PHILADELPHIA — Nicknamed “The Queen of Israel,” Salonika was one of the greatest Jewish cities that ever existed. A melting pot of Jewish communities, the trade hub was a haven for Jews following the 1492 Expulsions from Spain and Portugal. In this cosmopolitan Jewish community, the once-again prospering Spanish and Portuguese Jews could maintain their Sephardic traditions and customs.
One of these customs was the baking of rich dairy yeast breads each Shavuot, the most well-known of which is “el pan de siete cielos,” or, “the bread of the seven heavens.”
For 780 years “el pan de siete cielos,” was the signature dish of the Shavuot holiday, and the Jews of Salonika continued to bake this bread all the way up until World War II, when the community was almost entirely exterminated by the Nazis. Today, only a handful of survivors can recall eating the bread at their holiday tables and the tradition has all but perished.
The festive bread’s genesis dates back to an early eighth-century period known as “la conviviencia,” or, “the coexistence.” La conviviencia was a golden age for Spanish Jewry — a time when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived peacefully together, making the Iberian Peninsula a hub of innovation and cultural exchange.
And so it is unsurprisingly that during this period, Sephardic Jews — inspired by the ornately-sculpted Easter breads of their Christian neighbors — began baking the bread of the seven heavens.
During the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter, Spain’s devout Christians abstained from many pleasures, including eating animal products such as meat, eggs, milk, and butter. Some went so far as to avoid honey, sugar and olive oil.
The Easter celebration contained all the foods that were forbidden during Lent, and the crowning presence at the Easter table was the delicious yeast bread, elegantly molded into ornate shapes full of symbolism and topped with intricate adornments.
After all that abstention, during Easter every town in Spain and Portugal was filled with the aromas of sweet yeast breads being baked — breads full of rich ingredients such as butter, milk, and eggs.
Sometimes the bread was woven into a three-stranded braid representing the Holy Trinity; others, it was a wreath or ring — a pre-Christian fertility motif that held on in the form of Jesus’s crown of thorns; still others, it was shaped into round breads that recalled the pagan symbol of the sun as well as Christian rebirth and resurrection.
When the Jews saw this they adapted the custom to the holiday of Shavuot, one of the rare times when it is customary to eat dairy meals during a holiday.
A recipe recovered
Nicholas Starvroulakis recorded the recipe for the bread of seven heavens in his “Cookbook of the Jews of Greece.” Starvroulakis’s background is a mix of Cretan, Turkish, and Jewish. He was born in England, educated in the United States, taught Byzantine art and architecture at the Tel Aviv University from 1968 to 1972, and finally moved to Greece in 1977. He directed the Jewish Museum in Athens, and is currently the director of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Crete.
Starvroulakis obtained the recipes for his book by interviewing Holocaust survivors from Salonika. He also illustrated the book, basing his drawings on their descriptions of the foods. The pan de siete cielos is a symbolic tableau of the Shavuot story.
The central element of the bread is a ball of dough depicting Mount Sinai, which is where God gave Moses and the Israelites the Torah.
“Mount Sinai” is then ringed by seven ropes of dough, which denote the clouds surrounding the mountain. The symbolism of seven clouds is unclear. In his book “The Sephardic Kitchen,” Rabbi Robert Sternberg provides a spiritual explanation for the seven heavens. According to him, the seven heavens are the “seven holy living spaces through which the soul ascends to heaven,” after a Jew’s body dies.
There is also the possibility that the seven clouds are a play on words. Saying “I’m in the seven clouds” in Spanish is like saying, “I’m on cloud nine” in English. The seven clouds may mean that Shavuot is the most joyous occasion because God gave the Israelites the Torah.
Each family placed special symbols from the story of Shavuot on these “clouds.” One image that was commonly placed was a Torah scroll with Torah pointer or “yad.” This represents all the written and oral teachings which God gave Moses on Mount Sinai.
Another emblem was the well in the desert. This portrays the Midrash that wherever Miriam went during the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert, there was water. When Miriam died (Numbers 20:1-2) there was no more water. With her death, the Israelites lost their source of sustenance that had been given to them due to her merit (Taanit 9A).
Jacob’s ladder was another popular motif. In Genesis 28:10-17, Jacob goes to Bethel. He falls asleep and dreams about a ladder connecting heaven and earth. In the dream, angels are ascending and descending the ladder.
God promises Jacob that he will give him this land and that he will have many descendants who will spread out all over the world. God concludes by telling Jacob that he and his descendants will be a blessing to the world, and that God will watch over them. The ladder represents the connection between earth and the seven heavens, between Jacob and God.
