The Rosh Hashanah holiday is filled with symbolic imagery, yet few images perhaps have captivated the masses of Jewish People as the simplest of them all: the apple dipped in honey, signifying our hopes and blessings for a sweet new year.
While the specific custom of an apple dipped in honey can only be traced back a few hundred years in Jewish history, first mentioned by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, the Tur, in Orach Chaim, in the 13th Century, it is part of a much larger lexicon of Jewish tradition dating from the times of the Talmud – almost 2,000 years ago – of a special ritual known as the “simanim” – “omens” – in which food items were utilized on Rosh Hashanah to invoke and confer wishes for a prosperous, fortuitous and even blissful year.
How much stock we can place in these omens as accurate prognosticators is a matter of some debate, yet at the end of the day as a whole we have an established tradition and practice as referenced by the Amoraic sage Abaye (Keritut 5b, Horiyot 12a) who declares that “Simana Milta Hi” – omens are indeed taken seriously in Judaism. We look to the naturally occurring events – and even design our own – to impart meaning and purpose in our daily lives.
Over the years, many different Jewish communities have introduced different symbolic gestures for good fortune. Some use squash in their holiday cooking while others use carrots. Some use beets, dates, or even leeks, while some eat the head of a fish (some even eat the head of a lamb or ram! Whatever the custom, each ritual food item over centuries of Jewish continuity sought to do the same thing: to call attention to the majesty and beauty of the holiday’s themes of repentance, judgment, and reflection. They celebrate our ability to find meaning in the mundane and read positivity – quite literally! – right into the very lines of the commonplace.
In this fashion, a pomegranate filled with seeds becomes a blessing for a year filled with good deeds; a dish of fish becomes a hope that our positive experiences and indeed our offspring should increase as fish do (or that we should be like the ‘head’ and not like the ‘tail’!); beets (selek in Hebrew) present hope that our troubles be removed from us (also from the Hebrew word selek – meaning remove); squash (pronounced in Aramaic as kara) is no longer just seasonal squash, but a predictor of our evil decree being torn up (ko-reiah – meaning to tear), and dates (tamar in Hebrew) become an allusion to the ending of our sorrows (tama – to end).
While the customs vary and new ones have been introduced (my favorite is to take lettuce, half a raisin, and celery, and proclaim: ‘Let-us’ ‘have-a-raise-in’ salary’!), they each assert that embedded within Jewish tradition and the Jewish people themselves is a unique capacity to write our own ticket, and choose to see the good and what’s possible, even in the simplest of things.
No matter the circumstances, no matter the ‘din’ – (the “judgment”), we are called upon each year to find the good, to find the positive, to find the possible in all that we encounter. In this way, when it comes to the “simanim” – the food omens we share on Rosh Hashanah – and the kind of year we hope to have, the question isn’t about the forecast or the circumstances, but rather what we can end up making of it.
This idea is actually beautifully expressed in the dipping of the apple into the honey.
While many are somewhat mystified by the practice, there are sources to justify the custom. One of the richer explanations behind the practice can be sourced to a Gemara in Shabbos (88b) that explains a special relationship that apples have to the Jewish people:
אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: מהו שכתוב “כתפוח בעצי היער” – למה נמשלו ישראל לתפוח? לומר לך: מה תפוח זה פריו קודם לעליו אף ישראל הקדימו נעשה לנשמע.
Rabbi Ĥama, son of Rabbi Ĥanina, said: What is the meaning of that which is written: As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, (Song of Songs 2:3)? Why were the Jewish people likened to an apple tree? It is to tell you that just as this apple tree, its fruit grows before its leaves, so too, the Jewish people accorded precedence to “We will do” over “We will hear.”
At first glance the gemara is somewhat perplexing, as anyone who knows anything about botany and agriculture knows that trees must first have leaves – and blossoms – before they have fruit. It’s for this reason that Tosafot point out a different interpretation and venture that the gemara must be speaking about etrogim whose fruit can stay on the tree longer than its leaves, so when the new leaves appear it’s possible that its ‘fruit’ is already present from the last season. This is a novel interpretation, yet a much simpler one can be offered as well. You see, apple trees have a distinct property in that the fruit buds for the coming year’s season are already on the tree while the current season’s fruit is yet to be picked. In fact, when one goes to pick apples they need to be mindful not to harm the buds on the tree lest they potentially impact on next year’s harvest. Apple trees, like Bnei Yisrael, already have the upcoming year’s harvest planned even while this year’s harvest is still intact on the trees! Like Bnei Yisrael who preceded the na’aseh – our willingness to do the mitzvot – to our nishmah – our understanding of why should do them, so too the apple tree is already jumping ahead to the next year while the current fruit is still unpicked. In this respect, the apple represents a certain kind of optimism, that we are so certain of our judgment on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur being positive, that we are already thinking ahead to next year’s holiday!
That would explain the apple’s significance: The Jewish People are like the apple. But what about the honey?
Honey is a fascinating thing from a halachic perspective. It is one of the only food sources that is produced from a non-kosher animal (bees) and yet is itself kosher. How is it possible that we are permitted to eat a food substance that is produced from a non-kosher source? And what does this have to do with Rosh Hashana and having a sweet new year?
One answer involves a deeply mystical concept concerning Teshuva. For bees to produce honey they must first ingest the nectar and pollen. After it has been ingested and processed, the bees then regurgitate the nectar over and over from one bee to the next until it reaches its final development in a new form: honey. Most people don’t know that this is how honey is made (as it can be somewhat unpleasant to consider bee regurgitation when eating!) yet this is indeed how it’s done!
If one takes the process and thinks of it in a simplified manner, nectar (energy) is taken into a bee (something non-kosher) and in the end, through a complex process, comes out as honey (sweet and kosher). This process directly parallels the teshuva process, by which we who have erred have used our energies for improper uses and committed aveirot, yet if we can learn from the experiences and resolve not to err again and instead enrich our newfound understanding and rededicate ourselves back to the ideal, then we have the power to convert these aveirot into something that is actually positive. The ideal of course is not to sin in the first place! But if one has sinned, through teshuva one has the capacity to not undo what they have done, but rather turn that bad experience into something positive. Turning the experience into something positive never fully rectifies having done it in the first place. Nevertheless, in Judaism we always take the optimistic approach that one can always return and do teshuvah, no matter how bad things may have been. We always have the potential to take the negative, and, with hard work, make something sweet and positive out of it. It doesn’t matter how far a Jew has fallen, there is always hope, always a chance, to turn the bad into the sweet.
May this be a year of growth, positivity, strength, and renewal. A year of health and joy, meaning and endurance. And may we merit to see only the good in each new encounter!