Ethiopian, Yemeni or Ashkenazi? Traditions Behind Rosh Hashanah Breads

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Round challahs. Many communities make breads of this shape.
Round challahs. Many communities make breads of this shape.Credit: Matan Choufan

Mtzlal Redie Wossihun still remembers her mother preparing to bake the misowat (or masawayt) bread of mitzvot for the Jewish New Year. “She would go to the river to bathe, then she’d put on new clean clothes before starting to bake the bread, which she’d later give to the kessim,” she says, referring to Ethiopian-Jewish religious leaders.

The name of the bread hints at the special role it played during the holiday season; it comes from the Hebrew word mitzvah, which means either commandment or good deed.

>> A survival guide to Rosh Hashanah: How to make a holiday meal in 3 hours

Ethiopian Jews call Rosh Hashanah “Brenha Serkan,” which can be translated into “the rising of the light.” Traditionally, the kessim would go around Ethiopian villages to remind people of the upcoming holiday. In the morning, communities would gather at local synagogues for a long prayer that was held with the musical accompaniment of drums and cymbals. At the end of the prayer, the kessim blessed the misowat and the tella (an Ethiopian grain beer), before handing the bread to the crowds.

Misowat, sometimes called beraka or bracha (the Hebrew word for blessing), is a heavy and round bread that is made with sourdough starter or with yeast. In some regions it is prepared with honey and milk. Wossihun, who moved to Israel in 1980 from the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, seasons her misowat with fenugreek. Nowadays, she runs a restaurant called Mtzlal in the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva, where she serves traditional food from her homeland.

Another Rosh Hashanah specialty from Tigray is hanza, a round flatbread similar to injera. It is made from corn flour and then slathered with niter kibe (the Ethiopian spiced clarified butter), layering together two rounds of dough like a sandwich.

Round-shaped breads are served in Jewish households all over the world on Rosh Hashanah, although their names, shapes and recipes vary — be it the Ethiopian dabo, the Ashkenazi challah, the Sephardi bolo or the Yemenite sabaya.

Rabbi Moshe Sofer, a 19th century European rabbi and author known as Chatam Sofer, wrote that the round challah, unlike the braided one, has no beginning or end. He compared it to the blessing Jews ask God to bestow on them on the New Year — just like the challah goes around, never reaching its end, so do we ask for an endless blessing.

Circle of life

Another explanation in Jewish tradition for eating round breads on Rosh Hashanah finds symbolism in the circular shape of the bread, which reminds us of the circle of life. This meaning goes in tandem with the prayer for a long life, which Jews utter just before their fate — according to Jewish faith — is sealed for the new year by the end of Yom Kippur.

Some decorate the round challah with a circle of leaves or with a ring of dough to resemble a crown, reminding Jews on Rosh Hashanah that God is the king. And since the round shape can easily be adapted to fit any symbolic idea, the Reform movement maintains that the round challah reminds us that the opportunity for teshuvah (atonement for sin) is never-ending.

Lithuanian Hasidic communities decorate their challahs with one hand or two, invoking the hands of the Cohanim, the priests, as they pray for the people. Other Ashkenazi Hasidic communities keep the tradition of decorating challahs with ladders or birds, as a way of reaching the heavens. The hand, ladder and birds challahs are sometimes baked for Yom Kippur instead of Rosh Hashanah.

Israeli bloggers turned the crown-shaped challahs into an Instagram craze in recent years, baking flower-shaped bread crowns out of challah dough and sometimes placing them around a small ceramic dish full of honey.

To make the new year a sweet one, raisins are often mixed into the dough. According to British cookbook writer and anthropologist Claudia Roden, German Jews started baking challah-type breads with raisins around the year 1400. The idea was later adopted by Ashkenazi bakers for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot.

To add even more of a sweet touch, the challah is often dipped in sugar or honey instead of salt after hamotzi (the blessing of the bread) is said.

Rosh Hashanah is especially full of symbolic foods, many of them featured in the Sephardi Rosh Hashanah seder. One common theme is foods symbolizing bounty, fruitfulness and fertility. That’s why you will often find challahs sprinkled with sesame seeds or poppy seeds during Shabbat and the High Holy Days.

Bolo, or bulu, which originates in the Spanish word for ball, is a Sephardi, sweetened bread filled with raisins and anise seed and prepared especially for Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days.

The recipe moved with Sephardi Jews after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and can now be found in North Africa and Europe, where Sephardi Jews relocated. In Libya, the bolo is prepared with yeast, while in Tunisia it is made with baking powder and slivered almonds. In Italy, it is sometimes baked in the shape of a ring and flavored with raisins and candied citrus peel, without the anise seed. These cakes are served during Sukkot as well.

Yemeni Jews call the traditional Rosh Hashanah challah sabaya. Known among Muslim Yemenites as Bint el Sahn (daughter of the plate), sabaya is made of thinly stretched dough layered with samna, Yemeni clarified butter. “I can still remember the first time I tasted it,” recalls Leah Hadad, an Israeli of Yemeni descent who moved to Washington 35 years ago. It was her aunt who had baked it in the taboon (a traditional clay oven). Hadad, a lawyer and owner of Voilà! Hallah — an all-natural challah mix company — researched bread-making traditions while developing her brand. She says when the sabaya was ready to come out of the taboon, it was drizzled with honey to add that extra sweetness needed for a sweet new year.

On Rosh Hashanah morning, the sabaya was served with coffee before Jews went to the synagogue for the holiday service.

A new year that starts so sweet can’t be that bad.

Sabaya or Bint El-Sahn, Yemeni pastry

Serves 8


1 tablespoon active dry yeast

1 teaspoon sugar

3 cups flour

3 eggs, room temperature

¾ cup clarified butter (ghee) or soft butter, divided

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 egg yolk

Yellow or black sesame seeds

½ cup honey

1. Dissolve yeast in ¼ cup of lukewarm water mixed with sugar, set aside until mixture is foamy, about 10 minutes.

2. Put flour in a bowl of a standing mixer fitter with dough hook. Add yeast mixture and mix for one minute. Add eggs and ½ cup clarified butter and knead for 8 minutes at medium speed. If dough seem too dry, add a couple of tablespoons of water to reach the right consistency. Add salt and knead for 2 more minutes. Transfer dough to a lightly floured bowl, cover with kitchen towel and let rise for 15 minutes.

3. Divide dough into 10 small balls, arrange on a lightly floured tray, cover with kitchen towel and let rise for another 30 minutes.

4. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius). Melt the rest of the ghee or butter, use a little of it to grease a 12-inch round pan and set aside.

5. Use a rolling pin to roll the first ball of dough as thin as you can, to a see-through round, and place in the pan. (Traditionally, the stretching is done by hand, like with pizza dough.) Drizzle a little melted butter on top, and continue with the rest of the dough balls to a multilayer pastry.

6. Mix egg yolk with a tablespoon of water and brush over the top layer of pastry. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and bake for 20 minutes or until top is golden.

7. Remove pastry from oven and immediately drizzle with honey (heat the honey a little if it’s too thick to drizzle). Serve warm.

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