Come ’Round


By Philologos

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Ed Rheingold writes from Evanston, Ill.:

Your column of December 19 on the transliteration of the Hebrew letter didn’t mention the word “challah,” but it’s another example of a commonly spelled with “ch” in English and almost never with just “h.” “Challah bread” is often found in supermarkets, even where there is little Jewish clientele.

“Challah bread,” of course, is generally pronounced by non-Jews as “hallah bread,” and sometimes even as “holly bread,” and though I have yet to hear anyone say “tshallah bread” or “kallah bread,” the silliness of spelling the word with a “ch” is obvious. Let’s straight-aitch our English and have done with it.

Mr. Rheingold continues:

This brings to mind an entirely different question on the origin of the Hebrew word h.allah. My wife, a superb cook and baker, was asked to talk about Jewish cooking by a certain rabbi. She agreed and he sent her some suggested topics, one of which was hallah. When she called to discuss this topic, he asked if she knew what the Hebrew root of the word meant and she replied “portion.” The rabbi pooh-poohed her, saying, no, it meant “round,” as its root does in Exodus 15:20, in which the word m’h.olot is translated as (presumably circular) “dances.” I told her that I thought the rabbi was way off and that “portion” was correct. Any comments?

I am afraid that the rabbi is right — or at least more right than Mr. Rheingold, since it is difficult to determine whether the Hebrew root h.-l-l, from which h.allah and m’h.olot derive, originally had to do with roundness and then also came to indicate hollowness, or originally had to do with hollowness and then also came to indicate roundness. Consider these additional biblical and rabbinic words, all formed from the same root: h.alil, a flute or shepherd’s pipe (i.e., a hollow — but also round — reed); h.alul, hollow; h.ol, sand (probably because it is composed of round grains); h.alal, empty space or hole; h.ol again, profane or “emptied” of its sacredness; h.ulyah, a link in a chain, the shaft of a well, a vertebra; h.alal again, a man killed in battle (that is, someone whose body has been pierced and hollowed by wounds); h.alh.olet, rectum; h.alon, a window or open space in a wall; la’h.ul, to come about or fall on a certain date — in other words, to recur each time the year “comes ‘round” again; and le’h.ailh.el, to penetrate or drip through something. “Challah bread” originally was called h.allah in Hebrew because it was baked — as it sometimes still is — in the form of a round loaf.

Mr. Rheingold’s mistaken belief that the root meaning of h.allah is “portion” may come from his knowledge of the Hebrew expression hafrashat h.allah, or from its Yiddish translation nemn khaleh, “taking hallah,” which refers to the custom, still practiced by many observant Jews, of taking a small piece or portion of dough before baking bread and burning it in remembrance of the bread-offering made to the priests in the Temple in ancient times. This, however, is a secondary meaning of h.allah.

The typical Eastern European hallah, of course, was not round but oval. What made a hallah a hallah, as far as most Ashkenazi Jews were concerned, was not its shape but its egg-enriched dough, its braided form and its ritual use for the hamotzi blessing on Sabbaths and holidays. There were parts of Eastern Europe in which, when a hallah was round, it was given a special name, such as rudish in parts of southern Poland and beygel-khaleh in much of Belarus.

Indeed, the different terms for hallahs among Ashkenazi Jews went far beyond this and included such variations as berkhes or barkhes, koilitsh, shtritsl, datsher, kitke, bukhte and shabbes-vek. For the most part, these words were regional and did not all coexist in the same areas. Barkhes and dacher, for instance (both from the biblical verse birkas adonai hi ta’ashir, “It is the blessing of the Lord that brings wealth,” commonly engraved on hallah-cutting knives), were limited largely to the Jews of Germany; shtritsl was used by some Polish Jews; koilitsh was common from Poland eastward, from Latvia in the north to Romania in the south; kitke was confined to Latvia, Lithuania and northwestern Russia. Moreover, even within the same overall region, the same word did not always designate the same bread. A koilitsh, for example, was round in some towns and villages, and not in others; braided in some places but not in all; sometimes a roll, pastry or yeast cake; and sometimes merely the crust at the hallah’s end. A kitke could be an ordinary hallah, an especially large hallah, or the braid on top of a hallah. It was only in America that all these terms disappeared except for “hallah” itself, the only one of them that was known to Jews everywhere.

As for the Hebrew root h.-l-l, it continues to lead an active life. Among its 20th-century creations are h.iloni, “secular” (from h.ol in the sense of “profane” or “mundane”) and h.alalit, “spaceship.” It has given us a lot of words, of which one meaning “portion,” alas, is not one.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.