rosh hashanah and parshat ha’azinu
There’s a custom to dip apples, Challah and pretty much anything else into honey on Rosh Hashana… for a sweet new year. It’s important that we begin the new year with transparency, so let’s come clean… the honey of “milk and honey” is not bee honey… it is fig honey. And in the spirit of full disclosure, let’s note that bee honey’s kashrut bona fides is problematic.
If you pay attention to the Rashi on Deuteronomy 32: 13 you will note that honey, when mentioned in the bible is fig honey….
He made them ride upon the high places of the earth, that they would eat the produce of the field. He let them suck honey from a rock, and oil from the mighty part of the crag.
יַרְכִּבֵהוּ עַל בָּמֳתֵי אָרֶץ וַיֹּאכַל תְּנוּבֹת שָׂדָי וַיֵּנִקֵהוּ דְבַשׁ מִסֶּלַע וְשֶׁמֶן מֵחַלְמִישׁ צוּר
He let them suck honey from a rock: It once happened in [a place in Israel called] Sichni, that a man said to his son, “Bring me pressed figs from that barrel.” The son went [to the barrel, but instead of finding pressed figs,] he found honey flowing over its brim. The son retorted, “But this is [a barrel] of honey [not figs]!” His father responded, “Dig your hand deep into the barrel, and you will bring up pressed figs from it!” [Pressed figs are as hard as a rock. Thus, we have an illustration in the Land of Israel of “sucking honey from a rock.”]- [Sifrei 32:13]
ינקהו דבש מסלע מעשה באחד שאמר לבנו בסיכני הבא לי קציעות מן החביות. הלך ומצא הדבש צף על פיה. אמר לו זו של דבש הוא. אמר לו השקע ידך לתוכה ואתה מעלה קציעות מתוכה
So if tradition wanted us to start off the new year with sweetness… why not good old fig honey from the land of milk and honey ? (Exodus 3: 8 אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ) Afterall… “sucking honey from a hard date, might even make a good sermon….
As for the presumed kashrut of bee honey….
The Talmud in Bekorot 7b is discussing the Mishnaic principle that: That which goes forth from the unclean is unclean and that which goes forth from the clean is clean”
An objection was raised. Why did [the Sages] say that honey from bees ( דבש דבורימ ) is permitted? One opinion suggests that the bees do not excrete honey as an animal does milk, but rather that bees just produce it: “Because the bees store it [from the sap of flowers and plants) up in their bodies but do not drain it from their bodies” (literally “They (the bees) bring it into their bodies, but do not bring it out of their bodies”
Clearly, not all the sages were satisfied with this explanation… “As Rav Yaakov says, saying “Honey, the torah ( רחמנא “Rachmana” from “Rechem” womb meaning merciful) permits it (by Divine decree)..
So this sweetness that we begin the new year with, is a complex sweetness. It is a sweetness that proclaims that sweet, pure and holy things can come from forbidden places. It is a sweetness that proclaims that good can come from bad, that every dog has his day, that even the sinners among us, nay maybe, only the sinners among us, can produce the nectar of our God. The bee honey produces sweetness from a hidden, secret place… an unexpected place… or as the great Shlomo Carlebach sang… “you never know, you never know, you never know..”
At the end of the day, the sweetness of the honey is permitted only by God’s decree.. God’s concession to mankind. Our first taste of the sweetness of a new year is by the grace of God.. It’s as if God is smiling and reminding us with a wink … ‘Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’ (Proverbs 9: 17)
מַיִם-גְּנוּבִים יִמְתָּקוּ; וְלֶחֶם סְתָרִים יִנְעָם
…. not such a bad message for a deviant jew such as I….
It’s nice to know that we not only start the year with this sweet touch of the perverse, but to know that, by tradition, children who learn the Hebrew aleph bet for the first time… learn it with this same sweet bee’s honey.
Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe , by Ivan G. Marcus