San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Challah Gets Sweet and Circular for New Year

Tuesday may be Sept. 30, 2008, in the secular calendar, but the Jewish calendar marks the day as 1 Tishrei 5769, or Rosh Hashanah, the first day of a new year.

Like all Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah begins at sunset the night before. That pegs the start of 5769 here to Monday evening at 5:28 p.m., San José time.

The new year ushers in the 10-day period of reflection known variously as the High Holidays or the Days of Awe. It concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which will begin at sunset Oct. 8 in the secular calendar, lasting until nightfall the next evening.

The table setting for Rosh Hashanah is no exception to the symbolism that fills this holiday. The traditional wish for a “sweet new year” is reflected in the food served, according to Rabbi Hersch Spalter of San José’s Chabad Lubavitch congregation.

Challah, a year-round weekly staple of a traditional Jewish home that gets “sweetened up” for the holiday, is a case in point.

Accent that first syllable, and make the ch a bit guttural, like the ch at the end of the name of composer Johann Sebastian Bach. (Spanish accents the second syllable: jalá.) To complicate things, English follows Hebrew-language rules in this case, making the plural of challah challot.

The white, egg-based bread takes center table at each Friday-night Shabbat meal to mark the start of the Jewish Sabbath.

“Each Shabbat, we dip challah in salt,” explains Moshe Aharoni of Pita Rica at Plaza Los Laureles, in the western suburb of Escazú, a deli-bakery combo specializing in such foods. “For Rosh Hashanah, we add more sugar to the recipe and dip the bread in honey at the table.”

When Aharoni and his wife, Pnina, began making challah here, they found that Costa Rican tastes run a bit sweeter than those back in their native Israel. They decided to add a touch more sugar even to their year-round bread recipe.

The addition of raisins is another timehonored way to add sweetness to challah, Aharoni says. A perusal of recipes on the Internet suggests using apples, dates, cinnamon, anise or poppy seeds, too.

A challah loaf ’s shape changes for Rosh Hashanah as well, Aharoni says.

While the traditional Shabbat challah consists of strands of bread dough braided into an elongated loaf, this one time of year, those braids loop around to form a circle, a true work of art.

“A circle symbolizes infinite blessings,” Spalter explains. “This is a day of judgment, and we hope to receive an abundance of blessings in the coming year.”

In its original strict meaning, “challah” refers to a portion of dough set aside for donation to the Temple in Jerusalem during Biblical times, Spalter says. Although the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., an observant Jewish home or bakery still keeps the commandment, separating a small portion of the dough – it applies to any dough used for baking – and burning it.

More commonly, the term today refers to the whole loaf of bread.

Eggs give challah its distinctive yellow color, but some recipes suggest adding yellow food coloring. Aharoni and staff simply paint the dough with an egg-water mix before baking to enhance the color.

Although, in theory, challah could be made with fewer eggs or with whole-grain flours, Aharoni has found that whole wheator rye-based recipes don’t rise properly with the enhanced sweetness needed for the holiday.

So white bread with a lot of eggs it is. “We eat like crazy for Rosh Hashanah,” he says with a laugh. “You can go back to Weight Watchers after the holidays.”

Holiday Services

San José’s synagogues will hold services beginning with Rosh Hashanah and concluding with Yom Kippur at the end of the holiday period. Call for more information.

Beit Menachem/Chabad Lubavitch (Orthodox), 2296-6565, Rohrmoser, 20 m north of Banco Cuscatlán,

Pavas Highway


B’nai Israel(Reform), 2231-5243, La Sabana, 700 m west of Pops, old road to Escazú.



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