The Seven Heavens Bread, Pan de Siete Cielos, is a traditional dairy-based yeast bread served only on Shavuot by the Sephardim. Like many medieval traditions, the origin of this bread is unknown. Seemingly this tradition has survived the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazi Holocaust. Today, thanks to the internet, it is gaining recognition and Jews are once more serving this wonderful bread.
The Seven Heavens Bread and me:
In 2016 / 5776, my Rabbi told our small study group he wanted each family to lead one of the festivals. My wife and I volunteered to lead the “ice cream” festival. That is a story for another post.
We were new to Judaism and the Jewish aspects of the festivals. I was thrown into the fire. Although in the previous year I had participated in the festival I knew very little about it. Using the internet, I began researching. I read blog posts, articles, and began buying books about Shavuot. A few Facebook friends recommended reading materials.
To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement. I knew next to nothing about Shavuot and even less about liturgy, Jewish prayer, and the multiple ideas and traditions. It was confusing and hard to decipher. With the pressure mounting and time running out I kept working, learning, and developing the Haggadah and the Tikkun Leil Shavuot study materials.
While searching the internet I discovered an article on the Times of Israel entitled, “From Spain to Salonika, a disappearing Shavuot tradition revisited“. Upon reading it I asked Rebbetzin if she would be willing to make this bread. She said, “yes.”
Rabbi, Rebbetzin and I were so excited to present this to our group. The excitement was very palpable. Once they saw it, they were amazed. They took pictures, talked about it and were excited to eat it.
In 2023 (5783), we had a new group of people to present it to. They enjoyed eating it. They were amazed by the symbolism and the history of the seven heavens bread.
Let’s briefly discuss its history or jump to the recipe.
Very Brief Bread History:
The article on the Times of Israel website is dated June 12, 2016 (linked above). It states the bread dates to the early 8th Century (701 CE – 800 CE). However, there is no source referenced to this claim. According to cookbook author Helene Jawhara Pine there are no medieval records for this dish.
However, it is believed to have originated in the Iberian Peninsula. We are not certain when the seven heavens bread became a traditional signature food for Shavuot. However, there was a “golden age” when Jews, Christians, and Muslims coexistence peacefully. It may be the Jews adapted the ornate, theme-based bread making from their Christian neighbors.
The Jews’ official explosion from Spain in 1492 caused many to migrate to Salonika. The Jews prospered in Salonika. It was the second largest city of the Greek empire and the largest Jewish population in the diaspora. Salonika became known as “The Queen of Israel”.
Spanish and Portuguese Jews remained there until World War II. The Nazi’s took the 56,000 Jews to Auschwitz. It is said only 1,100 of them survived the Holocaust.
In the 1970’s he interviewed the Holocaust survivors living in Salonika and recorded the recipe. He illustrated the bread based on the survivors’ descriptions. Post-WWII he is the first to record the recipe for the seven heavens bread.
In 2016 this tradition was on the verge of disappearing. Seven years later several cookbook authors and bakers have adapted this recipe. Now it is beginning to be brought back to Jewish homes. There are several adaptations of the “original” recipe posted online and its story is being taught in community baking classes.
Would you consider honoring your brothers and sisters’ memory during your Shavuot celebration? You can by adding this tradition to yours.
Discover more about this bread, its history and various recipes at the links below. If you prefer, you can skip to the seven heavens recipe on this website.
The Seven Heavens Bread in 2023 / 5783:
This year while preparing for Shavuot, I searched the internet for information about this bread once more. I was pleasantly surprised to find more posts about it. There is even a chat on a baker’s forum. The links and post descriptions are listed below.
- Bread of Seven Heavens: A Sephardic Tradition for Shavuot – An article written by Ronit Treatman from Shavei Israel. It includes a brief history of the Jews from Iberia. She has adapted the recipe from Nicholas Stavroulakis’ cookbook “The Cookbook of the Jews of Greece.”
- A beautiful and symbolic bread for Shavuot – An article written by Margi Lenga Kahn for the award-winning newspaper St Louis Jewish Light. It begins with the history in Thessaloniki and tells about the Nazis. It includes Bob Sternberg’s recipe from his cookbook entitled Sephardic-Kitchen-Healthy-Culture-Mediterranean
- A Heavenly Sephardic Bread – An article co-authored by Sharon Gomperts and Rachel Emquies Sheff for the Jewish Journal. They participated in a baking class. They discuss the history of the Jews from the Spanish Inquisition and explain the symbolism of the bread. They too mention Nicholas Stavroulakis’ cookbook – The Cookbook of the Jews of Greece. They also share a recipe.
- The Bread of Seven Heavens: El Pan de los Siete Cielos – This is the recipe posted by cookbook author Helena Jawhara Piner. Her recipe is very rich as it is stuffed with cheese. She states this is her favorite recipe and the first one in her cookbook titled Sephardi: Cooking the History.
If you are interested in making the seven heavens bread, I have posted it below with instructions from The Fresh Loaf.
The Seven Heavens Bread Recipe:
Pan de Siete Cielos – the Fresh Loaf is a baker’s online forum. Below is the last entry of qazwat. This is his/her final recipe. He/she began with Nicholas Stavroulakis’ original recipe and worked to improve upon it for three years.
