A Rose By Any Other Name . . . . .

A Rose By Any Other Name . . . . .

“It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.”

Henry David Thoreau (Wild Apples, November 1862)

Apples for the Holiday

The genus, rosa, contains a very diverse assortment of plants, especially within the rosaceae (rose) family. This family includes herbs, shrubs, and trees. Some blossom amazingly beautiful flowers, while others produce succulent fruit. It is one of the fruits plucked from a tree of the rose family that will be the focus of our attention for this month’s article – the apple. The idea for writing this article actually began last May on an average Monday evening while I attended the weekly (and poorly self-described) event, Touchdowns and Torahs (shameless plug: we meet at Neve Shalom every Monday at 7:30 PM to discuss Torah, eat and drink, and watch sporting events – irregardless of the sports season). It was the week prior to Pesach (פֶּסַח), and the topic of discussion Jewish laws (halakha (הֲלָכָה)) pertaining to the holiday.

One of the passages stated that charoset (חֲרֽוֹסֶת) should be eaten during this holiday. Charoset is the sweet fruit and nut paste set out the Seder table representing the mortar the Hebrews used while in Egypt as slaves of the pharaoh. The discussion leader stated that this dish is traditionally made with apples, although the type of fruit is not specified anywhere. This got me thinking about how apples (which are not listed as one of the “seven species of Israel”) became associated not only with Passover, but other holidays as well; such as during this month’s celebration of Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה‎).

To begin my search for answers, I sought out the words of the Torah itself to see if what correlation, if any, apples had to Judaism. Apples (Heb: tappuach (תפוחים)) do not specifically appear in the Torah (side note – neither does Rosh Hashanah), although scholars have interpreted the apple as being alluded to in several passages. So far, this trail had led me nowhere, so I continued to ask questions. At some point in the past, it has also become a minhag (מנהג), a Jewish custom, to eat apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah. But once again, why apples and not some other fruit? In performing my research I was surprised to uncover a great deal more reasons than I had expected to find. Ten of these reasons are as follows (and there are others I have omitted):

1) The apple is used as a symbol for the Garden of Eden (גַּן עֵדֶן) which had the scent of apples (according to the Midrash).

2) The Garden of Eden is called the “Holy Apple Orchard” by the Kabbalah.

3) The elderly and blind Isaac comments (in Genesis 27:27) that his son Jacob (who is dressed as Esau) smells like “the fragrance of a field, which G-d has blessed!” (חקל תפוחים קדישין). Rashi (in Tanchuma Buber 16) interprets Isaac’s words as a reference to the scent of an apple orchard, which is the scent of the Garden of Eden, by stating “But this teaches us that the fragrance of the Garden of Eden entered with him.” (אלא מלמד שנכנסה עמו ריח גן עדן).

4) In-line with the Garden of Eden symbolism (as discussed previously in the June Bulletin), the apple had been incorrectly labeled as the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve. However, the connection still resides in contemporary beliefs associating the apple with the Garden of Eden.

5) In Song of Songs 8:5, Solomon proclaims his love of G-d by stating “Beneath the apple tree I aroused your love.” Therefore eating apples is a means for us to display our long-held love of G-d. Although not directly related to eating apples on this holiday, I would be neglecting my duties as a writer of this subject if I did not include the following quote also in Song of Songs (2:3) where Solomon eloquently compares Israel to an apple:

כְּתַפּוּחַ בַּעֲצֵי הַיַּעַר, כֵּן דּוֹדִי בֵּין הַבָּנִים; בְּצִלּוֹ חִמַּדְתִּי וְיָשַׁבְתִּי, וּפִרְיוֹ מָתוֹק לְחִכִּי.

As the apple is rare and unique among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved (Israel) amongst the maidens (nations) of the world.

6) In the Zohar (Shmini 4a), it states that an apple should be eaten after wine to protect oneself from the wine. The wine represents something that is severe, and the apple is used to calm this severity. Therefore, we eat apples to pacify the harsh judgments on Rosh Hashanah.

7) When using gematria (numerology of Hebrew words), the Hebrew word for apple (tappuach) has the same numerological value as the word Akeida (“bindng” of Isaac), so we eat an apple on Rosh Hashanah to remember the binding of Isaac. In a similar vane, the gematria tappuach also corresponds to that of Piru V’Rivu (“be fruitful and multiply”), so it has also become a custom for apples to be eaten on Rosh Hashanah by women for fertility in the New Year.

