Blessings this Rosh Hashana


This weekend, as many Jewish families and their guests sit down to celebrate the Jewish New Year, the table will be filled with all kinds of special foods to mark the occasion. But this isn’t just any feast - everything that we cook and share on Rosh Hashana is laden with symbolism. The apples dripping with sweet honey are an invitation to have a sweet new year; and the traditional head of a fish is an indication of being at the head, not the tail. Some traditions invite a full tasting of symbolic foods, each with a respective blessing, and it even gets punny with Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino. But there’s one symbolic food that looks particularly unique: The round challah, often studded with raisins and made extra sweet for the holiday. 

While challah is a much-loved food by many, not only those who eat it weekly on the Sabbath, it is prepared on Rosh Hashana in its traditional braid, twisted into a rounded shape. The round challah is a Jewish symbol that reminisces of other round Jewish foods, such as the humble bagel. But this Rosh Hashana challah is something special: It mimics a spiral, a powerful symbol of growth and renewal.

The circle of life is celebrated every Rosh Hashana, not with champagne and sparklers, but with fervent prayers and deep soul searching. The circle that is symbolized by the round challah on Rosh Hashana depicts the cycle of time, continuing in an endless pattern, round and around. And yet, the cycle is not simply one that brings us back to the same place once again: Every year, when we arrive back at the same holidays, the same rituals and the same messages in the newspaper from rabbis as last year, we have not simply cycled — we have spiraled. 

A spiral is a potent image. It shows how no matter how similar everything looks when we come back around again, we are one step closer to the inside. We might feel like our lives have the same rhythmic quality, moving through the seasons. We often battle the same challenges: our own personal habits, areas we want to grow, things we want to change in our approach to living a more harmonious, balanced, connected life. 

And yet, when we reach that place that feels like we’ve been there before, we look around and notice we are not quite back at square one again. Instead, we are one layer deeper, one step closer to our goals, one cycle more inward in our connection to God, to one another and to ourselves. Every time we struggle and wonder how we got back here again, we can look at a spiral and notice how far we’ve come. 

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which follows ten days later, is an annual moment for returning. Teshuvah, the Hebrew word that signifies this time, indicates the process of returning - not back to where we were before we messed up, but to our highest selves. To being and becoming the best people we can be, one step deeper in the spirals and cycles of life.

The holiday season is a time of connection. We pray in synagogues and greet our communities; we host our families and celebrate with food and friends. May this year bring us opportunities for connection, for joy, for laughter, for making a difference as we evolve down the spiral into the best version of ourselves, our families and our communities.

With blessings to all for good news in the year to come, and a Shana Tova U’Metukah, a Good and Sweet New Year!

Rabbi Rishe Groner is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Ohr, which merged with Temple Israel of South Merrick.