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How sweet it is: Honey’s history

The dipping of apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah symbolizes the wish for a sweet new year. (Brian Hendler)

The dipping of apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah symbolizes the wish for a sweet new year.

(Brian Hendler)

NEW YORK, Sept. 10 (JTA) — devash n. Hebrew (deh-VASH) Honey. One of the most beloved traditions of Rosh Hashanah is eating apple slices dipped in honey to signify the wish for a good and sweet new year. Honey has been an ingredient in Jewish life for almost 5,000 years — since the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and God promised to rescue them “and to bring them to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). This promise kept the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years to reach the land that would become Israel. The honey referred to in the Torah is not bee’s honey, but a sweet syrup made from dates, figs or grapes — all plentiful fruits grown in Israel. This honey, eaten alone or used to sweeten baked goods, was one of the first foods brought to the Temple as an offering. Later, references to honey came to include bee’s honey. Israel still flows with honey today. On kibbutzim and farms, apiculturists produce more than 3,500 tons of honey annually from 90,000 beehives, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics of the State of Israel. The largest producer of honey is Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, north of Gaza, which churns out upward of 10,000 bottles of the liquid gold a day and earns some $26 million from honey production each year. Yad Mordechai is revered as the kibbutz that fought a fierce battle to stop the Egyptian army during the 1948 War of Independence. Today, the kibbutz operates a museum and battlefield exhibit dedicated to the memory of 23 members who died defending their homes, fields and evidently, their beehives. But Jews were not always willing apiculturists. Hieroglyphic paintings on Egyptian tombs as old as 2,400 B.C.E. depict Hebrew slaves engaged in the dangerous job of smoking out bees from tall, cylindrical hives to collect honey in Lower Egypt, which was known as “Bee Land.” Hives of this type can still be seen in Egypt today. To make matters worse for the slaves, stealing or sampling the honey meant for pharaohs was considered a crime punishable by death. An important commodity in ancient Egypt, honey was used to ferment drinks, prevent infection and embalm mummies. Cosmetics, writing tablets and pigments for painting and hieroglyphics all incorporated beeswax. The Egyptians also offered honey to their gods. In the 12th century B.C.E., Ramses III was said to have sacrificed 15 tons of honey to the Nile god Hapi. You don’t need that much honey for dipping apples or a piece of the round Rosh Hashanah challah. For your meal, the Manischewitz kosher food company suggests setting up a tasting bar with different varieties of honey, whose color and flavor depend on the flower that supplies its nectar to the bee. Manischewitz manufactures Orange Blossom, Wild Flower, Golden and Clover Honey. You could also include Israeli honey — from Yad Mordechai, Lin’s Bee Farm or Moshav Beit Yitzchak — available in retail stores and online. What a sweet way to start the new year. Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic are co-authors of The JPS Dictionary of Jewish Words (Jewish Publication Society, 2006).

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