Finding the Golden Apple
The Sage has said, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings (maskiyyot) of silver” (Prov. 25:11). Hear now an elucidation of the thought that he has set forth. The term maskiyyot denotes filigree traceries . . . When looked at from a distance or with imperfect attention, it is deemed to be an apple of silver; but when a keen-sighted observer looks at it with full attention, its interior becomes clear to him and he knows that it is of gold. The parables of the prophets, peace be on them, are similar.
—Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed (trans. S. Pines) (11–12)
By applying his interpretation of this verse from Proverbs to the Bible (and by “parables of the prophets” he includes the contents of the Five Books of Moses), Maimonides is both deeply traditional and totally radical; both elitist and somewhat democratic.
Rabbinic understanding of the Bible has always been interpretive, and Midrash—from a root meaning “to examine”—is often in conflict with the plain meaning of the text. However, one of Maimonides’s main projects in the Guide is to lay out an interpretation of the Bible that he thinks is the “golden apple,” one that is consistent with his contemporary philosophical perspectives, including such innovations (biblically speaking) as: God is entirely non-corporeal; the universe is eternal; philosophical contemplation is the highest of pursuits; all laws must serve some rational purpose.
Although Maimonides doesn’t affirm the equality of those who are less enlightened, his use of this verse indicates an acknowledgment that those who only see the “silver,” the simple meaning, are still finding something genuinely valuable (even if it is not as valuable as “the real thing” that is inside). Furthermore, the “keen-sighted observer” is not a genius on an entirely different plain from the masses. If this beautiful metaphor holds, any of us who have minimal human capabilities can find the “golden apple.” We must only invest a little effort and a little time to carefully and determinedly examine the Torah, to discover the treasures within it.