An item in the Jewish Chronicle of London, dated September 26, 1902, focused on the consecration of a Sefer Torah and shofar in addition to several large barrels of apples and small containers of honey, all to be used by Jewish immigrants sailing shortly for South Africa. The short piece stressed that these items were needed since "the immigrants will be on the high seas during the ensuing festivals."
The shofar and apples and honey are among the most familiar symbols of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. An insightful assessment is made by Amichai Lau-Lavie, an innovative Jewish educator, about the importance of the objects we use during the coming festive season.
"During the High Holy Days, we are involved in the verbal process of acknowledging who we are and how we wish to change ourselves for the better. But beyond the words we use, we do many things and experience the season through our bodies, and not just our minds. We eat certain foods, like apples and honey, and remember the taste and mood of the holiday. We hear certain sounds, like the shofar, and we experience something inside that goes beyond words. The sights, smells and feelings all amount to one thing... an integrated awareness in our bodies and our minds of the New Year. Very often the things we do, rather than the things we say, are what we remember."
Initially, let us seek to understand the meaning of the shofar and its symbolic value. The shofar is one of the oldest instruments known to humankind. Mentioned 69 times in the Bible, it first appears in Exodus 19:16.
The shofar was used to announce the Jubilee year and the proclamation of freedom throughout the land. "Thou shalt cause the shofar to sound... and you shall hallow the 50th year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants, and you shall return every man to his family." This verse from the Book of Leviticus was selected, even before the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, to be engraved on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. In Liberty Bell Park in Jerusalem, it is possible to examine the replica of that famous American icon - biblical verse and all.
Better known to most Jewish people is the relationship of the shofar to the Days of Awe.
In Numbers 29:1 the shofar is mentioned in the ritual for Rosh Hashana. "You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded." The shofar was commanded to be part of the New Year observance by this prescription. It was defined as a ram's horn by the sages who included in the Rosh Hashana service the story of Isaac on the altar and his replacement by a ram caught in the thicket by its horn.
The shofar became the "ritual horn" of the Jewish people as well. When the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, the shofar was sounded. When the walls of Jericho fell, the shofar was utilized. The victory of the judge Ehud ben Gera over the Moabites was marked by the sound of the shofar. At Ein Dor, Gideon and his hundred men blew the shofar as an accompaniment to their surprise attack.
In modern times, when the IDF captured the Western Wall in June 1967, OC Chaplaincy Corps Shlomo Goren sounded the shofar. From the US via radio I heard loud and clear the tekia gedola from Goren's shofar. What a thrill - one not to be forgotten.
The first sounding of the shofar each year is during the weekday mornings of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashana. After the recitation of the penitential Psalm 27, the tekia, the shvarim and the teru'a can be heard. This is a daily act except for Shabbat and the day before Rosh Hashana. Most important, it is a reminder that each individual must prepare for the days of judgment ahead.
When pointing to the specifics of shofar blowing, the ba'al toke'a must make sure that the ram's horn emits 100 notes on each day of Rosh Hashana. This year, however, the shofar sounds will only be heard on the second day, since the first day of Rosh Hashana is on Shabbat. On Sunday, we will get to hear all the notes, and a week later, at the end of Yom Kippur, the sounding of the majestic tekia gedola.
This year and every year it is important to recall the words of the prophet Isaiah when we hear the sound of our ancient musical instrument. "A great shofar shall be blown and they shall come that have been lost in the land of Assyria and dispersed in the land of Egypt and they shall worship the Lord in the holy mountain of Jerusalem."
NOW, LET us turn to the apples-and-honey treat which is so enjoyed on Rosh Hashana. A major source cited for this custom is to be found in Nehemiah 8:10.
Hana Goodman in her article on the "Culinary Art of Rosh Hashana" in the Rosh Hashana Anthology pointed out that after Ezra the scribe had read the law to the people on the first day of Tishrei, they began to weep. Then Nehemiah said, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink the sweet... for this day is holy to the Lord." Using this verse as a proof text, Rabbi Jacob Molin, the Maharil (1360-1427), emphasized that the custom of eating an apple dipped in honey is rooted in the Nehemiah source. Molin created the following formula to be recited after the apple is dipped in honey which we continue to use: "May it be Thy will to renew unto us a good and sweet year."
In recent years one New Yorker took this custom to the extreme. In 2007 a man was arrested atop the Empire State Building as he poured honey down the side of the New York landmark. Supposedly, he told the police, "There is the Jewish custom of celebrating the New Year by dripping apples in honey. What better way to bring in Rosh Hashana than by covering the Big Apple in honey."
A college student at Cornell University, Rachel Mattes, put her thoughts on this holiday treat in the student newspaper. "The apple, a fruit of the fall and consequently readily available during the holiday, acts as a symbol of the season." Honey, for the writer, gives us a boost in the hope of a sweet year to come. Mattes noted that "an apple dipped in honey is a delicious crunchy sweet to begin the holiday meal."
This follows in the wake of what Abaye taught in the Talmud: "Since an omen is significant, at the beginning of the New Year each person should accustom himself to eat that which symbolizes sweetness."
Four years ago, in 2005, Capt. Howard Perl was serving with the Third Infantry Division in Iraq. He recalled his Rosh Hashana experience that year. "On Monday afternoon I took a helicopter flight with a Jewish sergeant from Camp Taji to Baghdad, a 10-minute ride. We were met by Chaplain Schranz of the US Navy." Then Perl described what had been prepared for Rosh Hashana. "At the site used for the services, one congregant had made an ark for the Torah. We had candles, kiddush cups, wines, mahzors, halla, apples and honey. What more could we American Jewish soldiers ask for?"
The evening services went well and then he continued. "In the morning the chaplain gave out aliyot. I had one. I was very proud that my father's name was mentioned in an aliya in Baghdad, Iraq, for Rosh Hashana. After a wonderful meal with round hallas dipped in honey and especially made by Filipino bakers, since the chapel was right on the river, after lunch we went straight out for tashlich." Pictures from Baghdad of the ark and the chapel along with one of the river brought Perl's description to life.
Rabbi Samuel Dresner once wrote, "Honey comes from the bee which stings but at the same time it is able to produce a sweet food that can add a delicious flavor to other items." Dresner now pointed to the real essence of this sweetness. "We use honey because it represents the power of Rosh Hashana. When we begin a fresh new year, the past is not always so sweet. Sometimes, we may have stung and hurt those close to us. But on Rosh Hashana we turn it all around. The honey we eat on the holiday reminds us that we are not perfect but with a little effort we can achieve sweetness."
A visitor to the Golan Heights in January wanted to help her readers recognize what there is to see there. In doing so she has provided a fascinating observation on the apples we use on Rosh Hashana. During the tour, she took her family to see the Bereshit Apple Packing plant in the Golan, the largest in the country, and penned these thoughts. "You go to the supermarket and put a bag of apples in your shopping cart. You have absolutely no idea what the apple has gone through to get to your cart."
Then she leaves us with a beautiful apples-people parallel evaluation most appropriate for Rosh Hashana. "They clean the apples by the ton; they sort them; they measure them; they put them through quality control; they sort them again and again and again - a fascinating process."
May the delightful apple and honey combo inspire us, first to seek God's forgiveness and then to make sure that, during the New Year, we transform the sweetness granted us into the beauty of life in the days ahead.
The writer is a rabbi and former chaplain in the US Army.