Not as glorious as Rosh Hashanah, not as holy as Yom Kippur and lacking that perfect spring-break timing of Passover, Shavuot was relegated to a second tier holiday in American Jewish life. Sure, everyone knows that this early-summer holiday actually commemorates the most significant event in turning the Israelites into a nation: receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. But as far as culinary traditions are concerned, most would write Shavuot off as “the dairy holiday,” the day of blintzes and cheesecakes.
But that would only add insult to injury for the holiday known as the Festival of Harvest and deeply rooted in agricultural practices in the Land of Israel. There is a centuries-old tradition of baking speciality breads on Shavuot, which fits well with the wheat harvest season and follows the Temple-era requirement of bread offerings. This custom, which endures in many Jewish communities, can transform your Shavuot menu and hopefully help redeem the holiday.
Shavuot is not the only Jewish holiday connected to the agricultural cycle. There’s also Sukkot, Tu Bishvat and Passover, to name a few. The latter kicks off the counting of the Omer, seven weeks of grain harvest in biblical Israel that started with barley and ended with the harvest of wheat and the holiday of Shavuot (“weeks” in Hebrew). When the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, the first offering of the wheat crops was brought there and baked into large loaves of bread that priests would sacrifice to God.
“Ye shall bring out of your dwellings two wave-loaves of two tenth parts of an ephah; they shall be of fine flour, they shall be baked with leaven, for first-fruits unto the LORD.” (Leviticus 23:17)
These two loaves were made of the finest local wheat and were leavened, unlike most sacrificial breads. They were baked into loaves of seven handbreadths (tefachim, a biblical measurement unit) long and four handbreadths wide (about 22x13 inches) and four fingers tall. Two lambs were sacrificed with the loaves and the bread was consumed by the priests.
Sacrifices ended with the destruction of the Temple, but in Jewish communities around the world – from Libya to Thessaloniki and Germany to France – a new tradition sprouted: baking special breads for Shavuot.
One of the most elaborate Shavuot breads is the Sephardi siete cielos (or los siete sielos in Greece) challah – the seven heavens bread – which refers to the seven heavens of the universe mentioned in Jewish scripture, as well as in Islam and Christianity. Israeli food writer and historian Pascale Perez-Rubin writes that in some versions, the challah is stuffed with dried fruit and nuts. According to Ronit Treatman’s excellent article on the subject, this tradition dates back to 8th-century Spain, where Jews adopted the idea of decorated Easter bread from their Christian neighbors.
“The Cookbook of the Jews of Greece” by Nicholas Stavroulakis gives a detailed description of this festive bread. It consists of a round center, symbolizing Mount Sinai (“El Monte”), surrounded by seven rings of dough. The rings are then decorated with pieces of dough shaped to symbolize objects from the story of Moses receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai: the Tablets of the Law, a Torah scroll with a hand, the serpent that healed the Jews in the dessert, Miriam’s well, quail that the Israelites ate in the desert, and a ladder, which Stavroulakis refers to as Jacob’s ladder but other interpretations see as the ladder Moses used to ascend to meet God.
A seven-step ladder makes an appearance on top of round Ashkenazi challahs for Shavuot, not only representing the seven heavens Moses had to pass in order to reach God on Mount Sinai, but also since the Hebrew numerology for the word ladder is equal to the numerology for the word Sinai. Similarly, according to Jewish cooking expert Joan Nathan, French Jews used to make a ladder-like fougasse, a flat bread, and decorate it with candied cherries or orange peel.
Libyan mothers used to bake cookies called shkak, shaped to resemble various Torah-related objects. These large, orange juice-flavored cookies required Old World patience to shape the dough into a dozen different formations. There are always cookies shaped like the Torah scroll; hamsa and evil eye ones for good luck; birds to remind us that when God gave Moses the Torah, “not even a bird chirped”; glasses and backpacks to read the Torah that is carried in the bag; a basket for the new harvest; scissors for the first time Jewish law allows haircuts after the counting of the Omer; and – you guessed it – a ladder to symbolize Moses’s ascent to Mount Sinai.
All those cookies were tied with a thread to create a necklace. The sweet necklace was then decorated with pieces of eggshell, beads and colorful threads and given to unmarried children and married daughters as a special treat.
Interestingly, the same cookies appear in Sephardi communities in Turkey and Jerusalem, where they were called reshikas or folar, respectively. However, cookies in the same shape were also baked for Purim, where the ladder evokes the gallows from which evil Haman was hanged, so perhaps their origin is not necessarily related to Shavuot.