Also frequently found on the bread is the emblem of a serpent. In the 40th year of wandering in the desert, the Israelites got tired of eating the same old manna and complained about the food. Like any proud cook, God felt insulted, and sent poisonous snakes to attack the Israelites.
Moses prayed to God to forgive them, and God instructed Moses to fashion a serpent out of copper and place it on a pole. Thereafter, all those who looked at this serpent were healed (Numbers 21:5-9).
The Catholics of Spain and Portugal would take their Easter bread to church to be blessed during midnight mass. Similarly, the pan de siete cielos was served at midnight, providing a break during the all night study session of the tikkun leyl Shavuot, a custom by some Jews to stay up all night learning Torah to make up for the sound sleep the Jews enjoyed before receiving the actual Torah at Sinai.
The tradition of baking the pan de siete cielos and bringing it to the synagogue lasted until the 1940s, when the Nazis invaded Greece. In 1943 the Nazis started to deport the 56,000 Jews of Salonika to Auschwitz. Only 1,100 of them survived the Holocaust.
This author has spent the last two years polling several thousand Greek and Sephardic Jews to see if they are maintaining the tradition of the pan de siete cielos. A few people have their grandmother’s recipe, but only one family has been found still maintaining this tradition.
Juan Manuel Hernandez’s family originally hails from Barcelona on his father’s side.
Mr. Hernandez explained, “My family’s tradition is to bake the challah of the seven skies only for Shavuot, and for no other occasion. It is a sweet challah, in honor of the joy of receiving the nourishment (challah) of the Torah.
“The seven skies or celestial spheres represent the process of the creation of the universe in seven days,” Hernandez continued. “This nourishment comes by crossing each sphere, from God to Moses’s arrival at Mount Sinai. My grandmother would bake it with Jacob’s ladder of seven rungs, a Star of David, Moses’s staff, the Torah tablets, and other symbols, all made from the bread dough.
“Finally, after baking the bread, she painted it with honey, and sprinkled some powdered sugar and sesame seeds over it to remember the manna in the desert. She said that the Torah is sweet for those who make it their nourishment. In our family, the first piece of this bread was distributed after reading the part about keeping Shabbat in Exodus 16:4. The second piece of bread was consumed after reading the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20,” he said.
The Times of Israel obtained the recipe for the pan de siete cielos from Nicholas Starvroulakis’ book. It is reminiscent of a rich, sweet challah.
His design for the bread was a little intimidating, so the local Mexican bakery came to the rescue. The baker, Alejandro Bautista, from Puebla, was not familiar with Jewish culture — but he had no trouble baking the bread. It reminded him of the symbolic breads that the Mexicans inherited from the Spanish conquistadors and priests.
In Israel and around the world, young Jews are adopting the mishmar tikkun leyl Shavuot, or all night Shavuot study session. It is an excellent opportunity to restore the ritual of the Salonika Jews’ special midnight snack. By keeping the tradition of the pan de siete cielos alive, we enrich our celebration and honor the memory of this community.
Pan de Siete Cielos
Adapted from “Cookbook of the Jews of Greece” by Nicholas Starvroulakis
7-8 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 oz. fresh yeast
1/3 cup warm water
5 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp. anise extract or Arak
½ cup milk
Dissolve ½ teaspoon of sugar in the warm water.
Mix in the yeast, and allow to rest for 15 minutes.
Add the flour and mix well.
Cover the bowl with a clean towel and allow the dough to rise for 30 minutes.
Beat the eggs with the sugar and anise extract.
Pour them into the dough.
Add the butter and milk.
Knead the dough.
Cover the bowl with a towel, and allow the dough to rise until it doubles in size.
To sculpt the bread:
1. Begin with a ball of dough in the center. Some people like to braid it like a round challah. This is Mount Sinai.
2. Roll out 7 ropes of dough. These are the 7 heavens. Wrap them around Mount Sinai.
3. Make a Torah shape out of dough. Place it on top of the 7 heavens.
4. Shape Miriam’s well. Attach it to the ring of “clouds.”
5. Mold a snake and adhere it to the “clouds.”
6. Build Jacob’s ladder. Make it connect Mount Sinai to the seventh “cloud.”
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius).
Brush the bread with an egg wash (whip one egg yolk with 1 tbsp. of water).
Bake the bread at 400 degrees for 10 minutes.
Lower the temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 degrees Celsius).
Bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until the bread is golden-brown in color.