From the Sources by Eliezer Segal: Under the apple tree

By Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – The apple is not mentioned in the Torah, nor does it figure among the fruits in which the holy land took special pride. It does, however, appear quite frequently in later books of the Bible—although its identification as the Hebrew “tapuah” is not completely certain.

At any rate, in the sensuous poetry of Song of Songs, the female speaker praises her beau admiringly: “As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight, I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.”

Why should an apple tree be a fitting metaphor for a lover?

The sages of the Midrash identified a number of specific botanical features that distinguish it from other trees in the forest.

Thus, Rabbi Yosé ben Zimra noted that it does not provide much shade. Possibly, he was referring to a feature that allows it, during periods of extreme heat and dryness, to turn its leaves downwards to protect the fruit from intense sunlight. Some varieties even shed their leaves in the summer. When this happens, people will avoid the apple trees in favour of species that offer more substantial protection.

This fact provided the ancient Jewish preachers with a convenient segue to an edifying parable. According to the standard midrashic premise, the male and female lovers in the Song of Songs symbolize respectively G-d and the people of Israel; and the romantic relationship between the two sides expressed itself in the turbulent events of Jewish history.

Rabbi Yosé applied the image of the pleasing apple tree to a familiar tradition about how the Almighty offered the Torah to the heathen nations of the world, but they rejected it because it did not offer them the immediate satisfaction of tangible “shade.” Only the people of Israel, recognizing the true beauty of the tree and the appetizing flavour of its fruit, chose faithfully to linger in the metaphoric shade of the apple tree, rather than other trees that do not bear fruit.

Another unusual characteristic of the apple tree was observed by some rabbis (though in fact, this claim does not seem to fit the known botanical facts): Whereas most trees flower before they grow their leaves, the apple tree reverses that sequence. This reversal could parallel the famous tradition about how the Israelites at Sinai declared first “We will obey” (the Torah’s commandments), and only afterwards “We will hear” (the details of its contents).

Furthermore, the rabbis calculated that the ripening of an apple tree lasts fifty days culminating in the month of Sivan, which coincides with the timespan between the Exodus and the revelation at Mount Sinai.

The medieval Jewish philosophers proposed a novel way of understanding the imagery of the Song of Songs. The allegory refers not (or, at least: not only) to the history of Israel, but to the intellectual love of G-d that was cultivated through metaphysical contemplation. Thinkers like Maimonides held that the highest level of human perfection is achieved by refining one’s mind to a state where it can conceive of a deity that transcends space and time. The exceptional minds who reach that level, through a lifetime of scientific and metaphysical study, may become receptive to revelations from the “absolute intelligence,” the realm of metaphysical being that was equated with the biblical angels.

Maimonides’ like-minded contemporary Joseph Ibn Aknin composed a detailed Arabic exposition on the Song of Songs. In his allegorical interpretation, the poem personifies the absolute intelligence as the male lover eager to unite with the female beloved, equated with the human rational soul. However, the course of metaphysical love does not run smooth, owing to humans’ physical constitution which constantly distracts us from our spiritual vocation.

Ibn Aknin explained that apple trees have several specific features that inspired the Bible to liken the rational mind to an apple tree. For example, the intangible quality its fragrance is comparable to the sublime abstraction of metaphysical ideas, and its delicious flavour evokes the balanced moderation that is essential to philosophical and ethical discipline.

Furthermore, in medieval times, apples were known for their numerous medicinal and health benefits. In this respect, Ibn Aknin argued that they are comparable to the healing effects of philosophical study on the health of the soul. They can eliminate spiritual ailments and restore intellectual balance. The bestowing of such precious benefits is surely analogous to the gifts that a passionate suitor would bestow upon his lovely sweetheart. In these respects, the apple tree is manifestly superior to all those lesser trees in the “forest” who are out for nothing more than a superficial good time as they pursue their fruitless desires and impulses.

The image of the apple as a model for allegorical teaching was also central to Maimonides’ explanation of the different layers of scriptural interpretation. His discussion focused on a passage in the book of Proverbs that says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in images of silver.” He understood this simile as referring to a molded figurine of an apple crafted in gold and encased in a network or filigree of silver. Onlookers can only view the precious metal object that stands in its centre through the gaps in the mesh, so observers standing at a distance will think the object they are viewing is silver, and even those who study it from up close will only see disconnected pointillist dots.

This, says Maimonides, illustrates the profound genius of biblical parables and prophetic imagery. Whereas most normal readers will read them at a perfectly coherent “silver” level, teaching about straightforward moral or social subjects, a select few can penetrate the outer wrapping to grasp the sublime spiritual teaching that is the ultimate core of Jewish spiritual life.

But let us not forget that the literal, physical apple is also a tasty and nutritious fruit that grows on delightfully attractive trees.

Take a bite and enjoy one. It’s good for you.

Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.



Be the first to comment on "From the Sources by Eliezer Segal: Under the apple tree"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.