Land of Milk and Honey?

Land of Milk and Honey?

Honey for Rosh Hashanah

During the holiday of Rosh Hashanah Jews celebrate the coming of a sweet year by eating a piece of apple dipped into honey. [Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish holiday which celebrates the beginning of the New Year, which also includes the sounding of the shofar (ram’s horn) which is the call for repentance, which ends at the conclusion of Yom Kippur).]  There is an immense amount of literature to be found on why an apple (as opposed to other fruit) is used, and the origin of using the apple seems to be the more popular question to ask, but the use of the honey (being one half of the combo) should be equally as important.

I did find a few reasons behind the use of this sweet edible, which are as follows (from Jeffrey Cohen’s book):

  • Honey can be compared to manna.  In Exodus 16:31, manna is described as looking like white coriander seeds, and tastes “like a wafer with honey.” (וַיִּקְרְאוּ בֵית יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת שְׁמוֹ מָן וְהוּא כְּזֶרַע גַּד לָבָן וְטַעְמוֹ כְּצַפִּיחִת בִּדְבָשׁ). Just as G-d provided manna for the Hebrews during their 40 years of wandering, the honey reminds us of the sustenance that G-d will provide for the coming year.
  • The numerical value (gematria) of “honey” in Hebrew, devash (דְּבָשׁ) is equivalent to that for “father of mercy” Av Harachamim (אב הרחמים), which is an omen for the evocation of G-d’s mercy.
  • Honey, which is sweet and nourishing comes from bees, which also have a fierce sting, which can be compared to G-d, who can be both compassionate and harsh.

Some other reasons include:

  • Apples are sweet, and to make it even sweeter, they are dipped into honey. During the holiday of Rosh Hashanah a prayer is said over the sweet combination. The prayer is actually two parts. The first to give thanks, then the second for a wish of a sweet year.
    • First dip the apple in the honey and say: Blessed are you, Lord, our G-d, king of the universe who creates the fruit of the tree.

ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם בורא פרי העץ

    • Amen is then said by the prayer participants, and a bite is taken of this sweet duo
    • Then, the prayer continues with: May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors that you renew for us a good and sweet year.

יהי רצון שתחדש עלנו שנה טובה ומתוקה

    • Note, however, that honey is not specifically mentioned in this prayer.
  • Honey is used because Israel is the land of milk and honey, so what better than honey to use for a prayer for sweetness. In fact, the honey (dvash) appears 55 times in the Torah.
  • Honey is one of the seven species of Israel, which were the staple foods consumed by the ancient Israelites (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranites, olive oil, and honey) as listed in Deuteronomy 8:8.

What’s the Buzz?

Honey is produced by honey bees. Honey bees (genus Apis) is the name given to winged insects that feed on flowers and have branched body hairs. They are dependent upon pollen and nectar to produce honey. Bees have been buzzing around for millions of years. Up until the turn of this century, the general consensus was that bees, including the modern bumble bee evolved around 55-60 million years ago, but until a fossil preserved in amber dating to 100 million years ago was found in Burma.  This was a huge revelation to scientists that also helped to explain the vast expansion and flowers at about that same time (however, it is speculated that this specific species found may not be a direct descendent of any of today’s species, and retained many of the characteristics of a wasp). [Fast fact: The earliest fossils of honey bees in North America date to 14 million years ago.]

Male bees are called drones and do not have stingers, who’s purpose is to mate with the queen.  The queen lays about 2500 eggs each day. 99 percent of a bee colony is made up of females.

Before we learned about the birds and the bees, we already knew that honey was made by bees.  What many of us knew was that not all bees made honey, it was only honey bees that could do so (and bees are the only insect that produce food consumed by humans).  However, one fact that most of us probably do not know is that there are at least 20,000 different species of bees and only seven species are categorized as honey bees. There can be up to 60,000 bees in a single hive, including worker bees, males, and a queen bee. A single hive can harvest over 150 pounds of honey in a single year. However the amount will depend on many different factors, whereas some hives may only produce enough honey to sustain the hive itself for any given year.

