Apples and Honey on Rosh Hashanah
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I know what you are thinking right now: “Rabbi, that one is easy. I went to Hebrew School. A sweet treat for a sweet year. I can even sing the song:
Dip the apple in the honey, make a bracha loud and clear.
Shanah tovah u-m’tukah, have a happy sweet new year!
I got this one, Rabbi. Now let the cantors sing something, so we can all go home to eat dinner!”
Not so fast! You need to know that like most things in life, the real apple and honey story is actually a little more complicated than what they taught you in Hebrew school. You see, unlike the shofar, the pomegranate, and my mother’s chicken soup – all the simanim, the symbols of Rosh Hashanah, mentioned in the Talmud – apples are not on the list. Indeed, the first mention of this custom is only in the thirteenth century, when the Ashkenazi rabbinic authority Yaacov ben Asher, known as the Ba’al ha-Turim, codified that one should dip an apple in honey as we usher in the new year.
But, and this is a big but, you also need to know that the sweetness that we associate with the domesticated apple, Malus Domestica, was not an attribute of its wild ancestor, Malus Sieversii. As Michael Pollan explains in his book The Botany of Desire, our modern-day associations of apples with health, wholesomeness, and sweetness were not at all givens in pre-modern times. As recently as the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau said about the taste of wild apples: “Sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.” Pleasing to see and sweet to smell as a wild apple may have been, its inside was altogether unpalatable; its seeds actually contained a small quantity of cyanide. Forget the Johnny Appleseed stories you may have heard as a kid. Apple consumption was less about apple pie than about the human hankering for hard cider. In other words, either the reason we eat apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah is different than we think, or in the custom’s earliest stages, the sweetness of the honey, like the haroset on the bitter herb, was intended to counteract the smack of the apple’s sour taste.
So, if apples and honey are not about what we think they are about, then what are they about? This evening, I want to give you three possible explanations – some anchored in tradition, some spoken aloud for the first time here this evening – all starting points for you to discuss tonight and in the days ahead.
Explanation number one: Sin. You don’t need to be an anthropologist of religion to wonder if there is some ritualized atonement ceremony taking place as we pass slices of apple to one another to eat during this season of repentance. The fly in the ointment, if you will, is that nowhere in the Torah is the fruit of the Garden of Eden identified as an apple. The Talmud offers all sorts of possible plants for the Tree of Knowledge: wheat, fig, grape, even etrog. But apples – never! Scholars believe the unnamed biblical fruit only became an apple in the fourth century when Jerome translated the Bible into Latin. Noting that the Edenic fruit distinguished between good and evil – Latin malum with a short a (mah-lum) – Jerome intentionally or unintentionally substituted the Latin for apple – malum with a long a (may-lum). His translation became standardized in art, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac.” All of which is a long-winded way of saying that as sure as I am that the origin of eating apples on Rosh Hashanah had nothing to do with the Garden of Eden, it is simply not credible that for the last thousand years, Jews have been biting down on apples oblivious to the fact that all of Christendom associates apples with sin. It is a thesis, mind you, made even more compelling now that I know and you know that the ancient apple, pleasing as it may have been to the eye, was altogether bitter to eat.
So, let me ask you: In the year now ending, did you give into temptation and bite into the apple? Have you fallen short of the standards you set for yourself, your loved ones, and your God? The eleventh-century commentator Rashi noted that when Jacob deceived his blind father Isaac, stealing the birthright from his brother Esau, he concealed his identity by means of the scent of apples. How have we deceived others in the year gone by? What about the honey? Maybe the honey on the apple is meant to signal the nature of sin – a momentary high covering up sin’s bitter and lasting consequence. Or perhaps the honey is meant to signal that whatever our misdeeds, these holidays come as spiritual comfort food, a reminder that teshuvah, repentance, is within reach for us all. Judaism, I should point out, is not Christianity. Jews do not believe that humanity is hardwired one way or another. We bristle at the notion that a person can be cancelled for a single misdeed without the possibility of redemption. In fact, honey has deep theological significance in the Rabbinic imagination. Why? Because even though it comes from a non-kosher animal, the bee, honey is obviously kosher. Maybe honey is meant to remind us that most people don’t fit neatly into categories like kosher and non-kosher and that if we want to receive forgiveness from others for our sins, then a good starting point might be to provide others with that same generosity of spirit. Now there is a sticky topic for tonight’s dinner table: How can we hold people accountable, ourselves included, yet not reduce any soul to one misdeed?
