I know this doesn’t sound like a profound existential quandary, but during this High Holiday season, I found myself debating the merits of round vs. braided challah.
I know that it is customary and traditional to eat round challahs during this time—dipped in honey, of course—and that the round shape symbolizes the cycle of life and the crown with which we coronate G‑d every year.
What I don’t know is: why don’t we seem to use the old, traditional braided challah this time of year? The one our bubbies used to bake weekly since time immemorial, the ones we savor every Shabbat? Is it the less preferable choice for Rosh Hashanah?
I think this qualifies as a decent question to ask a rabbi, don’t you? So I went online to ask a virtual rabbi, and . . . he didn’t know! He knew only why the round ones are good. But I already knew that. I want to know, what’s wrong with the braided ones?
Silence from the virtual rabbi.
So, what’s a good Jewish mother to do other than put forward an idea of her own? Here goes:
How do you make a braided challah? You take small balls of dough and roll them out into rope-like strands. Then you take as many strands as you can work with—three, four, six, or even eight—and braid them together to form one beautiful challah.
I believe this is the concept of unity, the one prerequisite that G‑d always demands of His children. Play nicely together, include your little sister, and don’t let go of her hand. Unity!
Our sages tell us “kol yisroel areivim zeh lazeh,” all of Israel is responsible for one another. When we received the Torah at Mount Sinai, we were “like one man with one heart.” For that alone, we deserved the gift of the Torah.
The braided challah is the symbol of this unity. Separate strands twist tightly together to form a picture-perfect whole, the ideal shape with which to celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays. But not Rosh Hashanah!
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, unity shares center stage with individuality, just for a little while.
The High Holidays are a time of personal introspection and soul-searching. We are enjoined to make up a mental balance sheet listing all of our spiritual shortcomings and accomplishments during the past year.
We take time to contemplate our choices: where did we make the right ones, and where, unfortunately, the wrong ones? How can we do better in the year ahead? In this accounting, we need to take personal responsibility; at some point, we need to do this alone.
The High Holiday liturgy is inclusive: “Forgive us for the sins that we have committed.” We are still united as one during the communal prayers.
But when we make our personal challah, we make it round. We take one long, thick rope of dough and wind it around and around, until it has assumed a perfectly smooth, round shape.
Symbolically, we are doing with the dough what we should be doing with our soul: kneading it over and over, round and round, smoothing out all the imperfections and mistakes of the year before.
If we do this often enough and well enough, we are assured that after the High Holidays, when it comes time to be once again a rope in the braided challah of the Jewish people, our strand will have something meaningful to contribute.