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Honey in Jewish Law, Lore, Tradition, and More

Honey in Jewish Law, Lore, Tradition, and More

What the Torah has to say about this Rosh Hashanah favorite

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You may be familiar with the custom of dipping an apple into honey on Rosh Hashanah, but where else does honey feature in Jewish tradition? Let’s explore the Torah sources that discuss this sweet treat.

Honey in the Scriptures

Land of Milk and Honey. The Torah describes the Land of Israel as “flowing with milk and [date] honey,”1 and a verse in our Grace after Meals praises Israel’s “Seven Species” of fruit and grain, including, last but not least, honey.

Indeed, the Rebbe notes that honey is truly the culmination of all the species preceding it. Date trees take a long time to grow, symbolizing the effort we must make during exile, while the sweet honey symbolizes the spiritual fruits that we will enjoy in the messianic era as a result of that effort.2

Heavenly taste. The heavenly manna that sustained the Jews for 40 years in the desert was like “a pastry fried in honey” (although the miraculous manna could also taste like whatever one imagined). 3

Samson's riddle. Several centuries later, the mighty Samson bare-handedly killed a lion that was about to attack him. When he later returned to that spot, he found "a swarm of bees in its belly, complete with their honey." Samson then posed this riddle to a group of his friends: "From the devourer came forth food; and from the strong came out sweetness."4

This inspiring idea—that even the negative can produce positive—may help explain the Rabbinic preference for bees’ honey over the Biblical date honey,5 as we will discuss further.6

Honey in Jewish Life

Good vs. sweet. Our age-old High Holiday custom to dip an apple7 in honey conveys our Rosh Hashanah wish that “G‑d grant us a good and sweet new year.” Why both “good” and “sweet”? Isn’t that redundant?

"Good" per se can remain on a lofty spiritual level, so we add the adjective “sweet”—we should actually merit to enjoy tangible good, as real as the physical honey we eat with the apple. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson explains this on a Kabbalistic level: “Tova” (good) refers to the esoteric divine attribute of kindness, while “mesukah” (sweet) also transforms and sweetens the sublime “severities.”8

Honey's unique qualities. Why do we use honey rather than sugar for the apple-dipping custom? Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains: Honey both absorbs and preserves its contents.910 11 Kabbalistically, the supernal “severities” help channel the infinite spiritual energies, so they will be "preserved" and can descend to the lower spheres (as opposed to dissipating on a lofty plane). This concept is known as “severities within kindness.” We thus pray that the severities, too, be transformed to good.12

Raw = life. Some traditions prefer using raw honeycomb, as the Hebrew word for “raw” is “chai," which is also translated as “life,” and our Rosh Hashanah wish is to be inscribed in the Book of Life.13

Beyond the apple. In addition to the apple, we also dip the Rosh Hashanah challah in honey. Some continue this tradition throughout all the Tishrei festivals until Hoshanah Rabbah, which concludes the “Days of Judgment.”

To bee or not to bee? Rabbi Yosef ben Moshe explains why bees’ honey (versus date honey) is used for this custom: Bees have a sting within them, yet their product is sweet. We are hoping that G‑d’s attribute of judgment will be tempered by His attribute of mercy, producing a sweeter result. 14

Honey in Jewish Law

Why is honey kosher? According to halachah, a derivative of an impure animal is considered impure, so the obvious question arises: How can kosher honey be produced by the non-kosher bee?15

Well, honey is actually not produced by a bee’s body. The busy bees transfer the floral nectar through their mouths only as temporary “storage”16 until the sugar levels reach 80 percent, and then they store it in the honeycomb. Bees’ honey indeed represents a unique kashrut phenomenon!

Pastry vs. bread. The Mishnah17 rules that pastry fried in honey (or dough kneaded with honey) does not qualify as halachic “bread,”18 and is thus exempt from the obligation to separate “challah."19

The blessing. As a food that doesn’t grow from the earth or from a tree, the generic Shehakol20 blessing is recited before eating honey.21 Mead whiskey made from fermented honey has the same blessing.

Maimonides' health tip. Maimonides seems to be the first in the medical field to caution young children against eating honey, a common health tip for contemporary mothers. 22

Helpful honey. Our sages say that “honey and sweets help restore one’s vision.” 23 The Talmud lists various "aids" for memory, and later commentaries add: “Honey, too, makes one wise.”24

Messages in the Honey

We can derive many life lessons from honey. Here is a sweet sampling:

The sweet-and-sour balance. The Torah restricts what can be offered on the altar: “Do not offer any leavening25 or sweet fruits26 as a fire-offering to G‑d."27 Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch explains this homiletically: Always being sour—or, conversely, being too sweet—is not an acceptable form of service in Judaism. 28

Too much of a good thing. In Psalms, King David praises G‑d's Torah: “Sweet to my palate is Your word, more than honey!” 29 The Eretz HaChaim explains: Proverbs30 cautions us against indulging in too much honey, while “Torah is always satisfying.”31

Selfless bees. The Midrash states, “Just as the bee stores everything it produces for its owner, so do we, the people of Israel, save our mitzvahs for our Father in Heaven.” 32 The commentaries elaborate: Bees cannot consume all the honey that they gather, but they produce it for the owner of the hive. Similarly, Jewish people keep mitzvahs for the sake of heaven, without personal ulterior motives.

