The High Holy Days are a time of frantic activity for bakers – home and professional – as they scamper about trying to try keep pace with the demand placed by three consecutive days of festive meals. Although there is an undeniable culinary aspect to the holiday, the main emphasis is deeper, more spiritual in nature. In this vein, I would like to devote this diatribe not to the less mundane aspects of bread and baking but rather to the more ethereal and uplifting.
In a Jewish context, when one thinks of “holy” bread (and I am not referring to bagels), three examples spring to mind – matza, showbread and halla.
Some biblical interpretations maintain that the Tree of Knowledge from which Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden was in fact wheat. Not wheat in its present form, but some kind of “wheat tree” upon which the fruits were edible in their raw state. This theory is given credence by the fact that man’s punishment for the Original Sin was that he should eat bread “by the sweat of his brow.” Henceforth, the “wheat tree” was lowered in stature; and to benefit from it, man had to invest time and energy to elevate it to edible status.
Be that as it may, the first indisputable “holy” bread mentioned in the Bible is matza. As everyone knows, due to their hasty exodus from Egyptian bondage, the ancient Israelites did not have time for their bread to rise, resulting in unleavened matza. This bread, eaten exclusively during the festival of Passover, also appears as part of the holiday’s sacrificial ritual, eaten together with the bitter herbs and the sacrificial lamb.
The haste factor relating to the matza tradition is only one reason that we are commanded to eat it. Another, deeper, reason is that the Almighty wanted to clearly differentiate between the highly inflated ancient Egyptian philosophy and culture, devoid of true value and meaning, and the Jewish culture.
Egypt of the period was a leader in the fields of commerce, agriculture, engineering and baking. Their multitudinous breads were typified by yeast fermentation. Matza lacks the inflated “emptiness” of the typical Egyptian bread, concentrating rather on the substance.
This theme carried through in the showbread, part of the ancient Jewish Temple ritual in which leavened products were prohibited.
The 12 unleavened loaves arranged on the sacrificial table are rich in symbolism and folklore. According to scripture, these breads remained miraculously warm and fresh for an entire week. Research has shown that the showbread was made with fine semolina flour using rising agents, such as sodium bicarbonate, instead of yeast. Central to the theme, again, was the absence of yeast.
Following the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of world Jewry, this spiritual mainstay of Jewish bread baking faded. Replacing it was halla, a yeasty bread ritually eaten on Shabbat and all Jewish holidays except Passover. The halla shape is derived from kabbalistic symbolism, the intertwining braids signifying love between man and his fellow man and man and his Creator.
Halla eaten during the High Holy Days is round in shape, as opposed to the elongated form eaten year round, supposedly to symbolize the circle of life. In addition to this deeper significance of the round shape, there is a more practical basis. To keep pace with the higher volume of hallot required in this period, bakers braid the halla round, a simpler braid, taking less time.
It is interesting to note that the Yemenite community, perhaps more than any other, has managed to adhere to the ancient symbolism of holy bread. Their hallot are flatbreads reminiscent of the ancient showbread and are customarily arranged in a similar pattern to the table in the ancient Temple.
Whether your holiday breads are Ashkenazi style hallot or Yemenite style flatbreads, what is important is to concentrate on the symbolism and to attempt to elevate all aspects of our physical existence to something more spiritual.
Happy New Year.
Spelt Honey Cake
✔ ⅓ cup honey
✔ 2 egg yolks
✔ 2 Tbsp. canola oil
✔ 2⁄3 cup fine spelt flour
✔ ½ tsp. baking powder
✔ ½ cup sugar No. 1
✔ 3 egg whites
✔ 2 Tbsp. sugar No. 2
Whisk honey, egg yolks and oil. Separately mix flour, baking powder and sugar No. 1.
Add dry ingredients to honey mixture and mix thoroughly. Whip egg whites and sugar No. 2 to medium peaks. Fold egg whites into honey batter. Pour into an ungreased loaf aluminum baking pan. Bake for 30-35 minutes at 170°.
Master baker Les Saidel, originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Ginot Shomron with his wife, Sheryl, and four children. He is the owner of Saidels Bakery (www.saidels.com), specializing in handmade, organic health breads and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.