Tons of fruits are eaten at Rosh Hashanah, though certain ones have been cemented in the classic list of the simanim, or symbols, to be eaten at the Rosh Hashanah seder. Of those, the first is always apples, served with honey to dip, raising the obvious question of why this should come first.
To strengthen the question, the siman associated for the apple is to have a good and sweet year, but the other fruits at the seder like dates and pomegranates are just as is not even sweeter, especially if everything has honey added. Moreover, while those two are mentioned in the Torah as being part of the Seven Species of Israel—which carries extra spiritual and halachic importance—apples are not part of that list and not native to the Land. As with any part of Judaism, it is best understood in a wider context.
Looking at the other simanim, they usually explicitly say why that type of food is eaten e.g. “that our merits may increase like [the many of seeds of] the pomegranate”, or it is a double-meaning of the root of the word e.g in Hebrew a beet is סלק (selek), and the phrase “sh’yistaklu oivenu” (that our enemies will be removed) has the same root letters. Neither one of these is the case with apples at the Rosh Hashanah meal.
The reason apples are eaten at the meal, even taking the first spot, is because of a verse from Genesis when Yitzchok (Isaac) says “see, the fragrance of my son [Yaakov (Jacob)] is like the fragrance of a field which God has blessed”. In the Talmud, (Taanit 29b) it states that this fragrance is that of a field of apples. One would be forgiven for not recognizing this when the siman for the apples “may it be Your will, our God and the God of our forefathers, that You renew for us a good and sweet year” does not mention the smell.
Nevertheless, looking at the rest of this portion in Genesis, it makes sense why it’s so important. Not only is the meaning very powerful as the birthright, but since Yaakov is the father of all Jews, and only the Jews unlike his father and grandfather, this siman is a blessing for all the Jewish people:
“See, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field which God has blessed
May God give youGenesis 27
Of the dew of heaven, and the fat of the earth,
Abundance of new grain and wine.
The nations will serve you,
And nations bow to you;
Have strength over your brothers,
And let your mother’s sons bow to you.
Cursed will be they who curse you,
Blessed are those who bless you.”
This is the birthright Yaakov bought from Eisav, and is the right of all Jewish people. Yitzchok was blind at this point of his life, but even as his son put on a disguise, he could detect the smell of the field of Hashem, which is good and sweet like apples. The other fruits, vegetables, and other simanim eaten at the Rosh Hashanah meal are embedded with their own spirituality—each becoming ripe ahead of the new year like the Jewish people—but only here the apple takes precedence over fruits which would normally have to be eaten before it.
Incorporating these fruits into the Rosh Hashanah meal not only adds a layer of tradition but also offers an opportunity for reflection and connection to the holiday’s themes of renewal, blessings, and the desire for a positive year ahead.