The Apple Orchard
Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur have already passed, and October is just around the corner. I’m picking the last brambles from the branches, while the leaves are beginning to turn orange and the apples are ripening on the trees.
Apples don’t grow particularly well in my part of Canada, so when I moved to Britain, the importance that apples hold in the culture here was something new for me. There are many different types of apples here. People celebrate certain heritage varieties, and prize their orchards on the diversity of species. Many cities and towns have community orchards, often built from historical orchards. They serve as places of community building, as well as an incredible and abundant source of free, organic apples, available for whoever needs.
The first community orchard I experienced was in Newburgh, Fife, a village I’ve had the pleasure to spend plenty of time in. The orchard isn’t marked on the map, but if you know where to go, a path leads through the hedges to an abundant orchard filled with rows and rows of different varieties of apples. Last Rosh HaShana, we hosted Jewish families from across Fife, Tayside, Glasgow and Edinburgh in the Newburgh Community Orchard to pick apples and celebrate the new year together. I brought a camp stove and we cooked up some stewed apples right there in the orchard, made paper apple decorations, and had a lovely time.
Making stewed apples from freshly picked apples in the Newburgh Community Orchard, September 2022
This year I wanted to do it closer to home. The Newburgh Orchard is idyllic, but also a little far, so I set out researching and visiting tons of community apple orchards all across Glasgow. Some were quite new, while others were historic. For example, the community orchard at Glasgow Green is made of a few young trees, shrubs really, with just a few apples growing. The trees are all located on the boulevards of an educational bike track where children can come and learn the rules of road safety, making the most out of multifunctional public spaces.
Meanwhile, at the Rose Garden Orchard in the Gorbals, old trees with twisted and gnarled trunks were hung with delicate green apples, in the midst of a massive housing estate. When Jewish communities first moved to Glasgow, many were based in the Gorbals, and I wondered if these very trees, or ones in their place, had sustained them this time of year.
During the High Holiday services, one of the key prayers which we repeat is ‘חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם Chadesh Yameinu KeKedem’, renew our days as of old. Originally from the Book of Lamentations (Eicha 5:21), this is traditionally interpreted to refer to the times of the Temple, when Jewish practice meant sacrifices and offerings in the Temple in Jerusalem. We’re saying that we want to go back to the days when Judaism was far more centred in a given place, more tangible.
Judaism was formed in a time when nature and the seasons were core to people’s everyday way of life. Jewish festivals are situated around important harvest times, and honour things like the changing light (Chanukah), the new growth of Spring (Tu B’Shvat), and the need for rain to promote a good growing season (Shemini Atzeret). And while these Jewish practices relating to nature and agriculture may not be as central to our lives today, I think that they can be a vital way for us to connect back to the source of these practices, and how we can find meaning in them today.
Enjoying freshly-picked Barrhead apples dipped in local honey from East Kilbride while on a pre-Rosh HaShana swim in the Trossachs
Apples are an important part of the Rosh HaShana celebrations. We traditionally dip apples in honey, the roundness of the apple symbolizing the cyclical nature of the year, while the sweetness of the honey reflects the sweetness we wish for ourselves and others. But it’s not just for Rosh HaShana. Throughout Jewish texts, we see apples being referred to as a metaphor for sweetness, blessings and abundance.
For example, Shir HaShirim 8:5 makes reference to shade of an apple tree being a place both for conceiving and giving birth:
תַּ֤חַת הַתַּפּ֙וּחַ֙ עֽוֹרַרְתִּ֔יךָ שָׁ֚מָּה חִבְּלַ֣תְךָ אִמֶּ֔ךָ שָׁ֖מָּה חִבְּלָ֥ה יְלָדַֽתְךָ׃
Under the apple tree I roused you;
It was there your mother conceived you,
There she who bore you conceived you.
This is also referenced in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sotah 11b:
וְכֵיוָן שֶׁמִּתְעַבְּרוֹת בָּאוֹת לְבָתֵּיהֶם, וְכֵיוָן שֶׁמַּגִּיעַ זְמַן מוֹלְדֵיהֶן הוֹלְכוֹת וְיוֹלְדוֹת בַּשָּׂדֶה תַּחַת הַתַּפּוּחַ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״תַּחַת הַתַּפּוּחַ עוֹרַרְתִּיךָ וְגוֹ׳״.
And when these women would become pregnant, they would come back to their homes, and when the time for them to give birth would arrive they would go and give birth in the field under the apple tree, as it is stated: “Under the apple tree I awakened you; there your mother was in travail with you; there was she in travail and brought you forth”.
Shir HaShirim also references the apple tree in chapter 2 verse 3:
כְּתַפּ֙וּחַ֙ בַּעֲצֵ֣י הַיַּ֔עַר כֵּ֥ן דּוֹדִ֖י בֵּ֣ין הַבָּנִ֑ים בְּצִלּוֹ֙ חִמַּ֣דְתִּי וְיָשַׁ֔בְתִּי וּפִרְי֖וֹ מָת֥וֹק לְחִכִּֽי׃
Like an apple tree among trees of the forest,
So is my beloved among the youths.
I delight to sit in his shade,
And his fruit is sweet to my mouth.
The famous Torah commentator Rashi goes on to explain how when one encounters an apple tree amongst many other trees which are devoid of fruit, the existence of these tiny, sweet, nutritious and delicious gems hanging from the branches, often in abundance, is incredible. He also makes reference to the fact that the apple has both a sweet taste and a sweet fragrance, setting it apart from other fruits.
In January, when Jewish communities are preparing to celebrate Tu B’Shvat - the onset of spring, the beginning of new growth - the British are getting ready to wassail. Wassailing is an old tradition of gathering in apple orchards or by apple trees, often on the 5th of January (the 12th night of Christmas), or on the 17th of January (when Twelfth Night would have been celebrated before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752). People gather, sing festive songs, and wish a year of good health and growth to the trees. Often cider is splashed onto the trees, as an additional form of blessing, as well as being consumed by the revellers. Sometimes the revellers travel door-to-door, offering cider to the community - this is where the tradition of Christmas Carolling comes from.
Wassailing hearkens back to a time when people’s livelihoods depended on the strength of the harvest, similar to how Sukkot and the prayers for rain that follow on Shemini Atzeret were prayers for sustenance and livelihood in a way that is often difficult for many to comprehend today. I think back to the idea of ‘renewing’ - ‘חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם Chadesh Yameinu KeKedem’ - giving things new life. All over Scotland, I’ve seen new communities being rallied together through these orchards, community gardens, and all sorts of outdoor spaces where things can be grown. One I love is the Govan Drydocks, a former ship-building yard set into the River Clyde. Today it’s abandoned, and the murky water is full of all sorts of rubbish and metal waste. But wooden planters have been set up, and a variety of herbs and vegetables are growing amidst the rubble.
I finally found the perfect orchard for our Rosh HaShana celebration. Barrhead Waterworks used to be an industrial water-treatment plant, and in 2016 was transformed into an incredible community garden, complete with living willow huts, an apple orchard, and tons of recycled and refurbished spaces for growing. Just before Rosh HaShana, we brought together young Jewish families for High Holiday learning, apple picking and new year celebrations.
We made Rosh HaShana cards stamped with freshly picked apples, and dipped apple slices in melted chocolate for a Rosh HaShana treat. It seemed to me the perfect combination of old and new, of ‘renewing as of old’, taking this ancient tradition and building it into our modern lives. Even if we’re not reliant on these apples for our livelihoods as people once were, we can still celebrate them, learn from them, and gather in their blessings.
Wishing everyone an incredible 5784 full of apple orchards and many good things!