Apples and honey - the traditional Rosh Hashanah symbols for a sweet new year.
Sweeten Your Year With This Traditional Delight
-- Ronit Treatman
In the wild, bears eat the whole beehive, with the bees still inside, in order to satisfy their craving for honey. The result is the sweet reward of honey and a mouth covered with painful stings. This Rosh Hashanah, as the bear grabs the beehive with his paws, people may plunge their arms more directly into the process of bringing honey from beehive to table. Rosh Hashanah presents an opportunity to learn things one never knew about honey, its connection to Jews, and how to have hands-on fun with it.
Israel is described as “the land of milk and honey” in the Book of Exodus. The honey referred to in this statement has traditionally been interpreted to be not honey from bees, but rather date syrup.
An archaeological excavation at Tel Rehov in Israel is challenging the notion that “honey” was not honey from bees. One hundred beehives from the First Temple period have been discovered. These are cylindrical hives made from unbaked clay, stacked one on top of the other. This is the only apiary in the Near East that has been discovered from this period. The tradition of dipping apples in bee’s honey may be the original.
How Honey Is Made
Honey bees originated in South and Southeast Asia. There are seven species of honeybees. Honeybees fly for up to two miles to collect nectar. They are very selective about the flowers from which they take nectar. Once they find a flower they like, the bees prefer to return to the same type of flower to gather more nectar.
The bees use their tongues like long straws to extract nectar from the flowers. Then they store this nectar in a special “honey stomach.” Bees have one stomach for digesting food, and one for storing honey. A bee must suck nectar from about one hundred flowers in order to fill its honey stomach. When the bee’s honey stomach is full, the bee has nearly doubled its weight. After the honeybees are done gathering nectar, they fly back to their hive. There they allow the worker bees to take the nectar out of their “honey stomachs” with their mouths. The worker bees process the nectar in their mouths so that the enzymes in their saliva can break down the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars. Simple sugar is better because it is easier for the bees to digest and bacteria are less prone to attack it. After about half an hour in the worker bees’ mouths the nectar is spread into the honeycombs. The worker bees fan the nectar with their wings to make water evaporate. Eventually, the nectar becomes a thicker syrup, or honey, and the honeycombs are sealed with wax.
The Kashrut of Honey
Even though honeybees are non-kosher insects, the honey they produce was judged to be kosher.
The Mishna in Tractate Bechorot states: "That which comes from something which is Tameh [non-Kosher or ritually impure] is Tameh, and that which comes of that which is Tahor [Kosher or ritually pure] is Tahor." Thus, the general rule is that the product of a non-Kosher animal is not kosher. However honey is kosher because bees merely process the nectar; it is not an excretion that originates from them. According to “Ask the Rabbi”, the Mishna in tractate Bechoot states: "Why did they say that bee-honey is permitted? Because even though they bring it into their bodies, it is not a 'product' of their bodies [it is stored there but not produced there]." One hundred percent pure honey is considered kosher, even without a mashgiach or kosher supervisor! According to Rabbi Dovid Heber, “The second opinion in the Gemara permits honey because of a g'zairas hakasuv, a deduction from a Biblical verse. Therefore, 100% pure honey, whether from Montana, North Dakota, or any state or country, is kosher and does not require a hechsher.”
Types of Honey
The English colonists first brought the honeybee, or Apis mellifera, to North America in 1622. The Native Americans called it the “white man’s fly.” Honeybees were introduced to North America for commercial purposes. Their beeswax was highly prized and used for export. Today most honeybees do double duty. They pollinate crops and produce honey. When growers use honeybees to pollinate one type of crop, the resulting honey is called monofloral or varietal honey. Orange blossom, tupelo, clover, honeysuckle, dandelion, sunflower, chestnut tree flower, and cotton flower honeys are some example of monofloral honey. Blended honey is a mixture of two or more honeys. These honeys can be of different color, flower nectar, flavor, or geographic area. This is how most commercial honey is produced in order to achieve uniform flavor and color. Polyfloral honey is made from the nectar of many different types of flowers. This is also known as wildflower, or artisan, honey. There are more than 300 types of nectar sources that honeybees visit around the world. Some of these flowers are very exotic such as coffee tree flowers and pine tree flowers. The flavor and aroma will be unique for each honey harvest.
