As the new year approaches and we stock up on foods for the High Holy Day table, one of the items we make sure to buy is honey.
It's a necessary purchase, for as we ask for a Shanah Tovah U'mituka — "May we have a good and sweet year" — we dip apples into honey.
What's interesting about honey is that it's a paradox. It is produced by bees, a non-kosher animal, but is itself kosher. And not only is it kosher, but it has been lauded as a special food from the patriarch Jacob's time until today.
How can a product of a non-kosher animal be kosher? It is said that honey is kosher since it is produced outside of the body of the bee. But in fact, this is only partially true. Bees produce honey by collecting nectar from flowers, and storing the nectar in the honey sac, which is part of their digestive system.
The field bee returns to the hive, and as the partially processed nectar is passed from bee to bee, water evaporates from the nectar. The bees add an enzyme to the nectar to break down the complex sugars (predominantly sucrose) into simpler sugars (fructose and glucose). The nectar is then deposited into a cell of the honeycomb and the bees continue the processing by beating their wings vigorously. The flow of air inside the dry hive causes more evaporation to occur until the thickened and chemically altered nectar becomes honey.
Honey is first mentioned in the Bible as one of the gifts sent by Jacob with his sons when they went down to Egypt to seek food during the famine. It was clearly a valuable and delicious commodity during Biblical times.
Moses, at his first encounter with God at the burning bush, hears God's pledge for the first time: "I shall rescue them from the hand of Egypt and bring them up to…a land flowing with milk and honey"(Exodus 3:8). Throughout the Bible, Israel is repeatedly referred to as the land of "milk and honey."
Manna, the most perfect food ever created, which sustained the Israelites for 40 years of wandering in the desert, is described as tasting "like a cake fried in honey" (Exodus 16:31).
Although rabbinical interpretation of biblical honey is fig or date honey, in the book of Judges (14:9) the mighty Samson discovers the carcass of a lion with a swarm of bees and honey inside. So honey in the Land of Israel can also refer to comb honey.
Still, the book of Proverbs recognized that too much of a good thing can be harmful and used honey as a paradigm: "When you find honey, eat just enough — too much of it, and you will vomit" (Proverbs 25:16).
From a medical point of view, honey is also a paradox, as it has been used as folk remedy for numerous ailments, but can also cause illness if not used properly. For instance, It can have a laxative effect in people who cannot digest fructose efficiently, but it also can cause constipation since honey is so highly concentrated that it can reduce water in the intestine.
When applied to a wound, honey can encourage healing since it has antimicrobial properties, and actually fights infections. On the other hand, honey can exacerbate an infection under certain circumstances since it contains glucose and fructose, which support bacterial growth. For that reason honey can promote tooth decay as well.
Honey had at one time been given to babies to relieve the discomfort of teething, and promote healing of gums. But some kinds of honey, we now know, carry botulism spores. While harmless in adults, these dormant spores may thrive in an infant's intestinal tract to produce a living bacterium, which manufactures a highly toxic poison. In fact, infant botulism has been cited as one possible cause of sudden infant death syndrome (crib death). For that reason, physicians strongly caution that babies under 1 year of age should not be given honey.
Although it is not a perfect food like manna, honey is generally loved and relished, and it remains a modern-day treat, particularly enjoyed during the High Holy Day period. It is used as a comforting old-fashioned remedy for coughs and colds, and is an ingredient in crackers and popular breakfast cereals as well as soaps, shampoos, skin cream and conditioners.
Today honey remains a powerful symbol of Jewish New Year observance. As we eat challah and honey, honey cake, taiglach (dumplings in honey) and other delicacies cooked with honey, we hope for a sweet year.