Sweetness and stingers. The Lubavitcher Rebbe comments: The bee both stings and produces honey.33 A person’s character, too, is comprised of two extremes, the attribute of kindness (in Kabbalah, the “right side”) and the attribute of severity (the “left side”). The Torah teaches us to “use the right side to attract and draw near, and the left to push away.”34 A bee’s primary function is to produce honey, yet its stinger is a defense to protect its treasure. So, too, our main focus is to “do good,”35 i.e. the positive commandments; secondarily, “abstaining from bad,”36 i.e. the negative commandments, helps protect and safeguard the former. Ideally, we try to combine and incorporate the “left” with the “right.”37

The sweetness of Torah. In King Solomon’s allegorical “Song of Songs,” the verse “Honey and milk under your tongue”38 is interpreted to mean that words of Torah—specifically the inner secrets of Kabbalah—are sweeter than honey. 39 We thus eat milk and honey products on the Shavuot holiday, when we celebrate the Giving of the Torah.40

Two ways to learn. Rabbi Tzvi Farber makes an interesting observation: Bees produce honey by flying many miles to collect nectar from flowers, while milk comes straight from the cow. Similarly, one learns Torah in two ways:

  • One should gather insights from others, learning from diverse teachers;
  • One can also be creative and original, developing his own Torah insights. 41

Additional Customs

Begging for honey cake. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the sexton or rabbi distributes honey cake to the congregation for a sweet year. It is customary to “beg” for a piece, as we hope that this will be the last time we‘ll have to beg, and that we’ll be self-sufficient and independent in the upcoming year.

More apple in honey. Later in the festive Tishrei month, on the day of Hoshanah Rabbah (the last day of Sukkot), many recite Psalms all night, fervently praying for a sweet year. In 1984, the Rebbe revived the custom of concluding the recital of Psalms with an apple dipped in honey.

A sweet tooth. When a three-year-old child starts learning Torah in cheder (school) for the first time, it is customary42 to place a little honey on the letters of the alef-bet, which the child then licks happily, so the child learns to associate Torah with delight and good taste.43 The chassidic master Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk would expound the verse “Do not offer any leavening or sweet fruits as a fire-offering to G‑d”: The Hebrew word for “do not” is “lo,” which, with a slightly different spelling, can mean “for him.” He used this as a Biblical source for the various sweet treats brought for “him”—the child—during his cheder introduction.

This year, when you’re dipping your apple into honey, you’ll have a taste of its significance. May you have a good, sweet new year!

