JERUSALEM (JTA) — Among the familiar customs of Rosh Hashanah is the dipping of apple pieces in honey — but what is its origin?
King David had a “cake made in a pan and a sweet cake” (II Samuel 6: 15, 19) given to everyone. Hosea 3:1 identifies the “sweet cake” as a raisin cake.
Honey also may have been used in the cake, but the honey of ancient eretz Yisrael was made from dates or grapes or figs or raisins because the land at the time had no domestic bees, only Syrian bees. To extract honey from their combs, it had to be smoked. Still, honey was of importance in the biblical times because there was no sugar.
During the Roman period, Italian bees were introduced to the Middle East, and bee honey was more common.
The Torah also describes Israel as “eretz zvat chalav u’dvash,” the land flowing with milk and honey, although the honey was more than likely date honey, a custom retained by many Sephardic Jews to this day.
Today, Israel has some 500 beekeepers who have some 90,000 beehives that produce more than 3,500 tons of honey annually. Kibbutz Yad Mordechai is the largest producer of honey — 10,000 bottles a day.
According to an article from a few years ago, the average Israeli eats 125 apples and 750 grams of honey a year, mostly around the High Holy Days.
Among Ashkenazim, challah is dipped in honey instead of having salt sprinkled on it for the blessing, then the blessing is given over the apple, “May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year,” which is dipped in honey.
Dipping the apple in honey on Rosh HaShanah is said to symbolize the desire for a sweet new year. Why an apple? In Bereshit, the book of Genesis, Israel compares the fragrance of his son, Jacob, to “sadeh shel tappuchim,” a field of apple trees.
Scholars tell us that mystical powers were ascribed to the apple, and people believed it provided good health and personal well-being.
Some attribute the using of an apple to the translation of the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit that caused the expulsion from paradise.
The word honey, or “dvash” in Hebrew, has the same numerical value as the words “Av Harachamim,” Father of Mercy. Jews hope that God will be merciful on Rosh Hashanah as He judges us for our year’s deeds.
Moroccans dip apples in honey and serve cooked quince, which is an apple-like fruit, symbolizing a sweet future. Other Moroccans dip dates in sesame and anise seeds and powdered sugar in addition to dipping apples in honey.
Among some Jews from Egypt, a sweet jelly made of gourds or coconut is used to ensure a sweet year and apples are dipped in sugar water instead of in honey.
Honey is also used by Jews around the world not only for dipping apples but in desserts. Some maintain in the phrase “go you way, eat the fat, drink the sweet,” sweet refers to apples and honey.
The recipes below will help make your Rosh Hashanah sweet.
CHICKEN WITH HONEY FRUIT SAUCE
3/4 cup apricot jam
1 1/2 cups orange juice
1 1/2 cups red wine
1 tablespoon ginger
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons thyme
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons corn starch
2 teaspoons cold water
6 ounces apricots
6 ounces prunes
3 to 4 pounds cut-up chicken
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a baking dish. Place chicken parts in dish. Set aside.
2. Place apricot jam, orange juice, red wine, ginger, garlic powder, thyme and honey in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer to reduce to 3 cups.
3. Stir in corn starch and water and blend. Add apricots and prunes. Pour over chicken. Bake in preheated oven 45 minutes or until chicken is done. Makes 6 servings.
POPPYSEED HONEY DRESSING
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup oil
2 teaspoons poppy seeds
1. Beat honey, mustard and vinegar in a bowl or shake well in a jar with a lid.
2. Add oil and poppy seeds and shake some more. Use in a salad with mixed greens and fruit such as grapefruit. Makes about 1 cup.
APPLES AND HONEY CAKE
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar or sugar substitute
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
3 cups grated, unpeeled apples
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup non-dairy creamer or pareve whipping cream
1/2 cup honey or honey substitute
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Grease a bundt pan.
2. In a mixer or food processor, blend flour, baking soda, salt, sugar or sugar substitute, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Add apples.
3. Add eggs, vanilla, oil, non-dairy creamer or whipping cream, and honey and blend slightly. Pour into greased bundt pan. Bake 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool before removing from pan.
(Sybil Kaplan is a journalist and food writer in Jerusalem.)