Posted Dated: June 2, 2022
Okay. Three years later, and This is the recipe. It works well, but I think I’ll make the symbols with a sugar cookie dough, bake them separately, and then add them to the dough. My arts and craft skills aren’t great and trying to shape figures in very sweet and stretchy dough is tough. My “dove” looks more like a chicken.
The yeast definitely struggles with rising. Normally, I use a ten minute sponge rise, a thirty minute first rise, and a thirty minute final rise. The sponge rise took thirty minutes. The second rise took two hours, and the final rise was bit over an hour.
1 teaspoon, plus 1 ½ cup of sugar
½ cup of warm water
1 tablespoon of yeast
7 to 8 cups of bread flour
5 tablespoons of sesame oil
½ cup whole milk
4 large beaten eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon aniseed liqueur
¼ cup raisins
1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon of cold water.
- Dissolve the spoonful of sugar in warm water. Pour the yeast and leave to sponge in a dry place for 10 minutes.
- Put 3 cups of flour in a bowl and make a hole in the center.
- Add the yeast mixture and join well. There will be a light dough, thicker than a pancake, but not so much as to work by hand. Cover the bowl with plasticized paper and let stand in a dry place for 45 minutes. The mixture will sponge and rise.
- After 45 minutes, add 4 tablespoons of oil, milk, beaten eggs, 1 ½ cups of sugar, salt and anise liqueur. Knead with the remaining flour until you reach a soft consistency, but not sticky. You will use more or less flour according to the quality of it and the humidity of the day. You will learn with practice the correct consistency.
- Once you have the dough, you incorporate the raisins, knead well and make a ball.
- Pour in a bowl the remaining spoonful of oil and put more in it. Turn until the dough is covered with oil. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and let the dough rise to double its volume (about 1 ½-2 hours). The dough prepared by the foaming method takes less time than that prepared by the mixing and kneading system.
- Remove a quarter of the dough. Divide the rest into two parts and set aside one of them. Cover this and the other quarter of the dough with a damp cloth.
- Divide the dough that you will work in three pieces and roll each of them until reaching 50 cm in length.
- Join the ends at the top and braid.
- Make a spiral with the braid and place it in the center of a non-stick oven tray. This is the mountain that represents Mount Sinai. Cover the bush with a damp cloth.
- Divide the second largest piece of dough into seven pieces of different sizes. They will be the seven heavens that will roll around the mountain. As they are rolled up, the size will have to be larger. Roll the smaller piece as if it were a rope, around the mount. See figures. Repeat the same with the remaining dough pieces. Once finished cover with a damp cloth.
- The remaining piece of dough will be used to make the different symbols that will be placed on the seven heavens. Divide the dough into five equal parts. Take one of the pieces and work it, while the others are covered with a damp cloth.
- With the first piece, we will make the luchot habrit (the two tables on which the Ten Commandments were written). Divide in half, give each half an oval shape and place on the seven heavens.
- Shape one hand with the second piece of dough. Within the Sephardic folk tradition, the hand symbolizes good luck. It contains the number five, the five books of Moses. Place your hand on .
- Mold a fish with the third piece. The fish also symbolizes good luck because, unlike other animals, they were not exterminated by God during the Universal Flood. The fish also symbolizes the Messiah and the messianic era of peace on earth. Place the fish on the seven heavens.
- The fourth piece will be molded into a bird shape. The birds, for the Sephardic Jews, are the symbol of peace. It was a dove that, with an olive branch in its beak, communicated to Noah the end of the Flood and the time of peace that would reign over the earth. The birds are also the symbol of the ascension of the soul to the seven heavens. Place the bird on the seven heavens.
- The last piece of dough will be used to make Jacob’s ladder, which symbolizes the relationship between the earth and the seven heavens and, in its end, with God. It represents the story told in the Genesis book about Jacob’s dream and the angels going up and down the ladder between heaven and earth. To make the ladder, divide the dough into three parts Roll two of them to make the sides of the ladder.
- With the remaining piece, mold five steps and place them between the sides of the stairs.
- Cover the bread with a damp cloth and let rise until it reaches twice its volume (1 hour).
- Preheat the oven to 180ºC/ 356ºF.
- Paint the bread with the beaten egg and bake for 45 minutes. The bread will acquire a nice golden color. To check that it is done, lift it a little from the tray and tap the bottom. If it sounds hollow, it is done. Cool on a grid.
In conclusion, I must admit this post is not something you should find on a website called “Study Bible”. However, I want to help preserve and perhaps rekindle this beautiful tradition. It is full of meaning and significance. Besides teaching about it to a small group I thought I would post it online and see if it spreads a little wider.
Also, I want to mention, concerning the symbols placed in the clouds. It can be anything pertaining to Shavuot or any symbol meaningful to you. I believe the only standard symbols are Jacob’s Ladder, the Torah Scroll or the tablets for the ten words. Besides these I have read of a dove, hamsa, a serpent, and the Magen David all being used. Although I am uncertain of the connection, I read one person placed Noah’s Ark. If it floats your boat, go for it!
Thank you and I hope you enjoy this wonderful Shavuot tradition.
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