Footnotes
1.
Deuteronomy 31:20, one of many similar Torah phrases.
4.
Judges 14.
5.
An important difference between the two honeys, of course, is the blessing we recite over them. The blessing over dates is "Borei Pri Ha'Etz," whereas the blessing for bees' honey is “Shehakol.”
6.
The Biblical word “devash” actually refers to date palm honey, while honey in Rabbinic literature is usually bees’ honey.
7.
See Why an Apple in Honey? as to why the apple is specifically used.
8.
Likkutei Levi Yitzchak, Igrot, p. 311.
9.
See Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, sec. 81. Also see Rashba (Responsa, sec. 80) and Rabbeinu Yonah (cited in Rosh to Brachot, ch. 6) for differing views regarding these two opposing qualities in a halachic query.
10.
The Talmud (Bava Batra 3b) relates that King Herod preserved a girl’s corpse for 7 years in honey.
11.
Additionally, honey is one of the seven liquids that cause susceptibility to impurity, although that is more applicable to Temple times than it is today. See Mishnah, Machshirin 6:4.
12.
Torah Ohr, Shemot, p. 212.
13.
Hagahot Ashri (14th century) glosses on the Rosh. Those who subscribe to this custom may want to take precaution not to consume beeswax along with the raw honey; there are contemporary halachic opinions who prohibit consumption of beeswax, based on their findings as to how it is produced by the impure bee, more so than honey (see Tzfunot journal, vol. 15, p. 48). However, the overwhelming majority deem it allowed (see Halichos Shlomo, Tishrei, ch. 1, fn. 76). See also Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Orech Chaim 467:15, which discusses eating and drinking raw honey that had been mixed with its wax, without noting any concern about not being allowed to consume the wax.
14.
Leket Yosher (14th century).
15.
Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 7b.
16.
See Brachot ibid. and Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Maachalot Asurot 3:3.
17.
Challah 1:4.
18.
See our Blessings on Food Guide for the definition of halachic bread.
20.
See our Blessings on Food Guide for this blessing.
21.
It is also kosher for Passover, provided no leavened ingredients were included in the process. See Is Honey Kosher for Passover?. Some kashrut agencies do, indeed, require certification for Passover use.
22.
Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 4:12.
23.
Yoma 83b. See also the story of King Saul’s son Jonathan (I Samuel, ch. 14), whose eyes lit up when he chanced on honey in the field. (Parenthetically, the commentaries there disagree on the definition of the wording in verse 25: Radak maintains the "oozing of nectar" described in the passage was bees' honey flowing from the honeycombs, whereas Rashi maintains it was nectar from sugar cane, a position he similarly holds in defining Song of Songs 5:1.)
24.
Horayot 13b.
25.
Certain offerings, such as a Korban Todah, have leavened ingredients. But as a whole, leavenings themselves are not offered.
26.
In the Hebrew original, the word "devash" (honey) is used. However, the Torah commentaries concur that this refers to "sweet fruits." Yet we include it here, as the lesson can obviously be derived from honey as well.
28.
Sefer HaSichot 5704, p. 151.
29.
119:103. See 19:11 ad loc., where the pleasure of Torah is described as "sweeter than honey from the honey combs."
30.
25:16.
31.
Ibid. 5:19.
32.
Midrash Rabbah, Devarim 1:6.
33.
In another context, Oznayim L'Torah on Deuteronomy 1:44 elaborates how the actions of those who desired to prematurely possess the Land of Israel were similar to those of bees (“as the bees would do”). See there at length.
34.
Sotah 47a.
36.
Ibid.
37.
In an early journal entry, Reshimot, no. 132.
38.
4:11.
39.
Chagiga 13a.
40.
Dairy products are most familiar, but there are also Shavuot honey specialties. See Nitei Gavriel, Shavuot, p. 110.
41.
Cited in Yalkut Divrei Asaf (19th century).
43.
Machzor Vitri and others.
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Efraim Rubin October 28, 2016

Re:Honey blessing Sophie,
The blessing recited before tasting of honey (itself; whereas when dipped with challa, apple etc - it is "peripheral" and thus requires no blessing) is "Shehakol".

As for an "after-blessing", none is needed when one eats less than a k'zayit (— a measure formally described as the size of one olive and traditionally determined as one ounce, 27 grams), or a kzayit in over 3-4 minutes. By honey - one doesn't usually eat in larger consumptions than that.. Reply

Sophie s Bushey October 21, 2016

Honey blessing What is the bracha for honey? Reply

B. Lazerson Brooklyn, NY August 1, 2016

Yet another insight to be learned from bees As of late, I've come across a great (new) book of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's teachings (available on this site), which brings yet another great insight to be learned from bees and the in-gathering of honey. This article is most informative, but this will only add another facet!

Oh, just realized I can't bring the HTML link here, so provided here is the book's title ("Learning Something From Everything") and the relevant essay ("Public Speaking"). Look it up on this site. Reply

Efraim Rubin September 29, 2014

Hi. Good question!

(In truth, the focus of our essay was primarily on the standard (bee's) honey, not on the bee (or its related species) per se. [Parenthetically, there surely are plenty additional lessons to be gleaned from a bee and its honey production – as we are taught to learn from everything around us – but our compilation only included those brought in Torah sources]).

But as you brought it up – yes, the wasp [and hornet], both of the vespidae scientific order – are mentioned in Torah sources as well – indeed, the creatures as well as their honey.

Here's a sampling:

– The overwhelming majority defines the Hebrew word "tzirah" (or "zibura" in Rabbinic literature) as a hornet (and at times, a wasp). In the Biblical times of Moses and Joshua – the hornet was sent by G-d as an "aid" for the Israelites' conquest of the Land of Israel. It would spray its fatal venom in the eyes of its victims. (The Talmud elsewhere cautions of the fatal sting of the hornet, especially for young children).

– Yalkut Shimoni on Psalms (78:45) includes the hornet among the wild beasts which rampaged Egypt in the fourth of the Ten Plagues.

– In Midrashic sources, we find that King David had several episodes wherein he questioned G-d of the purpose for apparently needless creations, and, in response, eventually appreciated their lessons. Among them, was that of the wasp: On one of King Saul's tiring pursuits of David (not yet king), the King pitched a tent at the entrance of a cave. As he retired in the tent, Abner – his chief of staff – stood guard outside against intruders. When the two were both sound asleep, David wiggled into the cave between Abner's feet and retrieved the King's drinking goblet. As he began crawling out, Abner changed positions and his feet blocked the cave's entrance. Frightened, David prayed to G-d to save him. Lo and behold, a wasp flew into the cave and stung Abner on his leg. Subconsciously, he straightened his feet, enabling David to escape the cave. Upon seeing the wonders of G-d's creations – he gave thanks to G-d for sending along the wasp.