8) The apple, according to Rav Ben Ish Chai (leading authority on halakha and master Kabbalist in the late 19th century), provides three pleasures: smell, appearance, and taste. These symbolize three brachot (ברכות) we like to receive: bini (children), chayai (life/health), and mezoni (wealth).

9) The Midrash teaches us that the Jewish people accept the Torah and the protection of G-d, even if we do not, or will we ever fully understand it, just as a an apple tree will bring forth the first nubs of its fruit before the protective leaves grow around it for its protection.

10) Although not specific to apples per se, it the reason most of us grew up with: it simply has become a tradition to eat/use apples for this holiday. The apple is a sweet fruit readily available to almost everyone, so we eat an apple in welcome of a sweet New Year.

As mentioned, apples have become the traditional fruit for charoset recipes. One of the reasons apples may be included during Passover is in reference to a passage in the Midrash. In order to prevent unwanted births by the Hebrew women, the pharaoh separated them from the men. In defiance of their harsh conditions, in secrecy under the cover of night, the women would bring their husbands into the orchards and seduce them under the apple trees.

History of Apples

In the passages above, I have filled you in on the Jewish holidays on which you should eat apples, along with additional reasons as to why you should eat apples, but as of yet I have not mentioned anything about the history of this delicious red fruit. As you can imagine, the origins of apples might be antidiluvian. In fact, the “wild” ancestor (malus sieversii) of the current genome of apples (malus domestica) we eat today were originally growing wild millions of years ago (exactly how long is disputed – figures range from 2 million to 10 million years ago) in Central Asia (possibly in the Tien Shan mountains around Kazakhstan) – and what I found very interesting, is that this original strain of apples are still growing in that region today. The origins of when (and where) this wild ancestor of today’s apple was originally cultivated by man are also unknown. However, seeds (thought to have been cultivated) discovered in Eastern Turkey (Anatolia) were dated to 6500 BCE. A fossilized imprint of an apple seed was found in England from the Neolithic Period (between 6,000-8,000 BCE), and evidence of apple tree pollen from the Mesolithic Period (up to 10,000 BCE) was also gathered in Britain (Bouldnor Cliff, off the Isle of Wight).

Homer writes of apples in the Odyssey in 850 BCE, and this fruit has also been mentioned in many other writings coming out of ancient Greece. Besides the ancient Greeks, apples have been a part of the lore, traditions, and customs of many cultures the world over, and have been mentioned in religions, stories, and rituals throughout history. Viking mythology describes an apple field in Asgard, tended by the g-ddess Iduna. The Celtics believed that heroes went to Avalon (Apple Island) upon their demise (you may remember that name from Arthurian tales). However, it was the Romans, by the beginning of first millennium, became experts at cultivating apples, and are attributed to spreading them into Europe.

There are many different varieties of the modern apple (the word apple is derived from the old English word æppel, and was used in reference for almost any fruit). In the year 23 CE, 37 varieties of apples were described in the book Historia Naturalis by Plini the Elder. In 1640 John Parkinson lists 60 varieties in his book Theatrum Botanicum. That number was bumped up to 643 different varieties by 1871 in America alone, as listed by A.J. Downing in Downing’s Fruits and Fruit Trees of America. Today, there are thousands of different varieties of apples grown worldwide. [Fast Fact: The red delicious apple was not discovered until the late 1850s in Iowa. It received its name when a farmer entered it into a contest at a county fair and the judge exclaimed “delicious, delicious.”]

Apple Tales

Up until this point, I have provided you with a plethora of facts and figures about the history of apples, the variety of apples, and apples during Jewish celebrations. Now I think it is time for a story. No apple-related article would be complete without the story of Johnny Appleseed. I do not want to disappoint, but first a let me tell the mythological tale behind the origin of the term “apple of discord.”

According to Greek mythology, Eris (goddess of chaos and discord) threw a golden apple to the “fairest” person at a feast on Mount Olympus. She threw it in-between Hera (g-ddess of women and marriage; and wife of Zeus), Athena (g-ddess of wisdom and crafts), and Aphrodite (g-ddess of love, beauty, and sexuality). All three of these women were very vane, and thought the apple was intended for them. They all fought for the apple, which eventually led to the fabled Trojan War. This is why the expression “apple of discord” is meant to signify the core or crux of an argument – or something of little value that can lead to greater troubles.

