Sunday, September 12, 2010

Round, Spiral...

Hello, and Shana Tova!

This post will be on how I'm feeling this year about Rosh Hashana. I'll also be presenting some interesting information on holiday customs, legends and such.

Rosh Hashana. Shana Tova. Another year trying to care about something I don't really care much about. Trying to care about something I cling to desperately due to identity and self-acceptance issues... fear of rejection and all that stuff. I don't believe the year is 5771, because I don't believe the world was created less than 6,000 years ago. In fact, I suspect Jews started in with this 5,*** year old world business at some time in the recent past; I should learn more about this calendar business at some point.

Sometimes, I think how nice it would be if I could make the Jewish wheel of the year my personal wheel for change. But when I see all these articles on Aish, Chabad and other Jewish websites reminding me that it's time to reflect on the previous year and commit to change, I feel overwhelmed. I think, "what's different? My whole life is committing to change." I commit to change every day when I wash my dishes before I fall asleep, or sing, or take a shower when I feel dirty, or brush my teeth, or let someone disabled cut in line instead of maneuvering myself in front (or making a show of offering them the space, just so they know who's boss).

With all the change I try to commit to, including some recent nutritional changes I'm barely holding on to, I don't have time for more change.

How did I commit to change today? I told my sister, who always hosts holidays and cooks for us, that I would bring some fun Jewish items to the table. Now, the more I thought about it, the more I realized there was no need to bring these items. But I did. I had told my family I would bring these items, because I thought they were sort of interesting in a novel sense. So on the off chance that they weren't humouring me when they said they'd be excited to see what I'd bring, I honored my promise. I bought a shiny, fresh pomegranate as well as a pack of raisins with a side of celery and lettuce (I'll explain how we used all this later). I also went to the local Internet cafe and printed up some Jewish birthday certificates from's "Jewish Birthday" section.

I forgot the birthday certificates at home, and no-one seemed that impressed with the pomegranate - it's a weird fruit. We did have a bit of fun with the raisin, lettuce and celery. The point is, I said I'd do something. And to the best of my ability, I got it done. I showed up.

And when my sister got up to clear the table, I asked her if she needed help. She said she was ok. But I remembered something I'd recently read about how people who need help won't always say so. Why? They're being polite. So the second time she got up, I didn't ask. I got up, and I helped. To those of you who are used to caring for a family (or just yourselves) adequately and on a regular basis, this may not seem like much. But for someone who's struggled with depression most of her life and finds it a challenge to get laundry done several times a month, it is something. Showing up. Saying you'll do something, and then doing it. Expressing gratitude for all the effort someone has put in so you could enjoy yourself. This isn't going to get me through another year, but I think it counts as change for today.

Ok, enough self-deprecation and painfully cautious hope, it's time to talk about Rosh Hashanah customs! I rarely get the opportunity to ramble on about all the interesting tidbits of Jewish custom, legend and theology I learn during the year, so I just hijack the table for a few minutes when my family and I have holiday get-togethers. Now you, too can benefit from my neurotically motivated learning. Enjoy!

Let's start with the challah (Shabbat bread). Bread enjoys a special status in Judaism and is the primary food blessing which, from what I understand, takes precedence. Why? I don't know. What I do know is that Ashkenazim (European Jews and their descendants) have a tradition of baking challah in braided lengths rather than a plain rectangular shape. However, they bake Rosh-Hashanah challah in a circular shape, rather than the customary rectangular form. There are many theories as to why, but one is that the bread symbolizes God's crown. Rosh Hashanah is a day when Jews traditionally acknowledge that God is the ultimate king, and our primary allegiance is to Her/Him.

No so long ago, kings had power over life and death. I, perhaps unsurprisingly, have a lot of trouble with the idea of kingship. Kings represent abuse, terror, and excess to name a few. One way I've been able to consider this idea of God/dess as King/Queen in a less abrasive way is to imagine this "king/queen" as The Law. To me, The Law is the natural law. It needs no one to keep it because it keeps itself. It is woven into the fabric of all, substance or spirit. To quote the gnostic gospel of Thomas, "...Li[f]t the stone and there you will find me. Split the wood and I am there" (pOxy. 1.23-30).