– A verse in Deuteronomy describes the many evils and distresses that will befall Israel. R. Yochanan would cry when reciting this verse: "A slave whose master brings upon him evils and distresses, is there any remedy for him?" Continuing to explain the verse, the Talmud (Chagiga 5a) says that they are evils which compound one another. It uses a metaphor of one bitten by both a wasp and a scorpion – where the remedy of one is detrimental to the other (cold water is to be used for a wasp's bite, while a scorpion's sting needs hot water as its cure. So when one is bitten by both – the cure for each opposes the other and there is no remedy).
This analogy is borrowed by the Rosh (13th century) in his depicting the tragedy of his brethren in European exile: When we are oppressed, we are afraid to scream out for sympathy and mercy because we will be branded as trouble-makers for drawing attention to our ourselves. Yet, when we are oppressed and we fail to protest – we invite more attacks against ourselves. This is how the nations scrutinize and judge the Jew in exile. We cannot win and we lose face no matter how we react to persecution.

– Regarding their honey: Although the halachic consensus today is that wasp's honey is indeed kosher (see Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 81:9), there were opinions among the codifiers which had disagreed. [The dispute stems from their inferences from the Scriptures regarding bees' honey – does it serve to exclude other honey or not; according to some, being as the wasp's honey isn't explicitly permitted – it is to be considered as an excretion from their non-kosher bodies].

– Honey as a liquid that causes susceptibility to impurity – as we wrote in footnote 11 – applies only to bee's honey, to exclude other liquids referred to as "dvash" in the Scriptures (namely: sugar cane, date honey, and wasp's honey), as the Talmudic commentaries elaborate.

P.S. Being as this essay's focus was on standard bee's honey – others were not discussed. But I take this opportunity to mention another one:

"Royal Jelly" – the honey bee secretion from the glands of “worker bees” ¬– is the subject of much discussion in halachic literature being that it is an excretion of the non-kosher bee itself. Most authorities concur that it is forbidden for human consumption, but there are those who will permit it when medically prescribed. It is usually combined with enough standard honey so that its taste is not apparent (when in pill form, it certainly does not have its distinct taste). Reply

Tuvia Aronson Los Angeles September 27, 2014

More sources on honey and bees The Sema"g in his discussion of the prohibition of eating bugs pauses to describe the way they make "eggs" and how they create hexagon shapes so they maximize space and he says " - also see Rav Yosef albo in Sefer Ikkarim vol 1 p. 40כמה נפלאים מעשה ה'"
Tzemach Tzedek (the earlier one) Talks about learning tzedek and yosher from bees
also yeshayahu 7:18 talks about how in a moment all the bees from Assyria can be summoned and Radak Rav David Kimchi says they are unique in their ability to gather in one moment to one place
Arizal says whoever is too condescending at the expense of teh comunity will be reincarnated as a bee
Bereishit Rabbah 99:6 says that just as honey sticks to the jar, our sweet Torah sticks to us and enlightens us
I peeked at The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Though by Toperoff- he quotes Mishlei (Proverbs) 30:25 bees are designated as Edah (edah= "a company assembled together or acting concertedly"
He counts 48 times in Tanakh mentioned. Honey= 1/60 of tasete of manna Talmud Berakhot 57b- to children manna tasted like honey Yoma 75b
Medicinal properties of honey appear in Berakhot 44b and Bava Metzia 38a
Mustard leaves make bees impotent according to Bava Batra 80a
Jews in Babylonia were skilled in apiculture according to Newman in Agricultural Life of Jews in babylon
Well known custom of kids licking honey when starting to learn Torah...
says the hexagonal shape is to not waste any space
Rav Avigdor Miller in Rejoice O Youth describes the sac the bee uses to transport the honey, the enzyme to congeal, a stinger to protect and the barbed stinger so it is not a menace to the world
Devarim Rabah 1 As the bee gathers for its owner, so Israelites accumulate merits and good deeds for the Glory of our Heavenly Parent
Talmud Bava Kama calls a bunch of bees a נחיל של דבורים from root nachal or stream
Rebbe Nachman says devash is gematria (numerical value) of isha... it equals three times emuna 102X3….I remember something about this in Rav Yitzchak Ginzburgh's Shekhinah Beinehem in Hebrew Reply

jane Silver-Corren Dorset, UK September 24, 2014

Really interesting...does the torah mention wasps at all?? Reply

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