Explanation number two: Jewish identity. If there is a time to take stock of your spiritual geography and perform an annual check-up on how connected you are to your Judaism and the Jewish people, then now is that time. There are a number of species associated with the Land of Israel, but as most of us know, it is most famously described as “a land flowing with milk and honey. When the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem in the Second Temple period of Ezra and Nehemiah, it was precisely on Rosh Hashanah that they were instructed to drink sweet drinks, which the rabbis interpreted as, among other things, honey. If eating the bitter fruit is meant to represent physical and spiritual exile, then the sweetness of honey signals a return to our land, our people, and our tradition. Our ancestors understood this well when they instructed us to place a drop of honey on each letter as children first learn their alef-bet – a pedagogical innovation meant to induce a Pavlovian love for Jewish learning, Jewish identity, and Jewish peoplehood.
So, go around your table tonight and ask each other and, more importantly, ask yourself: How are you in exile from your Jewish self and how can this be the year of return – to our land, our people, and our tradition? How can this be the year you live your Jewish life intentionally, one sweet drop at a time? Thoreau suggested that the westward journey of apples, coming across the Atlantic and entering the new world with a changed identity, is a parable for American identity. This Rosh Hashanah, let the apples and honey serve as a parable for your Jewish identity, a journey of return to rediscover the life-giving roots meant to sustain your spirit.
Explanation number three and perhaps most important: Hope. Stick with me on this one; this interpretation is more difficult than the first two.
One of the few mentions of apples in the Bible is in the love poetry of the Song of Songs: “Beneath the apple I awakened you, there your mother gave birth to you.” (8:5). It is an obscure reference, and the Rabbis have a field day with it. According to the Midrash, when Israel was enslaved in Egypt and all hope was lost, it was the women who insisted, hope against hope, that no matter Pharaoh’s harsh decrees, no matter their husbands’ despair, tomorrow could be a better day. The G-rated version of the story – this is a family service, after all – is that the women leveraged their feminine wiles to convince their enslaved husbands to bring new life into this world – new life that arrived out of Pharaoh’s sight, hidden in the apple orchards. Thus the verse: “Beneath the apple . . . your mother gave birth to you.” By this telling, apples are a profound symbol of human resilience, of as-yet unrealized futures and of hope. Given the year we have had, given what is going on in real time, given the unknowns ahead, I simply cannot think of a more important conversation to have at your Rosh Hashanah table than one centered on hope. Go around your table, and ask each other where resilience can be found, where hope may be hidden, and what role you can play in turning a narrative of despair into one of realizing unseen futures. Men, let the women take the lead on this one: They gave us hope in Egypt; they can give us hope today.
Sin, Jewish identity, and hope – three plausible, or at least possible, explanations for apples and honey. By no means are they the only ones. One friend suggested that this year the ritual should trigger a discussion of the future of our great city, the Big Apple. Another suggested that eating the fruit of the earth is a prompt to discuss our relationship with Mother Earth. One person suggested, for obvious reasons, that apple-based rituals could trigger family discussions about technology, its uses and abuses. My favorite explanation, shared with me by a congregant, is that the holidays are a time to ask the probing question of just how far the apple falls from the tree. As children, to what degree are we extensions of and reactions to those who gave us life? For those of us who are parents, to what degree are we allowing our children to formulate their own identities?
There are as many explanations as there are apples waiting for you outside the synagogue. Take one home tonight, pick one up after services tomorrow. Share one with a friend. Most of all, email me your interpretation. Let’s all be interpreters of tradition, giving new life to this festival and making the tradition our own.
And lest you think me a curmudgeon, or God forbid, disrespectful of our Hebrew school teachers past, present, and future, I will readily grant that the simplest explanation may in fact be the best one of all: a sweet treat for a sweet new year. Isn’t that all we really want? May this be a year of goodness, health, peace, and most of all sweetness – for you, your loved ones, the Jewish people, and all humanity.