I have told you all about the bees, so I’ll let someone else tell you about the birds.  However, coming back to the focus of this article, honey, let me tell you how this sweet treat is created.

Honey

How honey created is a marvel of nature.  To begin with, bees collect nectar from flowers, then bring it back to the hive (they actually do a dance to tell other bees where the nectar is). At the hive they break the nectar down with enzymes that they excrete into the nectar, which reduces it into simple sugars, then store the enzyme-infused nectar in the honeycombs. The moisture is evaporated due to the fanning of the bees wings (at 180-200 times per second), and the structure of the honeycomb allows for the process to occur more effectively.  What is left is honey. Not all honey is the same. It may taste a little different or be colored a little differently due to the type of nectar used by the bees. [Fast fact: There are over 300 types of honey created by bees throughout the US.]

Although honey can be eaten raw, it is normally first heated up to keep it liquid for longer (raw honey will crystallize much more quickly). Besides being used as a tasty food flavoring, it has been used as a medical aid since ancient times. It can also be made into an alcoholic drink (mead).

Honey, however, is not the only edible substance created by the bees. This is a substance that is secreted by the worker bees and fed to the larvae and the queen bee.  Another substance created by bees is propolis, which is used by bees (from tree buds) to fix and maintain the honeycombs. Both royal jelly and propolis are supposed to have medical benefits and used to treat afflictions such as asthma, hay fever, liver disease, sleep troubles, canker sores, flu, and much more. Ancient Hebrew sages had been highlighting the health benefits of honey many years ago, stating in the Talmud (Horayot 13b) that honey is good for memory and can make a person wise. But be warned, honey should not be given to very young children; Maimonides may have been the first to caution parents against giving honey to the young hundreds of years ago (in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 4:12).

Land of Milk and Honey

In Genesis 33:3, G-d tells Moses to go to Israel which is, a land flowing with milk and honey (אֶל אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ). Although I had spent the last few paragraphs discussing honey and honey bees, there is a big problem with this Torah passage.  [Fast fact: Honey bees were not introduced into the Middle East until the Roman period.] Rashi also comments (in Berachot 41b) that all ancient reference to honey were to date honey. To reiterate: There were no honey bees back in Israel in the time of the Torah.  Say what?  All these years, when I heard or saw the term “land of milk and honey,” the image of golden delicious bee honey comes to mind, but I had been mistaken for all those years.  The honey being referred to, however, is fruit nectar, and most probably date nectar – also called date honey (although the “honey” may also have been made from figs or grapes).

Honey is Kosher, Why aren’t Bees?

The ancient Hebrew sages had written (in Bechorot 7b) that food that comes from something not kosher is itself not kosher. Since honey is not a by-product of the bees themselves, but a result of gathering and storing nectar, then transformed by the bee’s enzymes, is not considered un-kosher. So, since it does not come directly from the bee itself, it does not fall under the rules of Bechorot 7b. But keep in mind that Royal Jelly, which is the excretion from the bee itself (as opposed to an excretion onto an exterior matter), is not kosher (although there is an argument to be made against this ruling).

Spelling Bee

Since Rosh Hashanah is a transliteration of the Hebrew “רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה” which literally means “head of the year.” The English spelling of the word is not standard.  In this article, I have tried to use the spelling “Rosh Hashanah” with one “n” and an “h” at the end, but it is okay to write the name with a double “n” (Rosh Hashannah) or without the final “h”
(Rosh Hashana)”

The Recipe

One of my favorite desserts that features honey is the Greek delicacy of baklava.  Here’s a really quick version of it that does not require many ingredients.

Ingredients

16 mini phyllo cups (I give you permission to buy store bought)

¼+ cup honey

1 cup mixed nuts (pecans, walnuts, almonds, pistachio, etc.)

1 tablespoon butter

¼ teaspoon cinnamon (ground)

1 dash salt

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Mix honey, nuts, butter, cinnamon, and salt together in bowl
  3. Place phyllo cups on pre-greased baking sheet, then evenly place mixture into each cup
  4. Bake for about 10-12 minutes so nuts are roasted, but not burnt
  5. Drizzle a little honey over the cups before serving.

Sources

 

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