_Why Round Challah
by Aliza Bulow Elul 5763
All year long, our challah is braided, but for Rosh Hashanah, it is round. What does the shape of the loaf teach us and why do we vary it for this special time of year?
Rosh Hashanah is a holiday filled with physical doorways into the spiritual world. The blasts of the shofar are the prime example of this, but there are many others as well. All year round, we dip our challah in salt before distributing it, during the High Holiday season, we substitute honey for salt, so that we may have a sweet year. For the same reason, many increase the sweetening in their challah dough as well. We also begin the evening Rosh Hashanah meals by dipping apples in honey and reciting a prayer for a good and sweet year. Some continue with a Rosh Hashanah “seder”, sampling many different foods and reciting a prayer that contains an allusion to the food’s Hebrew or Yiddish name (see the Artscroll Rosh Hashanah prayer book for details).
These customs are charming and pleasant, but that is not why they were instituted. Every Jewish custom is significant on a very deep level. Some have levels that we can access; others are beyond our grasp. Even the shape of the loaf of challah teaches us about the nature of the time in which it is consumed.
The Sabbath loaf is braided. “Six days shall you work (engage in creative activity), and on the seventh shall you desist” (Ex. 34:21). Part of the preparation for the Sabbath is engaging in melacha, creative activity. Braiding is creative activity. The braid is a shape that does not appear in nature (Fikus trees are hand braided). It is a shape that is made by humans and it is representative of the human ability to manipulate the raw material of the world. Braiding the challah strands helps us harness our creative capacities for the purpose of observing the Sabbath.
But braiding is more than that. The Talmud tells us that G-d Himself braided Chava’s (Eve’s) hair in preparation for her wedding to Adam. Was he just beautifying her? Rabbi Avraham Chaim Feuer teaches that this was not the case. G-d’s braiding of Chava’s hair was His wedding gift to the couple. He was arranging her creative energies, channeling her imagination into an ordered form that would allow her to maximize her potential as a wife. He was both charging her and gifting her with the ability and the task of channeling the energy of the couple into positive and creative directions. The braid represents that directive, to give order to and focus the energies of one’s household.
Many loaves are braided out of six strands. Whether it is six strands all in one braid, or three on the bottom with a smaller braid of three resting on top, the number six is also significant. Six represents the days of the week that are not Shabbat. Braiding six strands into one loaf represents the six days of the week that are bound up in the one Shabbat. Six directed toward one, weekdays manifesting on Shabbat, this world bearing fruit for the next. The six stranded braid offers us the direction of the channeling that we are enjoined to accomplish.
Round challahs are unique to the High Holiday season. Some say they represent a crown and that they reflect the season in that we are coronating the King of the world at that time. Others point to the cyclical nature of the year and feel that the circular shape is representative of that. The Hebrew word for year is “shanah”. Its root means repeat (as in the Shema: v’shinantam le’vanecha, or Mishna Torah). Maybe the circle is meant to illustrate how the years just go around and around. But Rosh Hashanah challahs are not really circles. They are spirals…
There are 70 faces to the Torah, or in Hebrew, shiv’im panim la’Torah. This means that there are 70 ways to understand every facet of Torah. The word “panim” can be translated either as “face”, or as “innerness”. Shiv’im panim la’Torah means that a) the Torah presents 70 different “faces”, appearing differently depending on the psychological, intellectual and spiritual angle from which it is examined, and b) that there are 70 different inner realities for every facet that we can see.
King David lived for 70 years, and, in our tradition, that is considered to be the “average” lifespan. Each year that a person lives makes him or her into a different person than the year before. So, if one lives the average lifetime, another understanding of “70 faces to the Torah” could mean that we, through living 70 years, have our own 70 faces that we can turn to the Torah. That is why we often have “aha” moments even as we study the same concepts we studied last year, or hear the same weekly Torah portion we have heard for years in a row. Turning a different one of our faces to the Torah means that our “receptor sites” are different, and we are able to tune into a new aspect each year.
The word “shanah” has a double meaning as well. In addition to “repeat”, it also means “change” (as in a shinuy on Shabbat). The year does go around and around, and the nature of the cycle is to repeat and repeat. Every year has the same seasons, the same holidays as the year before. As we pass through the years of our lifetime, however, we are presented with a choice: do we want this shanah to be a repetition, or do we want to make a change? Hopefully, each year we make choices for change that are positive, and each year we will climb higher and higher, creating a spiritual spiral.
The shape of the Rosh Hashanah challah reminds us that this is the time of year to make those decisions. This is the time to engage in the creative spiritual process that lifts us out of the repetitive cycle and directs our energies toward a higher end.
May we all be successful in elevating ourselves out of our current realities into a higher more directed state on both an individual and national level. L’shanah tova u’mituka!