Citizens, we are rapidly approaching Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew: רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה, literally meaning the “beginning (also head) [of] the year”) – the Jewish New Year. The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה), literally “day [of] shouting/blasting.” There are any number of Rosh Hashanah recipes here on the blog, as well as a post about world food customs on this most celebratory of holidays – just search for them!
secretofchallah.com offers these explanations for the unique shape of Rosh Hashanah challah bread, which is round instead of a typical long oval loaf:
Rosh Hashanah round challah: It has become the widespread custom in many communities to bake round challahs in honor of Rosh Hashanah. The round shape symbolizes the yearly cycle and the “wheel of time,” the ascents and descents that a person experiences during his life. It also symbolizes perfection and infinity, expressing our hope for a perfect year, free of troubles and tribulations, a year of unlimited blessings.
The traditionally round challah of Rosh Hashanah is sometimes adorned with a “crown” made of a small braided ring of dough, commemorating the prayers of Rosh Hashanah proclaiming G-d King over the universe.
Eastern European Jews used to bake challah in the shape of a ladder to symbolize that on Rosh Hashanah G-d decides “Who will be humbled and who will be elevated,” as is stated in the prayers of Rosh Hashanah.
In some European communities, the custom was to bake round challah reminiscent of a bird peeking out of a nest (known as “foigel challah,” bird challah, in Yiddish). The reason for the custom: Just as G-d shows mercy to birds, so should He have mercy on us.
Lithuanian Jews had the custom to bake challah shaped like outstretched palms of the hand. The shape was meant to symbolize the hands of the kohens raised to bless the people during the Priestly Blessing (Birkat Kohanim).
The Jews of North Africa used to bake challah in the shape of a fish or a “chamsah,” a five-fingered hand, symbolizing good luck.
As further noted on crownheights.info:
Have you ever wondered why the challahs we eat during the month of Tishrei are round? Yes I know it is much easier for the bakery to make round challahs than braided ones. However this is a minhag in Jewish communities for hundreds of years, and people didn’t just do it out of convenience.
The Chasam Sofer (in Toras Moshe, mahadura tilisa, on Rosh Hashanah) explains there is a tremendous and indeed essential and fundamental difference between the braided ones to the round ones. The braided ones have a top and bottom or in other words a beginning and end. Yet the round ones don’t have a beginning or an end.
Just like many of the other things we eat on Rosh Hashanah are a sign or to symbolize something, so too, a round challah symbolizes that the brochos that Hashem bless each and every one of us amongst and together with the entire Jewish people, should be unlimited, without an end.
This teaches us an important lesson: The Alter Rebbe explains the preciousness of a minhag (a mere custom). While there is a biblical commandment to rejoice on Sukkos, that rejoicing doesn’t come close to the level of rejoicing by Simchas Beis Ha’shoei’va.
At the same token, the rejoicing by Simchas Beis Ha’Shoei’va which is rabbinic in nature pales in comparison to the level of rejoicing that is demonstrated by Simchas Torah, which is only a custom.
Yet it is the adherence to these customs that keeps the Jewish Nation strong.
My dough recipe uses both saffron and golden raisins and each braid is stuffed with diced apples to add additional sweetness, an idea I heartily cribbed from Tori Avey’s fantastic recipe. The braiding technique is also hers, and I hope you enjoy this fantastic, once-a-year bread – Happy New Year to all of my Citizens, Jewish or not! May the Jewish year of 5778 be a sweet one for us all!
Battle on – The Generalissimo