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Apple and Honey--Thoughts on sweetness in Judgment or Rosh HaShana

On Rosh Hashana night, we take a sweet apple, dip it in honey, and ask Ha-Shem to bless us with a good and sweet year. Yet why specifically did our sages choose apple and honey? Why not something else sweet upon which to articulate and visualize this image?

It is interesting to note that Rosh Hashana, also known as Judgment day, is strongly connected to our forefather Yitzchok (Isaac), and there is a direct connection between the apple we eat on Rosh Hashana and Yitzchok Avinu. Our sages point out, interestingly, that the words "seh akeida" (bound sheep) have the same numerical value as "tapuach" (apple). Unlike his father Avrohom, whose unique form of service was through Chesed or kindness, Yitzchok's essence was Din or uncompromising justice. It was through the vehicle of Yitzchok being bound, judgment being shackled as it were, that Avrohom, the paradigm of Chesed is able to lift up his eyes, and see the ram from which the shofar comes. The shofar, wails our wordless haunting primal scream, our plea for HELP and like an echo in a vast valley, its reverberations reach the very seat of justice where our Father the King is today judging the world, and decreeing who will live, who will die, and what will be the quality of life, in the coming year.

When He hears the voice of his beloved child suffering, He can't bear it, and judges us with abundant mercy. This is the essence of Rosh Hashana, the paradox of harsh judgment being adjudicated against us, the defenseless, hopelessly guilty accused, and yet we know a secret...THE JUDGE IS OUR FATHER WHOSE LOVE FOR US IS INFINITE!

So what does this have to do with apple and honey? When the Torah tells us that "Yitzchok went out to daven in the field," the gemora in Taanit informs us that at that moment, the fragrance of an apple field from Gan Eden could be perceived. Yitzchok's perception of this fragrance represented his heightened state of kedusha or holiness, reaching the exalted state that Adam Harishon was on before his sinned. This he achieved through his unique "service" of Din. (This poetic description of a holy apple orchard our sages also tell us metaphorically refers to Hashem's divine presence, his Shechina, which we invite, according to the Arizal, to join us at our Friday night Shabbat meal.)

And we can conclude, also, that on this day of judgment, on Yitzchok's day, we eat apple to remind ourselves of the awesome judgment we are going through, and the precipitous level we are expected to be on. We specifically use red apples to allude to the verse which we repeated quote during this season from the prophet Yeshaya: "Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be whitened as snow."

All well and good if we are on the level of Yitzchok and are able to stand up to pure judgment. But few even approach this stature! Therefore, just like with the akeida, we sweeten the Din with honey, ironically a food which comes from an insect that inflicts pain and administers harsh judgment. As the gemara in Brachot tells us from the case of Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa, insects and animals are merely messengers bringing about the consequence of one's sin. Honey, the Rambam tells us in Hanhagat Habriut, is warming to the body, and medicinally should be indicated for the elderly, and avoided by the young, especially those who are hot-tempered by nature. Therefore, it is the perfect compliment to warm and modify the Din.

We might consider, that from a Chinese perspective, apples are cool, sweet and sour, and is not judgment dispassionate and cool? Honey on the other hand is neutral and sweet, and has the ability to antidote toxicity.

As a final thought, as we prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashana, let us consider the special prayer that we say before we eat apple and honey, "May it be acceptable before you, Hashem our G-d and G-d of our fathers, that we should have a good and sweet year." In light of the previous, perhaps we should look at the terms "good and sweet" from a different perspective: Hashem created a world with perfect order, a "good" world which could function based upon the metaphysics of pure "din". However, just as the light of the sun is both healing and blinding, we need the sweetness of Hashem's attribute of mercy in order to survive. As we grow spiritually, we aspire to reach levels of perception whereby we can comprehend the brilliant good inherent in all that He does. As Rabbi Akiva tells us, "Everything that The Merciful One does, he does for good." Therefore, this is our prayer, says the Toldot Adam: May we be blessed in this new year to experience not just the abundant good that he does, but specifically may we taste it all with sweetness and without pain.

Amen, Ken Yehi Ratzon.


Though not directly relating to either Tradition or medicine (Jewish or otherwise), the article which follows conveys a perspective of optimism and hope which reflects the essence of Traditional Jewish Medicine. It is my firm conviction, that the two most powerful forces preventing healing are fear and pessimism, a spirit of hopelessness. My friend and former employer, Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, the Dean of Yeshiva Ohr Eliyahu, once quoted from Braishis Rabba (98:20) an idea which reflects this very spirit:

"Rabbi Yitzchok said, 'Anything is possible with hope! Suffering can be released with hope! Sanctifying the Name of Ha-Shem can be achieved through hope! The merit of our forefathers can be tapped to reach Ha-Shem with hope! The spiritual pleasure of the world to come can be achieved with hope!
...Undeserved grace is granted by Ha-Shem with hope! (And) one is granted forgiveness by Ha-Shem with hope!"

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