Roundabout Rosh Hashana

At Rosh Hashana, the requirement for hallot is much greater than at any other holiday.

People eat Challah bread (photo credit: REUTERS)
People eat Challah bread
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is common knowledge that hallot are typically round on Rosh Hashana, but do you know why? We would like to believe that the shape is symbolic and embodies the circle of life, symbolizing the closing and opening circles of the outgoing and upcoming years. Without wanting to dampen your inspiration regarding the symbolism of the round Rosh Hashana halla, I must inform you of an alternative theory as to the origin of the round halla on Rosh Hashana, one that as a professional baker I can attest to its veracity.
At Rosh Hashana, the requirement for hallot is much greater than at any other holiday, requiring commercial bakers to produce a much larger quantity in a short time. The halla that takes the shortest time to braid is a single-braid halla, gathered spirally in a round shape.
The theory is that the shape originated out of practical necessity and not because of any spiritual symbolism. I prefer to believe that is a combination of the two, with elements of both the spiritual and practical.
Although this is the most prevalent shape for Rosh Hashana hallot, there are many other customs and shapes among the various communities. One interesting shape is a halla in the shape of a crown, symbolizing the King of Kings who sits in judgment over us on Rosh Hashana.
The Jews of Rhodes bake a special halla for Rosh Hashana called churek, which is a spherical, round loaf with a crispy crust, sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Some have the custom to bake a halla in the shape of a ladder for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, entreating God to allow us to ascend the “ladder of life.”
However, it is not only what the halla looks like, but what it tastes like. The predominant theme for Rosh Hashana hallot is that they be sweet, echoing the symbolism of the honey, a symbol of a sweet upcoming year. Many add honey to the dough of the halla, while some increase the sugar content, while others add raisins and other sweet fruit to the dough.
A custom among Turkish and other Sephardi communities unities is to bake a round halla with pureed pumpkin in the dough called pan de calabaza. On Rosh Hashana eve it is customary to hold a “seder” where various foods are eaten for their symbolism. One of these is a gourd or pumpkin, symbolizing a blessing to grant us strength and a thick skin like a pumpkin.
Whatever your preferred shape or taste, you may want to try experiment with these variations for something different on your Rosh Hashana table this year, something that will arouse curiosity and promote discussion.
I want to take this opportunity to wish you all an amazing New Year. May your lives be as sweet as your baking!
The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, lives in Ginot Shomron with his wife and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (, which specializes in training and education in the field of artisan baking, and is a consultant in cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.
2½ cups flour
¹⁄3 cup water
1 egg
½ Tbsp. salt
2 tsp. instant powdered yeast
¹⁄3 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. oil
1 pinch ginger
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ cup pumpkin puree
Boil or bake pumpkin to make ½ cup puree. Let cool.
Mix dough ingredients and knead for 10 minutes. If dough is very watery, add a little flour. If too stiff, add a little water. Let rise for 1½ hours. Punch down and roll into a long single braid. Shape spirally in a round shape, tuck the end underneath and place on baking tray. Baste with egg wash (50% egg/50% water) and sprinkle with sesame. Let rise for 1½ to 2 hours. Bake at 180º for 35-40 minutes.