There are many other fables and tales that use apples as it’s muse in the plots of their stories. For instance, images of Sleeping Beauty or William Tell shooting an apple of his son’s head may come to mind. But there are also non-fictional and semi-fictional stories that encompass apples as their focal point. One semi-true story everyone knows is of the apple falling on Issac Newton’s head, and his conceiving the notion for the Theory of Gravity. The true story is more complex, with Newton only seeing an apple fall, but it took twenty years of correspondence with other members of the scientific community (including some claims against him of plagiarism), that his theory was eventually published in Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687). Another story about apples, which is based on a true story, I would like to share is “The Girl with the Apple” by Herman Rosenblat. I will summarize the story below, but the full story is available at: http://www.katinkahesselink.net/other/girl-apple-jew.html.

In 1942, Herman’s family was transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp. While there he lost all hope, all emotion, and basically felt as dead as the corpses he was forced to bring to the crematorium. One night he had a dream. His mother (whom had died in another camp) told him that she was sending him an angel. The next day he was behind the barracks near the barbed wire fence when he saw a girl. In German, he told her that he was hungry and asked for food. She did not answer. He then asked in Polish, and she took out an apple and threw it to him. She said “I’ll be back tomorrow,” and ran away. Without much hope, Herman went back to the same spot the following day, and she was waiting with another apple. Over the next several months she came by every day – but only for a moment or two to give him a morsel of food knowing that if they got caught both would probably be killed. One day he found out he was being transferred to another camp, and told her to not come the next day. At his next place of imprisonment, his camp was liberated on the morning of the day he was slated to go to the gas chamber. After he was liberated, he eventually made his way to Brooklyn, NY. A few years later, his buddy tried to set him up on a blind date. He originally did not want to go, but eventually he caved in. To his delight, his date was a beautiful Polish girl. After getting to know each other, they talked about what they did during the war. He told her he was in the camps. She told him that her family was in hiding, but used to give food to a boy at one of the camps. You guessed it – she was the little girl that kept him alive with food and hope during those long horrible months.

It is believed that apples made their way to the Americas with the first settlers who brought seeds and cuttings with them from Europe. Because of the hardy traits and diversity of apples, they easily took root on American soil, and soon began spreading across the continent to be grown in every state (although the seeds did well, the cuttings they brought did not fare well in the harsh weather). Apple cider became very popular and at one time this drink was used for salaries in some places. This leads us to a true story that has become American folklore, the tale of Johnny Appleseed.

There was a man named John Chapman, whom during his youth, began working at an apple orchard and learning all there is to know about tree nurseries. Due to several reasons, he moved westward with his family during the late 1790s. As he travelled, he planted apple nurseries in each town or settlement they stopped (the apple seeds were not throw randomly upon the ground as he walked along the trail, as legend dictates). He eventually became a mercenary traveling around the American frontier (walking barefoot) spreading the gospel and planting apple nurseries wherever he stopped. He passed away in 1845 in Indiana. He owned 1,200 acres of nurseries at his death. [Fast Fact: There is a Johnny Appleseed museum at the Urbana Museum (Urbana, Ohio), with the world’s largest collection of Johnny Appleseed memorabilia and artifacts.]

Apple Customs and Traditions

Just as apples appear in much literature throughout recorded history, they have also created rituals and customs in many cultures. A few of these include:

  • Hanging an apple outside the door of a newlywed’s doorframe blesses the couple living within.
  • In ancient Greece a man would throw the apple if he wanted to marry a woman. If the woman would catch it, it symbolized the acceptance of his marriage proposal.
  • Apples wither when near adulterers (according to Danish folklore).
  • It was a custom in Medieval Germany for a man to soak an apple in perspiration before giving it to a woman of his desire – if she eats it, it will help her fall in love with him.
  • Children in the 1800s would polish the teacher’s apple to gain favor.
  • Constant themes throughout literature associate apples with love, temptation, wisdom, love, fertility, health, luck, and, beauty.
  • It was an old wives tale that by throwing apple peelings over one’s shoulder, you could discover the initials of the person you would one day marry.
  • In China, people give apples as gifts on Christmas eve
  • The custom of bobbing for apples was originally performed by unmarried people. The first to get the apple was believed to be the first to get married.
  • In some tribal communities, an apple is randomly picked and sliced open – if a worm appears, it is considered bad luck.       On the child’s 21st birthday, they must perform a ritual dance for the health of their own offspring.
  • During the autumn equinox, Wiccans (during a holiday called Mabon) decorate their alters with a basket of apples.
  • There is the Cult of Apple, which comprises of people who like all things Apple, Mac, IPad, etc. (see http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Cult_of_Apple).

