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If you didn't sing about apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year, did Rosh Hashanah happen?

Perhaps by some pedagogical directive of all Jewish elementary schools, every child will come home singing about dipping apples in honey. First to the parents’ delight, but then, I suspect, ad nauseam. Parents will recognize the tune, which actually comes from a popular folk-song from the late 19th century. And although I understand its value for children, particularly vis a vis an austere holiday with not much else to excite them, I do reckon that the original lyrics might have more to offer this season.

The reason I say this is that the simanim, or the sweet or fortuitously-named foods that are eaten to represent the blessings we wish for in the coming year, have turned into something they were not intended to be: they have transformed from a symbolic practice, originating in the Talmud and meant to evoke positive feelings and aspirations about the year ahead, into a religious ritual. And the words that are said before they are consumed, with or without God’s name, have begun to appear as an incantation. Indeed the medieval sage, Menahem Ha-Meiri, writes that saying the yehi ratzon actually prevents people from thinking that the foods themselves have some effect. Nevertheless, the practice in its current form, which is reinforced by this song, makes an explicit connection between the foods we eat and our fate, and therefore borders on sorcery.

By contrast, the song that the melody is taken from concerns loss, imagined or not, and the dangers of taking people for granted. According to the Encyclopedia of American Folklore,  the song is based on a folk-legend dated to the 1880s, and it is attributed to Percy Montrose. The lyrics describe a tragic event, a loss that endures “forever,” and it is therefore not an easy message to hear. But I think that more can be gained by internalizing that which is implied by the song — the lesson of cherishing life — than what is learned from its “Jewish” version. In fact, the same idea also emerges from a close analysis of the theology concerning this time of year and the Jewish liturgy for Rosh Hashanah.

Specifically, there is a notion that repentance for what we have done (teshuvah) can influence our fate. The thinking goes that, if we change our ways and beseech God, we can avert negative decrees and even merit positive ones. However, drawing on Genesis in particular, Maimonides notes that there are judgements on cities as well. What emerges from that statement, but also from the notion of in-between people (beinonim), who do not have the clear cut status of righteous beings or evildoers, is that there is a grey area in human fate. Similarly, the words said in our prayers, such as “who will live?” or the statement that prayer itself “removes the severity of decrees,” rather than reverses them altogether, suggests that there are no guarantees about how everyone else will fare. What that gap between our well-being and the fate of our city, country, and planet teaches us is that we should not take those about whom we care for granted. In other words, we need to remind ourselves that friends, family, and community have far more meaning in our lives than any fruit ever should.

Shanah Tova!

About the Author
Jonathan Milevsky holds a PhD in Religious Studies from McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario, and his areas of interest include medieval Jewish thought as well as rabbinic theology. Jonathan has an M.A. in Humanities and a Jewish Studies Diploma from York University in Toronto Canada, where he researched Maimonides' and Nietzsche's views on character development. Jonathan lives in Toronto with his spouse and four children.
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