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The Jewish History of Honey

About Judaism from a Jew(ish)

Israel: a sacred land for Jews, Christians, Islam, Druze and Bahá'í Faith—a land of milk and honey. Honey, a simply delicious golden syrup that is made by bees and devoured by humans. Honey has a very cozy place in my heart. I could eat an entire jar of fresh local honey in a day: on top of toast, in my tea, on yogurt and granola, or on a spoon. It is very often eaten during one specific holiday, Rosh Hashanah. Parents tend to give their kids sweets made with honey: honey cake, honeycomb candy, and Bit-O-Honey, as a treat for the New Year. My family was more traditional and did honey and challah bread dipped in local honey.

My love for honey began on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. My grandparents told me that we eat apples dipped in honey on the first night to welcome a sweet and wealthy new year, and every night after that challah is dipped in honey. My grandfather read the prayer every year: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree. May It be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, that you renew for us a good and sweet year." As the prayer is read, you eat an apple or challah dipped in honey. But I always had one question: Why? This question was one my parents could never answer. It was always “We just do.” What truly is the Jewish history of honey?

In the Torah, the reference to honey isn’t actually honey at all. “Honey” was a term for fruit nectar, specifically dates. When a land is well-nourished, with rich fertile soil, and ample rainfall, the fruit trees “flow with honey,” meaning the fruit is so ripe and perfect that the juice just spills out of them. As time progressed we began to take this term literally and use bee’s honey.

Not only does honey represent what is sweet and good, but also has preservative qualities as well. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi says, “Honey both absorbs and preserves its contents. Kabbalistically, the supernal 'severities' help channel the infinite spiritual energies, so they will be 'preserved' and can descend to the lower spheres (as opposed to dissipating on a lofty plane). This concept is known as 'severities within kindness.' We thus pray that the severities, too, be transformed to good.” In ancient Greece and Egypt, bodies were embalmed and preserved with honey and stored in honey containers. When diluted with water, honey works as a food for yeast. The yeast ferments the food with good bacteria, lengthening the spoilage time.

With further research, I learned a few more things about honey in the Jewish religion. These things do not reference any holiday or tradition in particular, but are rules that Jews live their lives by. The first rule: do not offer sweet fruits or honey as a burnt offering on an altar table. Always being sour or too sweet is not acceptable in Judaism. This is something I had trouble researching and defining, but it is written into the Torah. The way I interpreted this is as follows: a person does not want to offer anything too sweet or too sour, meaning they do not want to seem too good or too bad. Thus, searching for the perfect balance of good and bad.

While reading The Book of Psalms, I found, “Sweet to my palate is Your word, more than honey!” telling us to not eat too much honey or overindulge, but to overindulge in the Torah because it is always satisfying.

The third thing is the selflessness of bees. The Midrash states, “Just as the bee stores everything it produces for its owner, so do we, the people of Israel, save our mitzvahs for our Father in Heaven.” Meaning, bees cannot consume all the honey that they gather, but they produce it for the owner of the hive. Similarly, Jewish people keep mitzvahs for the sake of heaven, without personal ulterior motives. Although, in today's day and age, honey bees have been put on the endangered species list. Humans have taken so much from the earth that they can't put back; we are taking advantage of the selflessness of the bees so much that we are killing them.

Lastly, bees represent both sides of the human character. The right side is used to draw things in, and the left to push them away. A bee’s primary function is to produce honey, yet its stinger is a defense to protect its treasure; a bee both stings and produces honey, signifying both the left and right side of the human character.

At the end of this research I believe that I did find the answer to my question: honey is used in Rosh Hashanah to welcome a sweet and good new year, because honey, in history, represents fertile fruitful lands and represents wealth. The four “rules” of honey in Judaism also opened my eyes to honey as a religious symbol. The time I spent looking all of this up really made me feel closer to me Jewish roots, and understand and respect the history of my culture. Honey isn’t just a tiny, cute, bear-shaped squeeze bottle filled with honey flavored syrup. Honey is a powerful vehicle for cultures and morals. Something that should be held sacred like the texts that speak about it.  

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