Apples and Honey, Repentance and Covenant

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Batsheva Leah Weinstein

We all know of the minhag to eat apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah. The reason most often given for this custom, and indeed we say this before we eat them, is that  it  symbolizes our desire for a sweet new year. However, as the Maharil points out, the language used to describe this minhag is ״נוטלים התפוח וטובלים בדבש״ — we take the apple and dip it in the honey. We do not say ״אוכלים דבש עם תפוח״ — we eat honey with an apple. This implies that the apples themselves are important. This can also be derived by the fact that we make a bracha ״בורא פרי העץ״ as opposed to a ״שהכל נהיה בדברו״, which tells us that it is the תפוח that is the עיקר, the main thing, and not the honey. We can now ask our question: why do we dip apples in honey?

When Yaakov, pretending to be Esav, comes to Yitzchak to receive the bracha for the firstborn, Yitzchak says, ״ראה ריח בני כריח השדה אשר ברכו ה׳״ — see the scent of my son like the scent of a field that was blessed by Hashem. רב יהודה בריה דרב שמואל בר שילת says in the name of Rav, ״כריח שדה של תפוחים״ — the scent of a field of apples. The midrash Bereishit Rabbah says that when Yaakov entered the room, the fragrance of גן עדן came in with him. Thus, the apples that we eat on Rosh Hashanah symbolize גן עדן, an appropriate reference for the Day of Judgement.

In the midrash בראשית רבתי, Rav explains this passuk in a different way. When Yitzchak saw that the children of Yaakov who rebelled against Hashem ״יתנו ריח טוב שיעשו תשובה״ — that they will give off a good scent, meaning that they will repent and return to God, the presence of the שכינה rested on him and he was able to give Yaakov the bracha. According to this interpretation, the field of apples refers toבני ישראל doing teshuvah. Consequently, when we eat apples, it is a reminder for us to do teshuvah.

Another reason for eating apples is from a passuk in Shir Hashirim which says ״כתפוח בעצי היער״ — like an apple tree amongst the trees of a forest, which refers to בני ישראל. R’ Tzadok Hakohen explains that בני ישראל are compared to apples because, just like the fruits of an apple tree come before the leaves, so too בני ישראל said נעשה — we will do — before נשמע — we will hear.  Overlooking the scientific accuracy of this statement, our point is, that just like the important thing of the tree — the fruits — come before the less important part of the tree — the leaves, so too בני ישראל put the important thing — doing what G-d commanded– before the less important thing — finding out what G-d wants us to do. Therefore, apples remind us of מתן תורה and our covenant with G-d in which we promised to obey His Torah.

Here we have a number of reasons of why we eat apples on Rosh Hashanah, all based on references to apples in the p’sukim. We dip them in honey for a sweet new year but the apples themselves are also symbolic and relevant to Rosh Hashanah.

Batsheva Leah Weinstein (Midreshet Avigayil 2015) is a sophomore at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls.

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