An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

The health benefits of apples have been written about for hundreds of years. Over 2400 years ago, Hippocrates (the father of medicine), wrote “Let your food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food.” He would regularly prescribe apples (along with dates, barley mush, and pomegranate water) to his patients to cure their ills. The old adage of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” is not very far from truth in that are healthy for you in many ways. [Fast Fact: although one would think it would be centuries old, this saying actually originated in Wales during the 1860s.]. Some of the healing powers of the apple are listed below:

  • Good for digestion – Apples contain pectin, malic, and tartaric acids, as well as being high in fiber.
  • Fights illness – Contain antioxidants and favonoids. Apples have been associated with lowering the risk for a long list of diseases.
  • Cleanser – Green apples may help clean the fall bladder and liver.
  • Fever reducer – because of their high water content.
  • Fights dry cough – when steamed and served with honey.
  • Reduces high cholesterol and blood sugar – due to the high levels of pectin.
  • Cleans the teeth and gums – purely from chewing a raw apple.
  • Large number of vitamins – Apples contain high amounts of folic acid, potassium, calcium, and vitamin C, and smaller amounts of iron, zing, magnesium, and B, E, and K vitamins.

The Recipe

There is so much to tell about apples, but I have to stop at some point, and this seems like the logical place. In fact, I have only glossed over the major facts. There is so much more to write, but hopefully my overview has provided you with a greater appreciation for this amazing fruit and I was able to cram a few trivial facts into your head to be released the next time you appear on Jeopardy. But now, onto the recipe . . . Although the best way to eat an apple is raw, I will provide you with a very simple (only four ingredients) and delicious recipe with apples as its star – Baked Apples.

Ingredients (serves 4):

4          Apples (Macintosh, Delicious, Rome Beauties, or your favorite)

¼ cup  Brown Sugar

1 tsp    Cinnamon

4          Cinnamon sticks


Step 1: Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Step 2: While the oven is heating up, core each of the apples, and place them into a greased baking pan.

Step 3: Mix together the brown sugar and the cinnamon and sprinkle them on top (in and around) of the apples. Put one stick of cinnamon into each apple.

Step 4: Place in oven and bake for about 35 minutes, or until the apples are tender (for larger apples, it may take an additional 10 minutes).

Alternate Recipe Ideas:

The above recipe is a classic that has been used for years and years. If you would like to make the dish healthier by reducing the sugar (and calories), a can of diet black cherry soda can be substituted for the brown sugar; however, after baking for 20 minutes, you need to baste the apples with the juice from the pan about every 5-7 minutes. Another option for preparing this dish is to fill the inside of the apple with something more substantial. For instance, mix the brown sugar and cinnamon with ¼ cup of raisins and ¼ cup of pecans – and stuff this mixture into the core (cinnamon stick is optional) – then place a dab of butter atop each apple before baking.

Also, here’s a tip regarding apples when cooking a beef stew – cut up an apple or two and cook them along with the vegetables, it adds a nice layer of flavor to the dish. Don’t tell your guests that you have included the apples and see what they have to say.

Shakespeare had penned the line “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II) to imply that names are only as deep as its skin, but there may be whole lot more going on underneath the surface. I think that applies quite nicely to an apple. The next time you look at one, you are not only looking at a mere fruit, but a symbol of importance to history, culture, and tradition of mankind, as well as an item full of unseen healthy qualities.

Keep on cooking,

Chef Lon E

[Thank you to Michael B. for his invaluable help as a consultant for this article.]


Religious Text

  • Genesis 27:27
  • Horiyos 12a
  • Mishnah Berurah 468
  • OC 583:1
  • Pesachim 50a
  • Song of Songs 8:5
  • Zohar (Shmini 4a)


  • The Children of Odin, “Iduna and Her Apples: How Loki Put the G-ds in Danger” (by Padraic Colum, 1920), pp 13-26, Online @ http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/ice/coo/coo04.htm
  • Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, Act II, Scene II
  • Odyssey by Homer (850 BCE)

Online Resources








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