I'm also reminded of a book on the Orishas I once looked through. It said that Ellegua (the guardian, the old man/young boy, gate-to-purity/lover-of-dirty-jokes, trickster) knows what true justice is, because Ellegua sees all, and knows the reasons for what happens to us, whether good or bad, in ways that may not be apparent to us. This helps me to focus on the idea of God as The Ultimate, and in that way to consider that I am always in God/dess's mercy and love, no matter how I feel. I am always connected. My Neo-Pagan education also tells me that the King is the Servant and sacrifice, and this is a most sacred relationship with His subjects. I've never heard of any Jewish legends or ideas on that, however.

Another reason for the circular challah, is that it symbolizes returning to the beginning point, at a new year. But time spirals outward, and so the braids create a spiral in the challa. We return to the same place, but we never quite see it the same; each time we have a new perspective.


There are many different traditional foods to be eaten, the most commonly known being an apple and honey. We ask for a good and sweet new year. Why sweet? Because if everything is of God, then on some level (not that I understand how this could possibly be, given the horrific realities humans have been creating since we first swung down from the trees), everything is good. But we want something sweet. We want to learn not in bitterness, depression and fear, but in joy, love, and beauty.

Apples are also mentioned in the Song of Songs; "As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the sons" (Song of Solomon; 2:3). Some view the Song of Songs as an allegory between God and the Jewish people. I think it works on both the erotic and allegorical levels. What's more, it reminds us that to God, we are all rare and precious. We are all God/dess's Beloved. By the way, all of the sites I've checked with mention this refer to the Beloved being rare among maidens, and the traditional view for both Jews and Christians is that God is the male speaking to the female (which represents the Jewish people, the Christian Church, peanut butter sandwhiches, whatever you want really...). But I was unable to find a male telling a female this in the poem. It would seem this could be a nice verse to remember for those who have a relationship where they see God as female.

Another interesting fact about apples is according to Midrash, the nub, or baby-apple-bump, starts to emerge BEFORE the protective leaves that would normally surround a fruit are fully emerged. Learning this, I was reminded of something I was once told about the etymology of the word faith. A friend said that it came from the old Celtic verb, to "faythe". This meant to go forward in the dark even when one didn't see the way. I haven't actually been able to find anything that supports this in my own research. But for me, "faythe" is what I think this year is gonna be all about. The Torah talks about how the Israelites receiving the Torah said, "we will do and we will understand/hear" ("na'aseh v'nishma"). The implication is that doing is first, and understanding is comes after, possibly as a result of doing.

As we go forward into the dark half of the year (in North America, anyhow), it seems we'll be doing the same thing, going forward into a time that's known to cause depression to many, especially those with seasonal affective disorder. We don't know if our positive intentions will yield the results we want. Or maybe we're going through a hard time, and we know things will get better in the long run, but we are afraid to take positive action today. There's that little internal voice that whispers, "who are you kidding? This isn't going to work for YOU." We eat the apple, which "faythe"s as it grows, in order to faythe towards our own growth.

Another possible reason for the apple-eating custom among Ashkenazim is that it's a traditional fruit in European lands, and it's not like they had a bunch of tasty mangos, oranges or bananas hanging from trees. Let's face it, Europeans have much to offer the world, but they aren't traditionally know for their abundance of fruit.

While the apple is known in Christian lore as the "forbidden fruit" that caused Adam and Eve to be banished from the garden, there are a variety of opinions in Jewish thought about the forbidden fruit's identity. The apple is just one opinion...

...of course, I have also read about an opinion that the garden of Eden myth expresses God's desire for Adam and Eve to eat the "forbidden" fruit in order to grow into complete, autonomous and spiritually mature beings. Hmm... this is quite a bit of food for thought.

So there you have the meaning(s) behind apples and honey. But what about the pomegranate and the other stuff? The pomegranate's seeds symbolize the many mitzvot, or good deeds, we should do during the coming year. It also symbolizes how God/dess gets us to grow spiritually. We see a big shiny colorful thing and immediately want to bite it. Then we find out that the rind is bitter and yucky. But as we're spitting out the rind, we notice there's a bit of sweetness to it. That's when we realize that the red jewel-seeds inside are quite yummy. (This sounds similar to the idea God/dess wanting Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge.

The last symbolic food my family ate for Rosh Hashanah consisted of raisins, lettuce, and celery in order to try a new Rosh Hashana food custom. The blessing goes, "This year, lettuce half-a-raisin celery." Amen to that, Chag Sameach, Shana Tova and Gut Yontif!!!

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