How Honey Is Stored
Once the honeycomb is removed from the beehive, beekeepers store the honey for later use. Raw honey is removed from the beehive and kept exactly as it is. It contains pollen and some beeswax and can be stored as comb honey. Strained honey is raw honey which is passed through a filter to remove pieces of wax and propolis (bee resin) without removing pollen, enzymes, and minerals. These two methods of storing honey can be combined. A piece of honeycomb can be stored in a jar with liquid honey poured over it. Pasteurized honey has been heated in order to sterilize it. This process kills enzymes and yeast cells, darkens the honey, thickens it, and changes its taste and fragrance. Like a fine wine, it is best to store honey in a cool, dry area. It should be tightly covered and kept away from direct sunlight.
The honey that is served on Rosh Hashanah can be much more than an afterthought. It can be the theme of Rosh Hashanah preparation activities. Here are three ideas to enhance your holiday with hands-on experiences:
1) Make your own date honey
Bee’s honey is not vegan, since animals produce it. However, vegans and people wishing to try an authentic Biblical treat for Rosh Hashanah may serve Silan Date Honey from Israel, available online.
It is possible to cook your own date syrup the traditional Middle Eastern way.
Date “Honey” Syrup
- One cup of Medjool dates
- One cup of water
Place the water and dates in a pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Lower the flame so that the mixture simmers until the dates are very soft, for at least one hour. Let cool, then strain the syrup.
Silan date honey.
2) Visit an Apiary
People who are willing to plan ahead can have an adventure that is educational and good for the environment. Those interested in learning about honeybees and participating in the honey harvest may do so at Beaupre Apiary and gardens in the late spring and early summer. The nonprofit Beaupre Apiary in Bryn Mawr is a local biodynamic apiary. Biodynamic is a type of organic beekeeping that is ecological and sustainable. Beaupre’s mission is to restore the health of honeybees and to connect local communities to nature. The apiary is located in an organic garden whose diverse selection of plants provides the bees with a more nutritious diet.
Honey is harvested only at specific times of the season to ensure that the bees have enough honey stored for the winter. Their bees build natural combs which keep them healthy and help them protect them from varroa mites. Beaupre Apiary’s local, raw, sustainably harvested, organic/biodynamic honey is available for sale in very limited quantities. If this honey is consumed in early spring, it can help boost one’s immunity to allergies due to the pollen present in the honey. The honey may be ordered by email from their website. For those who schedule a visit, it is possible to harvest and purchase a honeycomb. This beautiful, golden delicacy may serve as the centerpiece on a Rosh Hashanah table!
3) Pick your own Apples
For a just-in-time Rosh Hashanah activity, Linvilla Orchards in Media is great place to pick one’s own apples for Rosh Hashanah. They grow twenty-five varieties of apples. Beehives are kept on hand to pollinate all these apple trees. Raw wildflower and varietal honey from the orchard is available for purchase in the barn. Unwaxed, freshly picked apples with local raw honey make an unforgettable Rosh Hashanah treat!
A golden honeycomb and a bowl of date honey make a dramatic Rosh Hashanah centerpiece and both could be Biblically accurate. Like the honey that is served this Rosh Hashanah, may the year 5770 be rich and complex. May it be sweet from what is truly important, and not from the artificial. May it be wholesome and healthy. To a good and sweet new year,
Le Shanah tovah u’metukah!
Ronit Treatman was born in Israel and grew up in Ethiopia and Venezuela. She is fluent in five languages, and volunteered for the IDF where she served in the Liaison Unit to Foreign Forces. She currently lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia with her husband and three children.
To view previous editions of The Kosher Table, please click here.
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