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Apples and Honey

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Berel Wein

Discovering the traditional origins and meaning of Rosh Hashanah's most famous foods.

We're all familiar with the Jewish custom of dipping an apple into honey and eating it on the night of Rosh Hashana. All Jewish customs have Torah, historical and traditional origins, though many of them may be now somewhat obscure due to the passage of time and the circumstances of the long exile of Israel.

So why the apple? Is not placing honey on the piece of challah bread that we begin the meal with sufficient to symbolize a sweet year? What is the special symbolism of the apple that makes it the fruit that most graces our Rosh Hashana table?

The sophisticated doubters amongst us have stated that the apple is used because it is the fruit that was most available in all of the areas of the world of the Jewish exile. However, such reasoning begs the question and misses the entire point of the reasons for the preservation of Jewish customs. Jewish customs come to reinforce Jewish identity and memory. They serve to remind us of our special responsibilities and duties toward God and man. They reinforce our sense of solidity with all previous Jewish generations, and provide an effective method of transmitting our tradition and heritage to our children and grandchildren.

One of the tragedies of the alienation of many Jews currently from their heritage is their ignorance and non-participation regarding Jewish customs. Thus, the custom of the eating of the apple dipped into the honey on the night of Rosh Hashana does have a special traditional significance over and above the ready availability of the fruit at this season of the year. And it is this special significance of memory that enhances the beauty and even the sweetness of the custom.

Fruit of Affection

One of the fruits to which the Jewish people are compared to in Solomon's Song of Songs is the apple. "As the apple is rare and among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved -- Israel -- amongst the maidens (nations) of the world."

The Midrash informs us that the apple tree puts forth the nub of its fruit even before the leaves that will surround and protect the little fruit at its beginning stage of growth are fully sprouting. The Jewish people, by accepting the Torah with the statement that "we will do and we will understand" -- placing holy action and observance of Torah commandments even before understanding and rational acceptance -- thereby imitated the behavior of the apple. Thus, the apple became a Jewish symbol, a memory aid, so to speak, to the moment of revelation at Sinai.

The apple also served to remind the Jewish people of their enslavement in Egypt and their deliverance from that bondage. Again, according to Midrash, the apple served as the fruit of affection between husband and wife during the long and painful period of abject slavery. It provided them with hope for the future and the determination to bring a future generation into the world, despite all of the bleakness of Jewish circumstance. The apple therefore also became the symbol of the Jewish home and family, of optimism for a brighter Jewish future, of the tenacity of Jewish spirit and determination.

Garden of Eden

It is interesting to note that in general society, the apple is assigned the role of the fruit of temptation in the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The apple therefore became the symbol of human weakness and downfall, even of death itself.

The fruits on the Garden of Eden were wheat, figs and grapes.

However, the Talmud, when listing the possible "fruits" that may have been products of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, does not include apples in that list. The "fruits" mentioned are wheat, figs and grapes.

There is one Jewish source for an apple being that fateful fruit, quoted in Midrash, but it does not have the weight of authority that a statement in Talmud possesses. The Christian world, for unknown reasons, adopted the view of that Midrash and all Christian art, story and religious tradition for the last 1,500 years has given the apple a bad name.

Not so amongst Jews, where the apple retains its positive symbolism and has its place of honor on our Rosh Hashana table -- as a harbinger of a good, sweet and holy year for us all.

Hey Honey!

Another favorite food staple in the Jewish home during the High Holy Day season is honey. Traditionally, from Rosh Hashana until after Sukkot, honey is served with every major meal. It is smeared on the bread over which we recite the "Hamotzi" blessing, the sweet apple is dipped into honey on the night of Rosh Hashana, sweet baked goods are baked with honey, and honey is used in the preparation of foods such as glazed carrots and sweet desserts.

Aside from the caloric disaster that this custom entails, one is really hard pressed to find a negative thing to say about honey.

The custom of honey on the Jewish table during the High Holiday period is an ancient and universal Jewish custom. It is already recorded in the works of the Babylonian Geonim in the 7th century, and probably dates back to even much earlier times. It is no exaggeration to say that Jews always seemed to possess a sweet tooth.

The obvious reason for the use of honey on our table at this time of the year is the symbolism of our desire for a "sweet new year." Sweet means dear, precious, enjoyable, satisfying, serene, secure and something most pleasing. Well, that about sums up our hopes and prayers for the new year, and therefore honey serves as our representative in expressing these fervent hopes and prayers.

The Bible describes the Land of Israel as "flowing with milk and honey."

However, honey represents more than sweetness per se. It is one of the attributes of the Land of Israel which is described in the Bible as being a land that "flows with milk and honey." Thus honey on the table always reminded the Jew wherever he or she resided of their ancient homeland of Israel and of the Jewish attachment to its history and holy soil.

Actually, the honey referred to in the land flowing "with milk and honey" is not the common bee honey that we use today, but rather describes the honey of biblical times that was primarily produced from overripe dates. Even today, here in Israel, date honey is produced and sold, though the overwhelming majority of honey on the market comes from bees.

Is it Kosher?

The use of bee honey as a permissible kosher food raises an interesting halachic question. The general rule is that food products that are derived from non-kosher creatures are never considered to be kosher for Jewish use as a food. Bees are a non-kosher species of insect life, and therefore one would think that the honey that they produce within the sacs of their bodies would also not be kosher. Yet we find in the Bible that bee honey was eaten without compunction -- the story in the book of Judges of Samson and the bees producing honey on the lion's carcass being only one such example.

Why is honey different from, say, milk from a camel that remains non-kosher, since the camel itself which gave the milk is a non-kosher animal?

The rabbis of the Talmud studied the problem and decided that the sac in the bee that contains the honey is halachically considered to be only a storage place of the honey, and neither it or the honey produced are an integral part of the bee's body. By contrast, the milk-producing organs and the lactating process of the camel are an integral part of the camel's circulatory and digestive system, and thus the camel and its milk product both have the same status of being non-kosher.

The same logic applies to permitting the use of resinous glaze in kosher products today, even though the product originally comes from the body of the insect lac which is found on the trees of rain forests. There too, the sac that contains the glaze and the glaze itself are not considered to be an integral part of the body of the insect itself.

Its symbolism of sweetness in life, its connection to the Land of Israel, its role in halachic discussion, decision and precedent concerning its kashrut, all have combined to make honey a "Jewish" food. The use of honey as a food is certainly one of the more enjoyable customs of Jewish tradition. May its symbolism of sweetness truly be a harbinger of delight for the good year for us all.


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