There is a famous practice to eat Simanim on Rosh HaShana - we take foods of significance, find a relevant play-on-words to the name of the food or how the food looks, and just before we eat them we beseech Hashem to send us only good things in the coming year.
It’s an age-old practice. We’ve been raised since we were little children to sing, “Dip the apple in the honey, make a Bracha loud and clear - A Shana Tova U’Mesuka, have a good and sweet new year!” Dip, eat, (contemplate) and rejoice. This seemingly simple custom contains within it a deep and beautiful significance. Let’s explore.
We know that the apple-honey-dip is not the only ‘Siman’ that we eat on the night of Rosh HaShana. Fish heads, pomegranates, black-eyed-peas, leeks and others are all make predictable appearances on Jewish tables around the world. But there is one characteristic that sets the apple and honey apart. In Shulchan Aruch, all of the relevancies of the Simanim are explicitly described. Pomegranates, for example have a tremendous amount of seeds – the whole inside is jam-packed with them! On this we request from Hashem that He increases our merits like the seeds of a pomegranate. On the fish or goat head (goat-heads are not for the faint-of-heart) we request that God make us heads – significant and thoughtful, and not like tails – brainless followers. The list goes on.
On the apple dipped in honey, like we mentioned before, we ask Hashem for a Shana Tova U’Mesuka - a good and sweet new year. True, apple and honey are a sweet combination. But cotton-candy is sweet too! Strawberries are very sweet. There are endless possibilities, so why specifically this combination? It’s got to be an apple and it’s got to be honey… why? A second question: what’s with the language of a Shana Tova U’Mesuka - a good and sweet new year. We can ask for good or we can ask for sweet. We can split it up into two Simanim! All the other Simanim are requested one at a time! We can ask for ‘good’ on either the apple or honey and for ‘sweet’ on the other! But we need to ask for both together, and we specifically need to dip the apple in the honey, why?
To crunch down the questions: Why specifically apple and honey if the request can be tied to many foods? Why must we specifically bring these two together by dipping one in the other? And why the double-layered request?
Reb Tzadok HaKohen from Lublin answers our questions with a fascinating approach based on the passuk in Tehilim (97:11): “Or Zarua La’Tzadik, U’L’Yishrei Lev Simcha.” ‘Light is to be grown for the righteous and those who are straight of heart will be happy.’ Says Reb Tzadok, this verse contains all of our answers.
The Passuk seems to describe two levels, the Tzadik and the Yishrei Lev, the righteous and the straight of heart. What’s the difference? A second question: The righteous get ‘Light’ and the straight of heart are connected to joy. Why is each reward fitting to each category it is mentioned with?
Let’s begin by addressing the definitions of the two categories listed. Says Reb Tzadok, the first category, the Tzadik does all the right things all the time and none of the wrong things any of the time. On the level of straight-up actions, his checklist is perfect. This doesn’t mean that he’s always enjoying himself, it just means that in the realm of Ma’aseh - deed, he gets straight A’s.
But then there is the second, higher level of Yishrei Lev - the straight of heart. These unique individuals posses all of the positive qualities of the Tzadik but with an important added bonus: the heart. True, they do all the correct things, but even more than that – they love every second of it! They are constantly in the ‘zone’. Always ‘feeling it.’ Those who are “Yashar Lev” – straight of heart – have their heart penetrate straight through everything they do.
So why does the Tzadik get ‘Light’ as a reward? To understand this we need to look back to Bereishis when light was created. The Passuk says, “Vayar Elokim Es HaOr Ki Tov.” ‘And God saw that the light was Tov - Good.’ Rashi says there that God took this original light and hid it away for the righteous to benefit from in the future. This isn’t just light that brightens the physical – this is light that illuminates the soul. This is the radiance of closeness to Hashem. This is the warmth of the World-to-Come. This is the Or HaGanuz - the hidden light: the light for Tzadikim.
There is no doubt that the Tzadik that we described above is worthy to receive from and partake in this light. He does all the right things, and therefore gets the reward he deserves.
But the Yishrei Lev? They not only get the light, but they even enjoy this world on a totally different level. Their world has an added Simcha joy, happiness, wholeness. Why? Because they don’t just do the right actions, they are ecstatic about their Avodas Hashem! Their checklist is complete in the realm of deed, and they get the additional benefit of getting a Geshmak - a spiritual high, an added sweetness in life.
Let’s take the ideas of Tzadik and Yishrei Lev, the concepts of Or and Simcha, and momentarily put them aside so that we can address another issue before tying everything together at the end. Why specifically apple and honey?
The Gemara in Shabbos tells us that Am Yisrael is like an apple tree. Chazal tell us that an apple tree is unique among all trees in that the fruit precedes the leaves. In most cases leaves come as harbingers of fruits that are soon coming. But the apple tree shoots forth its produce before the leaves arrive and announce the arrival of the fruit. This is parallel to how the Jews at Mount Sinai said “Na’aseh - We shall do” before they said “Nishma - We shall listen.” Usually one listens and contemplates before agreeing to action, this listening is comparable to the leaves of the tree. But the Jews shot forth the fruit first – the committed themselves to action without any hesitation.
Thus Reb Tzadok connects the level of Tzadik to the concept of apple. Just like an apple signifies a firm dedication to action at all costs, so too a Tzadik is firmly rooted in perect action.
And honey? Honey is Scripture’s paradigmatic example of sweetness. Says the Passuk in Shoftim, ‘Mah Masok Mi’Dvash? - What is sweeter than honey?’ But what is sweetness really? Sweetness implies that the food is not just physically going down my throat, but I’m getting that extra Geshmak, an added bonus just to make things more exciting.
And Reb Tzadok connects this concept of Dvash to the level of Yishrei Lev. Just like honey gives an extra spike of excitement, so too the Yishrei Lev are living with that extra enthusiasm in their Avodas Hashem!
For this reason we dip the apple into the honey. And for this reason we ask Hashem for a Good and Sweet new year. Because at the end of the day we want both levels. We want to connect the depth of the Apple to the depth of the Honey. We want to do all the right things and we also want to be totally thrilled by it. We want to live lives where we are Tzadikim - lives of Or, lives of Tov and bring it into our hearts, to be Yishrei Lev, to live with excitement, with that added Simcha, that extra Mesikus - the sweetness.
We don’t just ask Hashem for a Shana Tova - a year of Tov, we ask to bind that good to the Misikus. We don’t just want apples; we want to connect them to the honey. A Shana Tova and Mesuka. Apple in the honey. To take the Or Zarua La’Tzadik and bring it into the U’L’Yishrei Lev Simcha. Gevalt.
B’Ezras Hashem, as we start the new year, let’s pray that Hashem gives us the strength to serve Him with joy with excitement and sweetness. That we be empowered to do all the Mitzvos all the time, and do them with a Geshmak. We need to ask Hashem to energize us so that our Avodas Hashem becomes the most exciting thing in our lives.
If we can do this, there is no doubt that we will live lives of meaning (U’L’Yishrei Lev) happiness, moving closer to the Creator and ultimately the redemption!