One of the favorite food staples in the Jewish home during the High Holy Day season is honey. Traditionally, from Rosh Hashana until after Succot, honey is served with every major meal. It is smeared on the bread over which we recite the Hamotzi blessing, the sweet apple is dipped into honey on the night of Rosh Hashana, sweet baked goods are baked with honey, and honey is used in the preparation of foods such as glazed carrots and sweet desserts. Aside from the caloric disaster that this custom entails, one is really hard pressed to find a negative thing to say about honey. The custom of honey on the Jewish table during the period of the Tishrei holidays which will begin in three weeks is an ancient and universal Jewish custom. It is already recorded in the works of the Babylonian Geonim in the seventh century and probably dates back to even much earlier times. It is no exaggeration to say that Jews always seemed to possess a sweet tooth.
The obvious reason for the use of honey on our table at this time of the year is the symbolism of our desire for a sweet new year. Sweet means dear, precious, enjoyable, satisfying, serene, secure and something most pleasing. Well, that about sums up our hopes and prayers for the new year and therefore honey serves as our representative in expressing these fervent hopes and prayers. However, honey represents more than sweetness per se. It is one of the attributes of the Land of Israel which is described in the Bible as being a land that “flows with milk and honey.” Thus honey on the table always reminded the Jew wherever he or she resided, of their ancient homeland of Israel and of the Jewish attachment to its history and holy soil. The honey referred to in the land flowing “with milk and honey” is not the common bee honey that we use today, but describes rather the honey of Biblical times that was primarily produced from overripe dates. Even today, here in Israel, date honey is produced and sold, though again the overwhelming majority of honey on the market here comes from bees.
The use of bee honey as a permissible kosher food raises an interesting halachic question. The general rule is that food products that are derived from non-kosher creatures are never considered to be kosher for Jewish use as a food. Bees are a non-kosher species of insect life and therefore one would think that the honey that they produce within the sacs of their bodies would also not be kosher. Yet, we find in the Bible that bee honey was eaten without compunction, the story in the book of Shoftim (Judges), of Samson and the bees producing honey on the lion's carcass being only one such Biblical example of honey being used as a legitimate Jewish food. Why is this different from, let us say, milk from a camel that remains non-kosher, since the camel itself which gave the milk is a non-kosher animal? The rabbis of the Talmud studied the problem and decided that the sac in the bee that contains the honey is halachically considered to be only a storage place of the honey and neither it or the honey produced are an integral part of the bee's body, whereas the milk-producing organs and the lactating process of the camel are an integral part of the camel's circulatory and digestive system and thus the camel and its milk product both have the same halachic status of being non-kosher. The same logic applies to permitting the use of resinous glaze in kosher products today even though the product originally comes from the body of the insect lac which is found on the trees of rain forests. There too the sac that contains the glaze and the glaze itself are not considered to be an integral part of the body of the lac insect itself.
Its symbolism of sweetness in life, its connection to the Land of Israel, its role in halachic discussion, decision and precedent concerning its kashrut, all have combined to make honey a “Jewish” food. The use of honey as a food is certainly one of the more enjoyable customs of Jewish tradition. May its symbolism of sweetness truly be a harbinger of delight for the good year that is about to begin for all of us.