by Jeremy Oziel
Symbols are a huge part of any Jewish holiday. Symbols are what remind us why a holiday is important and why we choose to celebrate it. Symbols help us to find meaning in our practice and belief. They can also inform how we celebrate different holidays. In many cases, symbols from the holidays remind us of the time we spend with our families. On a simple level, symbols are also a very practical way to pass down traditions. Children learn easily through symbols, especially through those that are food related. These are the ones I like the most. For instance, most of us can remember when we learned that Rosh haShana was about turning the page on the old year and looking forward to a sweet new one — through eating apples and honey. You may not have even been old enough to understand why there was another new year that came on January 1st, but you associated the beginning of school and the high holidays with the taste of apples and honey.
The symbol of the pomegranate on Rosh haShana was one I always found intriguing. A pomegranate is said to have 613 seeds, which is the number of mitzvot (commandments or good deeds) in the Torah. Traditionally, folks eat pomegranate on Rosh haShana to show their will to perform all the mitzvot of the Torah during the coming year.
Sometimes, the same symbols take on different meanings in different traditions. I always found the idea of eating a round challah to be beautiful, because it is a symbol of the cycle of the year or the circle of life. I wasn’t aware though that others eat round challot because they represent a crown that reflects God as the King of the world. While my reason for finding meaning in round challot may be very different than someone who believes in the crown symbol, both bring meaning to the tradition of sharing challah on the holiday. I want to challenge all of us in this new year to identify the symbols in our Jewish expression and tradition that bring meaning to our lives.