Jews shape an ancient heritage into loaves served on holy days

For centuries, Jews around the world have baked and eaten challah, a bread as rich in history as in flavor.

Ashkenazi Jews bake challah in the shape of a circular crown or decorated with the "ladder of life."

Polish Jews shape faiglan, a long, thin braid.

German Jews traditionally made glossy, sweet rounds of challah. Turkish Jews formed crescents, while North African and Sephardic Jewish bakers added saffron and sculpted challah into unique flower shapes or logs. In northern Italy, sourdough was marked with a handprint to inscribe the family for a sweet year, while wheat seeds were sprouted during the High Holy Days to symbolize prosperity in the new growing season.

The very word "challah" has a long history, dating back to the flooding of the Nile and Fertile Cresent rivers, which deposited seeds to sprout on the riverbanks.

Undoubtedly women were the first farmers. Man's strength wasn't needed for farming until the plow's invention. No woman was too frail to poke a hole with a stick and plant a seed. Women's hands rocked and sustained the cradle of civilization as they roasted grain into a nutritious paste.

Lush with bottomland, grains and vegetable crops before the dynastic period, Egypt must be credited with the discovery of yeast and the oven. Women devised a partial separation of the prized wheat seeds without heat to make flour. Combined with the Nile's brackish waters, its starchy glutinous protein produced carbon dioxide gas. Tiny bubbles created an elastic framework, yielding superior bread.

The pliable, easily shaped Egyptian bread baked higher than compositions of barley, oats or millet that did not react with leavening.

By the time of the Pharaohs, 30 kinds of bread were baked in hollow, underground clay-lined ovens. In 3000 BCE, Pharaoh's bakers mixed their finest bread dough with honey, sweet herbs, almonds, fruits and spices such as saffron and cinnamon. A study in solid geometry, breads artistically shaped and decorated with rings, lyres or farm tools were raised to an art form.

After the Exodus, from the earliest days of the Tabernacle and later in the Great Temple of Jerusalem, every week before Sabbath on Friday, 12 fresh loaves were baked and placed on a golden table. The "shewbreads" from the previous week were removed and consumed by the Kohanim, the Hebrew high priests. Legend says the shewbreads never staled, and they were divided among as many as 40 Kohanim who served the Temple. The accompanying blessing over the shewbreads assured that every priest who ate was full — and in fact, could barely finish his tiny portion.

After the Temple's destruction, rabbis distinguished challah from bread to retain the essence of Judaism. Not surprisingly, the mitzvah of making challah was a responsibility given to women, who baked the shewbreads in the Temple's baking chamber.

The word "challah" means "taken from" and is the portion taken from the entire dough mass as a poignant reminder of the shewbreads brought to the Temple's Kohanim. As the portion is symbolically burnt in the fire or oven, a blessing is pronounced. Lechem, the Hebrew word for bread, should be well-known for the motzei blessing over bread to represent all food eaten at a meal.

Ancient law allows challah to be made from several grains, yet white flour distinguishes the Sabbath and holiday bread. Enriched beyond weekday bread, challah is braided with six knobs, baked with a golden glaze and sprinkled with seeds. Two challah sprinkled with sesame seeds recall manna's whiteness and the double portion given in the desert for Shabbat. Twelve braided knobs symbolize the shewbreads and the 12 tribes.

By the Middle Ages, Jewish "breadcraft" was practiced everywhere in Europe. Jewish bakers through the ages have kneaded a story into their bread.