Artefact of the Month

Egg Bread Pan from a Munkács Jewish Family Household

August, September, 2019



This age-blackened, diamond-shaped, metal sheet baking pan, formerly the property of a Jewish household, was used in preparations for the family’s weekly Sabbath ritual.  Its community of origin, a surviving – if reorganised – group of principally Hungarian-speaking Jews in a small town in Sub-Carpathia, was the subject of the ethnoreligious fieldwork of ethnographer Miklós Rékai conducted in the early 1990s. In studying the group’s ritual nutritional practices, Rékai happened upon two such pans, one of which he brought back to Budapest to be added to the collection at the Museum of Ethnography. Its former owner, one of the key figures in the study, entrusted Rékai, as cultural mediator, with not only the pan itself, but also her knowledge and personal reflections on her community. The final egg bread produced in the pan was baked for the enjoyment of the collector and his photographer, who captured the process on film for posterity.

At the time of Rékai’s fieldwork, “Hencsike,” the pan’s owner, was in her early sixties. Having survived the hell of Auschwitz as a young adult, after the war, she returned to the town of her birth, where she resumed a life more or less faithful to the laws of her religion. In the decades following the Shoah, Munkács’s formerly Hassidic community found itself without a rabbi, its religious practices marked by a stratified blend of traditions and individual, spontaneous elements. Decades after his work there, the ethnographer described Hencsi’s relationship to Jewish festivals and rituals in the following terms: “On one occasion, probably sometime in the 1980s, she spent a Friday afternoon with her girlfriend. Time flew by, and on her way home a downpour struck, she missed her bus, and in her hurry, she broke a heel on her shoe. As a result, she was late for the Sabbath. Nothing was prepared on time, and from then on, she decided to put out an additional candle alongside the traditional ones. Hencsike used religious law as a language for talking to God and interpreted her life’s events and outcomes within the framework of this dialogue. Her stories gained meaning on the basis of the resulting dynamic. Her self-awareness was founded upon her adherence to the Law. The hard work she put in to make sure her egg bread was well-formed and well-baked strengthened her status before the Everlasting. It was a good omen, and one that conferred hope.”

The Jewish Sabbath meal traditionally includes several elongated, braided loaves of egg bread. In Hencsi’s time, without the two cloth-covered barhess, candlesticks, and goblet of wine, the ritual table would not have been complete. The kneading, braiding, and baking of the loaves was time-consuming, and the loaf itself an element of the complex Sabbath preparations that required considerable attention.
The ingredients traditionally consisted of carefully sifted wheat flour, occasionally mixed with boiled potatoes, to which eggs, yeast, salt, a little sugar, and oil were added, or, alternately, butter and milk, depending on whether the accompanying foods were meat or dairy-based. For the richly laid Friday evening supper, a pareve barhess was served, that is, one that did not contain dairy products. One of the loaves was broken, dipped in salt, and blessed, then served in accompaniment to the meal. Leftover loaves were eaten for the remaining three meals of the Sabbath ritual.
In Hencsi’s kosher household, it was always this regionally characteristic diamond-shaped baking form – in Munkács purchased from the ironmonger’s or an itinerant Romani craftsman or tinsmith – that was used. Cut, shaped, and welded together from tin sheeting, the pan produced a somewhat thicker, heavier loaf than is seen elsewhere in the Jewish world. In Munkács, this was called not barhess, as in other Hungarian-speaking areas, but challah (a word originally meaning portions of dough ritually separated and destroyed). This particular pan was probably manufactured in the 1930s. There were originally two of them, in which the three or four-branched challah braids were placed to rise.

A couple of years after the egg bread pan came to Hungary and to the museum, its former owner liquidated her household and moved with her husband to Israel. The ordinary sheet-metal pan, along with the other objects collected during Révai’s Munkács fieldwork – a salting basket, a set of women’s and men’s burial garments, a series of photographs documenting community life – remain to posterity as rare mementoes of a lost culture. In 2014, a temporary exhibition on traditional Jewish life held at the Museum of Ethnography featured the artefact as one of the centerpieces of its discussion of the Sabbath ritual, along with photographs of Hencsi, using it to bake that last egg bread, the Auschwitz camp number clearly visible on her arm.
Krisztina Sedlmayr

Photo: Miklós Rékai and Krisztina Sarnyai