This week I came across two variations of the same expression in two of my grandfather’s books. In the book Medines Yisroyl un Erets Yisroyl, he talks about someone holding a bundle of keys to his properties: [er] hit op di shlislen, vi dos oyg in kop. “He guarded them like the eye in his head.” Then in the book Amolike Yidn, an old man talks about his childhood. A talented boy, he was doted on by his parents. [Zi] hobn mikh opgehit vi dos shvartsapl fun oyg. Literally, “They protected me like the pupils of their eyes.”
It is interesting to me that the word for pupil in Yiddish, shvartsapl, is a compound of the German words for ‘black’ and ‘apple’, when current German (’die pupille’) does not seem to do this.
Guarding someone like your pupil would seem to be treasuring them like part of your own body (“the eye in your head” in the first example above), or valuing them as you value your sight, or your core. The expression to guard someone like the pupil of the eye has an old pedigree. Here’s Deuteronomy 32:10, in the JPS translation: “He [God] engirded him [Jacob], watched over him, guarded him as the pupil of His eye.”
The Hebrew word for pupil in this verse has nothing to do with apples. One speculation, thanks to Wikipedia, is that the word, roughly ‘iyshon’, means, “little man”, and refers to the small person you see when you look into someone’s pupil. The Hebrew for pupil is also used to refer to a dwarf, or midget. From this point of view, protecting someone like your pupil is guarding them like the little man (your own face) reflected when you look at them. Parents’ doting on their talented children is depicted as an act of narcissism. For more on this subject, see The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller. The other possible origin of the Hebrew word for pupil is ‘darkness’. Hence, the ‘shvarts’ in shvartsapl.
In English, the expression “the apple of my eye” apparently was used to mean ‘pupil’ before it was used to mean ‘favorite’. The Latin word for pupil, like the Hebrew, has nothing to do with apples, but comes from ‘little doll’.
I have no clue how apples come into the picture in the first place. Now, if you call someone the apple of my eye, know that you are calling them your pupil. I still think it’s sweet, though. I suppose one might next conjecture on why a student is also a pupil, and whether this comes from the analogy of a teacher-pupil relationship to a parent treasuring their child. One might, but I won’t.
For my observant friends, I wish you an easy fast. May you be sealed for a healthy, prosperous, joyous year. A year of meaningful work and loving relationships. A year of peace.