Every year when the cherries, pears, plums, and apple trees begin to bloom, I go out walking. I look for every spot in my vicinity where white and pink blossoms are blooming in exquisite profusion like foam on an ocean. Every year I take photographs, even though I already have so many. I walk at every hour of the day because, as the light changes, the colors change. I have albums and albums of pictures of my beloveds, the trees.
For me, the apple and cherry trees are a manifestation of Goddess. Of course, everything is a manifestation of Goddess, but these, for me, have an extra measure of that life-giving beauty and abundance I associate with the indwelling Presence in the cosmos. My enjoyment of the blossoms is both a sensual appreciation of the gorgeousness of Being and a poignant awareness that they will not last forever. Sometimes these glories manifest for me as feminine, sometimes as masculine, and sometimes just as Life itself.
My ancestors have felt the same way for a long time. The Song of Songs, the ancient biblical love poem, compares the Beloved (which later tradition understands as a divine beloved) to an apple tree: “Like an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my love among men.” (Song of Songs 2:3). Scholars disagree about whether tapuach is an apple, orange, or quince (though the tradition generally comes down on the side of “apple”) but the fruit tree reference is clear. Later on the apple tree appears again as the site of multiple erotic encounters: “Beneath the apple tree I aroused you; there your mother conceived you” (Song of Songs 8:5). Not only the current lovers but their parents also made love in the orchards. The orchards are an almost otherworldly place, a place where love and generativity can unfold, generation after generation.
The kabbalists, who innovated a whole new creative language for God in relationship to the world, saw the apple orchard as a manifestation of the divine feminine. The Zohar, the kabbalistic work of 13th century Spain, often refers to Shekhinah as “the holy field of apples” or “the holy apple orchard.” This apple orchard receives nourishing dew from the Divine beloved: “that field of holy apples drips with dew every day from the place called ‘heaven.’” Heaven, in this case, is the Shekhinah’s Beloved, known as Tiferet or the Holy One of Blessing, who sends down moisture to sustain her. (Zohar I, 224b). And sometimes this divine beloved too is an apple tree: “The apple tree is the Holy One of Blessing, more delightful and colorful than all other trees.” (Zohar I, 85b). In 16th century Sfat, the kabbalist Isaac Luria referred to a Sabbath meal as “the feast of the holy field of apples,” since Shekhinah manifests especially on the Sabbath.
These mystics, of course, weren’t only abstracting a poetic “apple orchard”—they had experienced the beauty of real ones. They used “orchard” to describe the divine because they had experienced the divine in such a place. So my experience of Goddess in the orchards is entirely consistent with the Jewish mystical tradition.
And, it’s consistent with sacred orchard traditions around the world. In many legends, the orchard is a place of immortality and divinity. The Norse goddess Idunna tends the orchard that grows apples of immortality, the fruit which makes the gods live forever. In Britain, Avalon or “the isle of apples” is the place where Arthur rests, waiting to be revived. In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in his Vita Merlinae: “The island of apples which men call the Fortunate Isle gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself: the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods… There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws…” The Greeks too celebrated the Hesperides, the maidens who guarded the apples of immortality somewhere in the west, beyond the sunset.
Interestingly, the sacred fruits live in the west in more cultures than one. In China, the goddess Hsi Wang Mu, Queen Mother of the West, keeps the peach tree of immortality. This peach tree put forth leaves once every thousand years, and the fruit took three thousand years to ripen. The goddess would then throw a feast for the immortals to renew them.
In Japan, the goddess of cherry blossoms is Konohanasakuya-hime, daughter of a mountain god and granddaughter of Amaterasu the sun goddess. The Goddess of Mount Fuji, Konohanasakuya-hime, embodies the delicacy and ephemerality of life. Women visit her shrines to pray for beauty and love.
It’s striking that, consistently across culture, holy orchards tend to be inhabited and/or tended by goddesses and female entities. My meeting of Goddess among the blossoms of fruit trees is part of a long tradition of such encounters. Nevertheless, this year I’ll try to stay completely in the moment as I walk beneath the graceful branches and reach out toward the soft white blossoms. After all, all of the ancient lore was first inspired by a brief and shining moment of present beauty.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org) and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org). She is the author of essays, poems, rituals and stories, and of seven books including Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess (with Taya Shere, 2015), and the new volume of poetry The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries (2016).