May 2, 2017

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are full of customs which on the surface seem pretty strange; for example, casting our sins into the water on Rosh Hashana (Tashlich) and the atonement ritual of Kaparot on the day preceding Yom Kippur.

Dipping an apple in honey is so well known it is now synonymous with Rosh Hashana greetings cards and it is no less strange than either Tashlich or Kaparot. An apple dipped in honey is one of the symbolic foods that we eat on the first night of Rosh Hashana. We return from our evening prayers to find the Yom Tov table not yet laden with a sumptuous Yom Tov meal. Instead it is covered with delectable delights, including apples and honey, fenugreek, leek, beets, dates, gourd, pomegranate, fish and in pride of place the head of a fish (or if you are really lucky a head of lamb).
After Kiddush and Challah (also honey dipped), yet before the meal proper, we embark on what can only be described as a tantalizing taste sensation, eating a morsel from each dish preceded by a short (and equally puzzling) prayer. For example: on eating the apple in honey we say “May it be Your will …that You renew us for a good and sweet New Year”; on eating the pomegranate we sat “May it be Your will…that our merits increase as (the seeds of) a pomegranate”; and on eating the fish we state “May it be Your will … that we be fruitful and multiply like fish”1.
What is the point of this exercise? Do we really think that eating an apple in honey will cause us to have a sweet new year? That eating pomegranate will cause our merits to increase? Or that eating fish will cause us to have more children?
Yet our Sages tell us that “Simanim milsa he2 – these symbols are significant. To understand we need to look a bit deeper.
The Rema in the laws of Rosh Hashana tells us that there are those that are careful not to eat nuts on Rosh Hashana3. One of the reasons he gives is that the Hebrew word for nut (egoz) has the same numerical value (gematria4) as the Hebrew word of sin (chet)5. From this we can see how far we are supposed to distance ourselves from even the hint of sin on Rosh Hashana. The Kotsker Rebbe, with his customary wit, points out not to forget that sin also has the numerical value as the word sin — for sure it is more important for us to distance ourselves from committing a sin rather than just refraining from eating nuts.
These symbols are significant when they come to stir us to strengthen our emunah, our faith. By eating these foods and, more importantly, by saying these short prayers, we fill ourselves with positive will and inspire ourselves to improve our deeds. It is our responsibility not to only keep the bathwater, but also to ensure that we do not lose the deeper meaning of this curious custom.
Each symbol also has its own deeper meaning. One of my favorite explanations of the custom to dip the apple in honey is that of the Bnei Yissasschar.
A highlight of the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services is the prayer of “Unesaneh Tokef”. At the climax of the prayer the congregation call out in unison, “U’teshuva (and repentance), u’tefillah (and prayer), u’tzedakeh (and charity) ma’avirin et roa hagzeira” (remove the evil of the decree!). Above the words “U’teshuva u’tefillah u’tzedakeh” are written another three words Tsom (fast), Kol (voice) and Mamon (money). These three words indicate the means with which we can achieve repentance, prayer and charity.
The Bnei Yissasschar points out that each of these words has the numerical value of 136, in total 4086. Apple, tapuach in Hebrew is spelt taf + peh + vav + chet. The outer letters have the numerical value of 4087 while the inner two letters have the value of 86, which is the equivalent of the name of G-d that represents Judgement8. Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgement when we are judged for our actions. The word for honey in Hebrew is D’vash, which has the same numerical value as Av Harachamim – Merciful Father9.
Dipping the apple in the honey hints to us the way which we can successful turn this Day of Judgment into a merciful one – by repenting, praying and giving charity.
Wishing you a sweet New Year.
  1. The full text can be found in the ArtScroll Rosh Hashana Machzor page 96
  2. Horayos 12a, Kerisus 6a
  3. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 584:2
  4. Each of the letters of the Hebrew Aleph-Bet has an equivalent numerical value. A Gematria is the sum of the values of all the letters in each word. On occasion an additional 1 is added for the word as a whole. Our Sages often link and draw connections between words and phrases with the same numerical value.
  5. Aleph (1) + gimmel (3) + vav (6) + zayin (7) + 1 (for the word) = 18 = chet (8) + tet (9) + aleph (1)
  6. Tzadi (90) + vav (6) + mem (40) = 136; Kuf (100) +vav (6) + lamed (30) = 136; Mem (40) + mem (40) + vav (6) + nun (50) = 136; The sum total is 408
  7. Taf (400) + chet (8) = 408
  8. Peh (80) + vav (6) = 86 = aleph (1) + lamed (30) + heh (5) + yud (10) + mem (40)
  9. Daled (4) + beit (2) + shin (300) = 306 = aleph (1) + beit (2) + heh (5) + resh (200) + chet (8) + mem (40) + yud (10) + mem (40)



TAGS for this article: Rosh Hashana | Yom Tov | Festivals | New Year