The Braidy Bunch

There is a lot more behind the braids than one might think, historically, symbolically and anecdotally.

Honey Halla (photo credit: ALEX RINGER)
Honey Halla
(photo credit: ALEX RINGER)
When people think halla, two things pop into mind: Shabbat or festivals and braids.
We usually take the braids for granted – that is just the way a halla is supposed to look, right? Interestingly however, there is a lot more behind the braids than one might think, historically, symbolically and anecdotally.
We will begin with a little historical trivia to whet the appetite. The braided halla is a relative newcomer in Jewish tradition, emanating in the early 1500s in Southern Germany. The consensus of food historians is that the braided shape of the halla, then called “Berches” or “Taatscher,” was copied from a braided Sunday loaf baked by non-Jewish Germans. The tradition of baking this special Sabbath loaf then spread to Poland and Lithuania.
Despite its supposedly non-Jewish origins, the braided form of the halla subsequently acquired Jewish symbolism and meaning. The intertwining braids symbolize the love between a man and his wife and between man and God.
The most common traditional braiding methods for Shabbat hallot are either three braids or six braids. The symbolism of the three-braid halla is derived from the references to Shabbat in the Ten Commandments. In Deuteronomy 5:12 the word used is shamor (“observe”) and in Exodus 20:8 zachor (“remember”). Commentators explain that both words were uttered simultaneously by God on Mount Sinai. The three braids symbolize the concepts shamor, zachor and bedibur ehad (“uttered simultaneously”).
The custom of the six-braid halla is an extension of the above, recalling that on Shabbat one is required to recite the blessing on two loaves of bread.
Everyone knows that hallot for Rosh Hashana are round, but do you know why? On a spiritual level, the round shape is supposed to symbolize the circle of life, the cycle of the year.
That is what I always understood to be the reason for the round shape... until I became a professional baker.
I was then indoctrinated by my older and more experienced colleagues as to the real reason for the round halla.
The time around Rosh Hashana is a hectic time for commercial bakers. The volume of baking is more than quadrupled compared to a regular weekend.
It takes much longer to braid a halla with three or six braids that it does to take one braid and quickly gather it up in a spiral, round shape. This allows the harried bakers to quadruple their volume in the same time! The truth is, that while certain braided shapes such as the three-braid, six-braid or round hallot are steeped in tradition, very few people actually know about it or adhere to it, and hallot now appear in myriad shapes and forms using anything from one to 10 braids, Winston knots, flower shapes and others. Creativity (and utility) seem to have supplanted tradition.
Many bakers are intimidated by braiding. It is actually very easy and a lot of fun. You may find a multitude of videos and tutorials for braiding techniques on the Internet. The main tricks of the trade to remember when braiding are to flour the braids sufficiently that they don’t stick together and hamper the braiding process, to taper the braids so that the resulting halla is fatter in the middle than on the ends, and to tuck the unseemly ends underneath the halla after braiding to give it a professional appearance.
Whatever your halla shape or braiding technique, whether it has a basis in established tradition and symbolism or not, remember this: the fact that you are preparing a special bread to honor Shabbat or the festival is what it is all about – elevating a simple staple food to something more spiritual and uplifting.
Wishing you all a happy and sweet new year! Honey Halla Sponge: 2½ Tbsp. flour 1 Tbsp. water 1 small pinch powdered instant yeast (a few granules only) Mix and leave for 12 hours covered.
Final Dough: 2¼ cups flour 3 tsp. instant powdered yeast 2 tsp. salt ¼ cup sugar 1 egg ¹⁄3 cup water 1 Tbsp. oil 1 Tbsp. honey Sponge Mix all ingredients until fully incorporated. Knead for 10 minutes by hand (seven minutes by machine).
Leave to rise covered for one hour. Punch down and braid into halla shape. Leave to rise for another two hours. Baste with egg wash (half and half egg and water mix). Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake at 180° for 20-25 minutes.
Master baker Les Saidel, originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Ginot Shomron with his wife Sheryl and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (, that specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking and is the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.