By Rabbi Elchonon Feldman, Bushey United Synagogue
The Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) suggests a curious etymology for the name given to the bulge at the front of a man’s throat. The term ‘Adam’s Apple’ originates “from the superstition that a piece of the forbidden fruit which Adam ate stuck in his throat, and occasioned the swelling”. This myth proposes that we have a permanent physical reminder of Adam’s sin of eating, which took place at the beginning of Creation.
However, there is no basis to assume that the piece of fruit from the Tree of Knowledge was in any way an apple. The verse in Bereishit seems intentionally ambiguous about the specific identity of this tree: “But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it, for on the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die” (Bereishit 2:17). The Talmud (Berachot 40a) actually suggests three possible identities, none of which are an apple tree. We can therefore conclude, Brewer’s Dictionary notwithstanding, that apples have no natural link to sin whatsoever.
This is somewhat of a relief, considering that apples are specifically designated on Rosh Hashanah as a siman tov, ‘a good sign’, of a sweet new year ahead. What is the symbolism of the apple? How does it reflect our perspective on Rosh Hashanah?
Perhaps an event which the Torah relates about two of our patriarchs can shed light on this. When Ya’akov approached his failing-sighted father Yitzchak, in his attempt to take the blessings away from his brother Esav, Yitzchak remarked: “Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field, which God has blessed” (Bereishit 27:27). The Talmud (Ta’anit 29b) explains that this pleasant ‘fragrance’ was in fact the scent of an apple orchard. Yitzchak understood that this must symbolise a blessing from God.
Aware of the importance of these blessings, Ya’akov was on a mission. He understood that if events were left to take their natural course, his and his future descendants’ spiritually unique bond with God was in danger. He knew that if he were to fail in his charge, he would never actualise the potential within himself. He would never transition from Ya’akov to Yisrael, the name he was later given, which was an indication that he would receive the mantle from his father. This critical moment would dictate whether one day there would be an Am Yisrael, a Jewish nation. In this mission, he received a little nod from God, demonstrating approval as he pursued this holy task. This approval was shown through a scent, a beautiful fragrance of apples, to demonstrate that God was blessing the work of his hands and that his deed was meritorious.
This lesson helps to explain why we turn specifically to apples every year on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. They symbolise that we too, like Ya’akov our ancestor, are tasked with ensuring there will be an Am Yisrael, a thriving Jewish people, and that we must continue this work in the year ahead. We dip this fragrant fruit in honey and pray that our continued holy work should be full of goodness and sweetness.