By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Every year, our kids came home from religious school with the traditional apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. This is obviously a nice thing for the kids to have a sweet feeling for the day, but we were wondering if there’s anything deeper here for us adults to take away. Our observant relatives in Israel eat all kinds of things on Rosh Hashanah; is there a reason for that, and where can we learn more about it?
— Patty and Marc S.
Dear Patty and Marc,
You can find a complete list of the traditional “Rosh Hashanah Seder,” as some call it, in the “Artscroll Machzor” for Rosh Hashanah. (Locally, check with Bloomenstiel’s or Lone Star Judaica, who should carry it). There you’ll find the list of fruits and vegetables traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah eve, with the appropriate prayers we recite upon each one, all expressing different requests for the Jewish people in the upcoming New Year.
Each of the foods eaten is used because there is a play on words, a hint within its name that coincides with one of our important needs. Apples and honey are obvious: with all the sweetness of those foods, we ask God for a sweet New Year. However, a deeper meaning is that the Jewish people, in various places in the Torah, are compared to apples. While there are deep mystical reasons why this is so, a more simple explanation given is that the apple grows differently than most fruits. The leaves of most fruit trees appear before the fruit, providing it with a protective covering. The apple, however, appears before its leaves, without that protection. The Jews are praised for being like the apple, that we live Jewish lives even though it often leaves us seemingly unprotected from our neighbors. We rely on our faith in the Al-mighty for our protection. The bee can sting and also produce sweet honey; we pray to be protected and receive only the sweetness, not the sting.
The date, or tamar, is eaten as its name is similar to the word tam, which means to cease. With it we pray to have our enemies desist and allow us to live in peace. We do the same with all the other fruits and vegetables, connecting their name with our prayers.
These foods are called simanim, or signs. We are creating positive, sweet signs for what will be coming during the next year. This is based upon a concept from the Midrash which teaches, “Maasei Avos Siman Lebanim,” that whatever transpired in the lives of the forefathers is a sign of what’s to play out in the history of their progeny. We can understand this by considering a young sapling: How it takes root and grows in its fledgling stages, and how straight it is in its beginnings, will have a tremendous impact on how it will look hundreds of years later as a towering tree.
The patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people took great pains to perform actions which would later have a tremendous positive impact upon the people. For example, one early commentary explains that we find a very unique, seemingly inexplicable trait among the Jewish people — that a Jew would suddenly, against all odds and reason, decide to make aliyah to Israel long before it was a modern country. This is despite the person really having no clue what it will be like, how he or she will attain their livelihood or where they will live. What gives the Jews this innate power and trust that things will be all right in Israel? The commentary explains it was Abraham fulfilling the test of Lech-Lecha, “go forth!” He heeded the word of God although he had no idea where God was leading him and what it would be like; this became implanted in the “Jewish genes” for all time!
The halachic work Chayei Adam utilizes this concept to explain the simanim of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is the “root” of the rest of the year. How one acts toward others, prays and conducts themselves on this day has a tremendous impact on the rest of the year. It’s easy to eat sweet things on Rosh Hashanah, but far more difficult and much more impactful to be as sweet as we can be on Rosh Hashanah to others, especially to our spouses and children!
May you and all the readers be blessed with a sweet, joyous, meaningful, healthy and happy New Year. And may we enjoy peace and prosperity in Israel and with our people throughout the world.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.