“You are all standing (nitzavim) today before Hashem, your G-d.”
Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat just before Rosh Hashana, because Rosh Hashana appears in the first verse of the parsha. The commentaries say that any time the word “hayom” (today) is mentioned in the Torah, it refers to Rosh Hashana. The question is: Why does the Torah use the esoteric word nitzavim and not the more common word omdim for ‘standing’?
We have many “peculiar” minhagim on the different festivals, but none stranger than those on Rosh Hashana. Imagine you were to stand trial the following morning on charges of murder – your life hangs in the balance. What do you do the night before the trial? Most people would not be able to sleep the entire night from worry. Yet every year, we stand in judgment before the Creator of the universe, our lives hang in the balance, and what do we do the night before? We dress in white festive clothes and we feast and celebrate! Is this normal behavior?
The Tur (siman 681) says the reason we do so is that we are celebrating a miracle. On the following day, Hashem is going to miraculously forgive our sins. None of us is truly worthy of forgiveness – the prosecuting angel presents Hashem with an endless list of transgressions. However, when Hashem hears the shofar, He switches seats from middat hadin, the attribute of judgment, to middat harachamim, the attribute of mercy, and forgives us. Just like Hashem miraculously allowed us to cross the Red Sea, even though Bnei Yisrael in Egypt were idol worshipers like the Egyptians were. There, the same word is used – hityatzvu – stand and observe G-d’s deliverance. By all accounts we should be saying Hallel on Rosh Hashana to celebrate this miracle; the reason we do not is that singing praises is not appropriate when the Books of Life and Death are laid open before G-d (Gemara, Rosh Hashana 32b).
We have minhagim to eat various different symbolic foods on the night of Rosh Hashana, somewhat resembling a Pesach Seder. There is one minhag, however, that is universal throughout Am Yisrael and that is eating apple dipped in honey. What is the origin of this minhag?
The Maharil (pg. 277) brings a Gemara in Ta’anit (39b) that when Yaakov entered his father’s tent to receive his blessing, blind Yitzchak smelled Yaakov wearing Eisav’s clothing and it smelled like a field of tapuchim (apples?), reminiscent of the scent of Gan Eden, which Yitzchak recalled from his experience at the Akeida. The Gemara and the Maharil’s reference is not to the fruit “apple” but to a Kabbalistic concept, chakal tapuchin, a term used to refer to the place of Hashem’s presence (Shechina).
Another explanation given in Midrash Rabba (Shir Hashirim 8:5) is that apples are synonymous with Am Yisrael at Har Sinai. According to the Midrash, this verse in Shir HaShirim recalls the kindness of the women of Israel, during our slavery in Egypt, who would wake their exhausted husbands under the apple tree and thus our nation prodigiously multiplied, despite Pharaoh’s oppression.
I would like to bring another explanation for this minhag, from the book Meir Panim (pg. 161).
The Hebrew word for apple is tapuach. If the letter peh is dotted, the word is pronounced tapuach; however, if not dotted, it is pronounced tafuach, meaning “swollen.”
Sefer Meir Panim quotes the opinion of R’ Yehuda in the Gemara (Brachot 40a) that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was wheat. It brings a principle that the sin of Chava was being duped by the serpent into preparing and eating a chametz bread made from wheat that had been left to swell and rise. Chava then gave this bread to Adam, who also ate from it and sinned.
According to Meir Panim, the above verse in Shir HaShirim does not refer to apples at all. There are no apple trees in Egypt and there never have been. The equatorial climate is too hot to grow apple trees, which require a long, cold winter to bear fruit. Meir Panim says that this verse refers to the Tree of Knowledge, “eitz hatafuach,” the “swollen tree” (with the peh undotted), referring to the chametz bread made from wheat, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
The verse says “Tachat hatapuach orarticha.” Don’t read “under the apple tree I awakened you” but rather “Tachat hatafuach” – as a tikun (rectification) for the sin with the “swollen” (chametz) bread; “Orarticha – I have restored you” – Am Yisrael at Har Sinai re-attained the state of Adam before the sin; “Shama chiblatcha imecha – there (in Gan Eden, with the Tree of Knowledge) your mother (Chava) damaged you”; “shama chibla yeladatcha” – there she damaged your birth (Chava was cursed that she would suffer in childbirth).
As we can see from all the above explanations, the only connection to actual apples is a play on words, when in fact the fruit apple is not featured anywhere. The non-Jewish sources that consider the apple to be the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge are wrong; they misunderstood this play on words and took it literally. We too, in our minhag of eating eat apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashana, are not completely faultless in also misinterpreting the wordplay yet this minhag has become entrenched and part of our Rosh Hashana festivities.
Where does the minhag of the honey come from?
Meir Panim says Adam later complained (Breishit 3:12) that Chava gave him from the tree to eat, “min ha’eitz.” According to our Sage, Adam did not say “mi’pri ha’eitz,” from the “fruit” of the tree (wheat), but from the end product (bread). The gematria of “min ha’eitz” is the same gematria as the words “im divshi,” with honey!
Rosh Hashana is the day Adam and Chava were created (Gemara, Rosh Hashana 11a) and is also the day we do a tikun, make reparation for their sin, by eating a tapuach/tafuach with honey.
And yes, it also (incidentally) symbolizes our yearning for a sweet year, which is what I would like to bless you all with for the year 5783, a sweet year, a year of tikun olam and, G-d willing, a miraculous year of redemption.
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: Why are there dots in the verse (Devarim 29, 28) “Hanistarot, etc.,” above of the words “Lanu u’levaneinu” and the first letter of the next word, “ad”?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: What was the purpose of the whitewashed stones containing the Torah on Har Eival when Am Yisrael entered the Land? Rabbeinu Bahyei (Devarim 27:3) says that these stones were a declaration that our sole raison de’etre for entering Eretz Yisrael is the Torah and that these stones were an eternal testament to that fact.