This article was originally syndicated by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and appeared it newspapers around the country. We thought we’d add it to our blog for you to read. Happy New Year.
Honey has been an ingredient in Jewish life for almost 5,000 years — since the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and God promised to “rescue them . . . and to bring them to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). This promise kept the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years to reach the land that would become Israel.
The honey referred to in the Torah is not bee’s honey, but a sweet syrup made from dates, figs or grapes – all plentiful fruits grown in Israel. This honey, eaten alone or used to sweeten baked goods, was one of the first fruits brought to the Temple as an offering. Later, references to “honey” came to include bee’s honey.
The Hebrew word devash, honey, comes from the Hebrew devorah, for bee. (This is the derivation of the names Devora and Deborah.) Devash shares the same Hebrew root as devar, or “word,” and it’s used in the phrase “devar Torah,” a commentary on the week’s Torah portion. The word of God is sweet, and throughout the Bible, honey is used as a metaphor for the word of God and for wisdom.
Israel still flows with honey today. On kibbutzim and farms, apiculturists — people who raise bees for commercial purposes — produce more than 3,500 tons of honey annually from 90,000 beehives, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics of the State of Israel. The largest producer of honey is Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, north of Gaza, which churns out upward of 10,000 bottles of the liquid gold a day and earns some $26 million from honey production each year.
Jews were not always willing apiculturists. Hieroglyphic paintings on Egyptian tombs as old as 2,400 BCE depict Hebrew slaves engaged in the dangerous job of smoking out bees from tall, cylindrical hives to collect honey in Lower Egypt, which was known as “Bee Land.” (Hives of this type can still be seen in Egypt today.) To make matters worse, stealing or sampling the honey meant for pharaohs was considered a crime punishable by death.
An important commodity in ancient Egypt, honey was used to ferment drinks, as an antibacterial salve to prevent infection, and in the embalming process of mummies. Cosmetics, writing tablets, and pigments for painting and hieroglyphics all incorporated beeswax. The Egyptians also offered honey to their gods. In the 12th century BCE, Rameses III was said to have sacrificed 15 tons of honey to the Nile god Hapi.
You don’t need that much honey for dipping apples — or a piece of the round Rosh Hashanah challah — in honey.
For your meal, the kosher food mavens at Manischewitz suggest setting up a tasting bar with different varieties of honey, whose color and flavor depend on the flower that supplies its nectar to the bee. Manischewitz manufactures Orange Blossom, Wild Flower, Golden and Clover Honey. You could also include Israeli honey — from Yad Mordechai, Lin’s Bee Farm or Moshav Beit – available in retail stores and online.
What a sweet way to start the new year.