One of the most famous and favored customs we Jews perform during the Rosh Hashana holiday dinner is to dip an apple into honey as an expression of our hopes for a sweet new year. Why, though, do we specifically choose an apple for this ritual and not any other sweet fruit that could as easily serve this purpose? What is the deeper symbolism of the apple and what message does it impart to us on the awesome Day of Judgment?
King Solomon, in his Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim), metaphorically compared the Children of Israel (Bnei Yisrael) to “an apple tree amidst the trees of the forest…” Our Rabbis OB”M explained this metaphor to mean that just as the apple tree is unique in that it sprouts its fruit before its leaves, so too did the Children of Israel proclaim at Mt. Sinai, “We will do and we will hear” (“Naaseh V’Nishma”).
The apple tree symbolically represents the enthusiastic desire to fulfill an appointed mission, even before exercising the simple precaution of first shielding itself with a protective leaf covering. So, too, did Bnei Yisrael leap at the opportunity to perform Hashem’s commandments even before they heard what was demanded of them.
We dip the apple in honey with the hope and prayer that Hashem will accept our service and open our hearts to the sweetness of drawing close to Him on this holiest of days, and throughout the coming year.
Hashem was so moved (so to speak) by the Bnei Yisrael’s unquestioning commitment to His Torah that He asked, “Who revealed this secret to My children—verily the same words that the ministering heavenly angels proclaim when performing their service?”
Naturally, angels of G-d immediately respond to any Divine mandate without the need to understand its underlying rationale. They have complete faith in the perfect goodness of Hashem’s dictates. Theirs is not to question why.
Amazingly, the Children of Israel—mere mortals made of flesh and blood; subject to human vice and foible—exhibited the same level of unquestioning commitment to Hashem’s commandments (mitzvos) as did the angels.
This was not the case with the other nations of the world. When Hashem offered them His Torah, they first questioned its contents. Upon hearing of the various restrictions which they could not abide, they summarily rejected G-d’s offer of His holy teachings.
In fact the Talmud (Shabbos 88a) records the gentiles’ disdain for the Jews’ blind faith in Hashem’s Torah. A Sadducee (a member of a sect that rejected the Oral Law) observed the Talmudic scholar Rava as he sat with this face buried in his holy books. Rava was so engrossed in his learning that he failed to realize he was sitting on his hands, exerting such pressure that his fingers were spurting blood. The Sadducee exclaimed with revulsion, “What an impetuous nation you are; your mouths precede your ears” (i.e., you proclaimed at Sinai, “We will do and we will hear”). “You still retain your impetuousness!”
The Sadducee exclaimed with revulsion, “What an impetuous nation you are; your mouths precede your ears” (i.e., you proclaimed at Sinai, “We will do and we will hear”). “You still retain your impetuousness!”
As the Sadducee saw it, Rava was suffering much pain from his study and observance of Torah. The Bnei Yisrael, to this Sadducee’s mind, had bitten off more than they could chew by accepting a set of rules and laws without even considering the consequences of such blind acceptance. This, naturally, would lead to a painful bloodletting.
What the Sadduccee failed to understand was that Rava, through his intense study of Hashem’s sublime teachings, had achieved an ecstatic state of spiritual transcendence that rendered him all but oblivious to his own physical condition. This is the purest form of pleasure a human can achieve.
This is the purest form of pleasure a human can achieve.
Stories are told of great Torah masters who steeped themselves in Torah study to the point that their faces shone forth with an otherworldly luminescence. They became so immersed in their studies they often forgot to eat or drink for days at a time. This demonstrates a level of total faith in Hashem’s beneficence and complete subservience and devotion to fulfilling His will. And this is precisely what we Jews, as children and servants of G-d, endeavor to achieve on Rosh Hashana, the day in which we proclaim G-d as King of the universe.
And so it is that we take an apple on Rosh HaShana, invoking the merit of our ancestors who committed themselves and all future generations of the Jewish people to the faithful service of Hashem under any and all circumstances. In so doing, we also dedicate ourselves to the eternal mission of our holy people to proclaim Hashem as Supreme Sovereign of all creation.
May Hashem bless all of us with a good and sweet year, a year of spiritual elevation and material bounty. And may we all be written and inscribed into the book of life, meriting to see Hashem’s ultimate redemption and salvation of his holy and precious children, Amen.