For many people, Rosh Hashanah is the festival of apples. There are, of course, the newly ripened, crisp quarters dipped in honey to embody our wish for a sweet new year.
And the holiday isn't only a New Year's celebration. By tradition, it is also a grand birthday party: humankind's. So that brings to mind that most famous first couple and the celebrated apple they ate.
Or, as it turns out, didn't eat. Re-reading the pertinent verses in Genesis, we find that Eve gave Adam a fruit, yes, but a generic one: the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Was this forbidden fruit an apple? Other fruits, it's been suggested, are far more seductive. The pomegranate, bursting with seeds, crimson as blood, has been a symbol of fertility for Jews as well as other ancient peoples. D.H. Lawrence would undoubtedly have made a case for the sweet, erotically fleshy fig, which he called "the fruit of female mystery." Then there is the fruit of the vine, mother of wine: the grape has certainly caused the downfall of more than one man and woman.
These fruits all flourished in the biblical lands. Not so the apple-it's not well-suited to the climate of the Middle East, except in the cooler, hillier regions. And research indicates the earliest apples were tiny and sour, like crabapples.
Waverley Root, in his encyclopedic book, Food, suggests that the Hebrews "purposely refrained from representing...any specific known fruit," because the mystery would be diminished if it were reduced to a "commonplace object."
So how did we come to think of the apple as that fateful fruit? Aquila Ponticus was the first to designate the apple as the evil fruit in Eden; he did so in a reference to Genesis in the Song of Solomon that he translated from Hebrew to Greek in the second century. Later on, early translators of the Bible followed Ponticus's example.
But it was the Renaissance painters, inspired by these translations, who popularized the apple, burnished an alluring red, to concretize our fall from grace.
Today, with cold storage and global exports, you can literally eat "an apple a day" year-round. But in the northern hemisphere, fresh, local apples at their flavorful best begin reappearing in markets at the cusp of summer's end and the beginning of our fall (pun intended)--just in time for Rosh Hashanah.
Here are a festival of apple recipes: a herring and apple salad that would also be ideal for a Yom Kippur break-fast table; sweet-sour red cabbage braised with apples; and a roasted apple-walnut noodle kugel.
Wishing you all a sweet and healthy New Year!