Kolach is an Eastern European braided dairy ring challah that is baked for Christmas in the Czech Republic and Ukraine. Jews of the region, as well as in France and Germany, used to make this bread especially for Shavuot, when dairy meals were served. The crown-like shape of the bread resembles the decorated crown of the Torah scroll.
Middle Eastern food historian Nawal Nasrallah connects the word kolach to the Jewish challah, and to the ceremonial breads used in ancient Mesopotamian New Year festivities to celebrate the Akkadian goddess Ishtar. She was, among other things, the goddess of grains, and women would braid special ring-shaped breads in her honor.
In some Ashkenazi communities women would bake a four-corner, rectangular challah resembling the biblical description of the Temple-era offering of two loaves. The four corners also refer to Genesis 2:10 “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became four heads.”
With all those beautiful old ideas from around the Jewish world, you’d think the tradition of special bread baking on Shavuot would have been revived by now. Instead, a new Instagram-worthy tradition blooming in Israel is to bake a basket-shaped challah to symbolize the season’s first harvest, or a wheat sheaf challah influenced by the breads baked for American Thanksgiving and British harvest festivals. That’s a kind of a revival, I guess.
Recipe: Siete Cielos challah
This challah recipe is based on several different sources that describe it as a dairy challah with a central, round “Mount Sinai” part, surrounded by seven rings to represent the seven heavens, decorated with symbols related to receiving the Torah.
In some communities, Shavuot is also known as the festival of roses, and rose petals and greenery were scattered around the synagogue for the holiday. In honor of that tradition, I decided to add some rose water to the recipe. Rose water, which is optional, is available at Middle Eastern supermarkets and some Israeli supermarkets as well as online.
*Note: The recipe calls for instant yeast, which is much more reliable than the popular active dry yeast. It’s worth getting instant yeast online (it’s almost impossible to find it in stores) as it lasts for a really long time in the fridge. If you do go with active dry yeast, add about 20% more (about ¾ teaspoon in this case) to the recipe.
The recipe makes two challahs of any shape you like.
1 kg (2¼ lb.) bread flour
14 grams (2 bags or 4½ teaspoons) instant yeast (*see note above)
½ cup sugar
1½ cups warm milk
4 large eggs, room temperature
340 grams (12 oz., 3 sticks) butter, room temperature
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon rose water (optional)
For egg wash:
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons honey
1. In a stand mixer with a dough hook mix flour, yeast and sugar for 1 minute on medium speed. Add milk and eggs and mix for 2 minutes longer on medium speed. Now add butter and mix for 7 minutes on medium to create a soft dough. Add salt and rose water (if using) and mix for 1 minute longer. Remove bowl from stand mixer. Remove the dough from the bowl, lightly flour the bowl, then put the dough back in. Cover with plastic wrap or a towel and put in a warm place until dough doubles its volume, about 1 hour.
2. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
3. When the dough is ready, punch it down and divide in two (it’s easier if you have a kitchen scale). This recipe yields about 2 kg. of dough (4.8 lb.), so each part would weigh 1 kg. Working with one half at a time, divide it into 1 quarter and 3 quarters (250 grams and 750 grams). Use the small piece to create a small ball and put it in the center of a baking sheet.
4. We will use the rest of the dough to create the 7 rings and the symbols on top. Divide the dough into 8 balls, from small to large. Keep the smallest one for the decoration. Start with the next smallest ball and use your hands to roll it into a long strand and wrap it around the dough ball on the baking sheet, tucking the ends under (see photos).
5. Make 6 more dough strands and wrap them around each other.
6. For the challah decorations, roll a small part of dough to a flat 5” by 3” rectangle, cut it to 2 long strips and 7 short strips to create a seven-steps ladder, going up from the seven rings to the mountain.
7. Use leftover dough to shape a Torah scroll, the Tablets of the Law, a bird, a hamsa, a serpent or any shape you desire and put it on the rings.
8. Now repeat the same process with the second half of the dough to create a second challah (are you exhausted? Just braid a simple challah now instead!)
9. Make an egg wash by mixing all the ingredients and gently brush the two challahs. Put them in a warm place for 45 minutes to rise.
10. Turn oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit (160 Celsius) and bake challahs for 35 minutes, until golden brown and fully baked. Serve the same day, if possible.