Question: Why do Jews eat apples dipped in honey as their special New Year food? — S., Huntington, N.Y.
Answer: Every religious tradition finds some way to eat something sweet. Apples and honey are like chocolate Easter bunnies or the candy-coated almonds at Muslim wedding feasts. Sweetness is not just our favorite imprinted taste but a metaphor for the goodness and grace of God.
Yes, it is true that life occasionally force us to taste the bitterness of sorrow, but the simple taste of something sweet reminds us that every day we awaken to life our blessings exceed our burdens.
King David ate a sweet cake (II Samuel 6:15, 19 and Hosea 3:1) and so do we his descendants on each Rosh Hashana, as we celebrate the coming of the New Year. By our count, this is 5772, which is about 1,000 years more than the Chinese counting. This has led to much speculation about the obvious miracle that allowed the Jewish people to survive 1,000 years without Chinese food!
Seriously, there's almost no clear and definitive reason for eating apples and honey on Rosh Hashana. So let me offer my own interpretation of this traditional delicacy that, I hope, will have meaning for everyone, not just Jews.
Apples and honey are renewable foods that don't require killing anything. Apples reappear every fall and the bees make more honey as soon as some is gathered from the hive. Apples and honey teach us to renew our own efforts to eat in peaceful and renewable ways from food that does not deplete our good earth.
Honey is also the only food on earth that does not spoil. It remains fresh inside those little honey bear dispensers until we use it. By contrast, apples begin to rot as soon as they're picked and oxidize before our eyes when they're cut open. So I think of apples as symbolic of our bodies and honey as symbolic of our souls. Our bodies rot, but our souls are eternal, and when it is time for our bodies to return, like fallen apples, to the earth, our souls live on with God in heaven.
Apples and honey are the perfect choices to remind us of the gifts of body and soul. We are of the earth and we are of God, and it is in this glorious balance that our lives are lived out. So let me invite each of you to dip a slice of a fresh apple into a bowl of (organic) honey and join with me in praying for a good and sweet year, whenever we calculate that year to begin.
Every year, I take some apples and honey to my friend Tommy (Msgr. Thomas J. Hartman, to some of you). This year, his apple essence is a little soft and bruised, but his honey soul is still sweet. Pray for him, as I do, and as I pray for all the souls who need a little something sweet to remind them that the best way for us to find God is not always by what we believe, but by what we taste of God's gifted world.
I learn this by eating apples and honey and I learn it by reading again the sacred words of Psalm 34:8: "O taste and see that the Lord is good." Read the rest of this glorious and hopeful Psalm, and even if you drip a little honey on the page, I think God will understand. May we all have a good and sweet year.
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