrimages in Judaism


The challah is the quintessential Shabbat bread. But the one baked and eaten in Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a special one. Not only because of its shape (braided and arranged as a circumference), but also because of its ingredients: it must include raisins, and it is eaten dipped in honey.

A circumference suggests a cycle. The cycle of life, and the solar year, are thought as circular. The shape of this challah points at the seasons of the year, yet also to the wheel of fortune –as no one knows for sure what the new year will bring. But, in addition, the challah of Rosh Hashanah, according to the famous Rabbi Moises Sofer, is a sign of the blessings that Heaven reserves for the year that begins –hence the raisins and honey.

Rosh Hashanah is much more than a celebration of the New Year as a simple calendar date. The holiday holds deep spiritual significance: it is supposed to be the day on which Adam and Eve came to life. It is only with human life that a difference awareness of time is born. In contrast, the New Year also recalls the divine eternity. In fact, the liturgy celebrated in Rosh Hashanah implies with the coronation of God as king of all creation –the challah, round as it is, is reminiscent of a crown.

Not coincidentally, the round challah dipped in honey is also eaten during the following week, when another important Jewish holiday, Sukkot, takes place. Remembering their past forty-year pilgrimage in the desert, each family is supposed to leave home for seven days and camp in a tent –whether in their balconies, in the garden, or in the fields. In the old days, everyone would go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Sukkot, and the honey-filled challah was a symbol of the sweet goal at the end of the pilgrimage.

This post is also available in: Español Italiano

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