It’s hard to find many things all Jews can agree on. But there is one tradition that unites the Jewish people (okay, most of them) once a year, for one brief moment: dipping a slice of apple in honey on Rosh Hashanah and wishing each other a sweet new year.
But with declining bee population due in part to the harmful large-scale honey industry, and the ethical debate over industrial honey consumption, can we find a substitute to serve on our Rosh Hashanah table?
The Bible may actually offer us some useful ideas.
“The term honey in the Bible is inconclusive,” said Prof. Abraham Ofir Shemesh of Israel Heritage department in Ariel University. In fact, sometimes it may have referred to dates, date syrup (in Hebrew, silan), actual honey, or other substances entirely. “It depends on the context,” he says.
When God promised the Israelites in the desert to bring them to a “good land…a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and honey” (Deuteronomy, 8:8) the honey that authors of the Bible were talking about may have been date syrup, not bee honey, according to the sages of the Mishna and Talmud. It may have even referred to the dates themselves, Shemesh adds.
Ezra and Nehemiah directed the Jews in Jerusalem to “Eat the fat, and drink the sweet” (Nehemia 8:10) on Rosh Hashanah, and that is the first place the custom of eating sweet dishes on Rosh Hashanah appears. “But sweet here means sweet wine,” said Shemesh, “or sweet drinks made of fruits such as figs or grapes, as fruit were the main sweeteners at the time.”
At least some biblical references to honey do apparently refer to bees. When God promised Moses at the burning bush “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8), he referred to the natural sources of the Land of Israel, a land flowing with cows’ milk and wild bee honey, as opposed to Egypt, which is a desert land, according to Shemesh.
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However, some later sages identify the biblical honey with grape molasses called dibs, a thick syrup that was popular in Israel at the time and is still prepared by the Druze in northern Israel and in Syria. According to 19th century Italian Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto, dibs is what Jacob sent to his son Joseph in Egypt.
Moving onto the 13th century, the medieval book "Ohr Zarua" quotes the Geonim in Babylon, in the ninth and 11th centuries C.E., discussing the Rosh Hashanah customs including “eating peeled barley and drinking honey and all kinds of sweets to have a fat and sweet new year and so it says in the Book of Ezra”. "Ohr Zarua" also quotes 12th-13th century Rabbi Eliezer Ben Yoel HaLevi saying members of his community would eat the head of a ram dipped in honey to remind them of the tale of the binding of Isaac.
So how did we get to dipping apples in honey? Apples are first mentioned as a Rosh Hashanah dish in "Machzor Vitri," written in 1208: “Jews of France used to eat on Rosh Hashanah red apples.” In this part of Europe apples are in season in the fall, during the holiday.
The 14th century Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher wrote, "in Ashkenaz, where they are accustomed to eat at the beginning of the meal a sweet apple with honey [and] to say ‘May we have a sweet year.’”
“But the emphasis here is on the apple, a good apple, and not the honey,” said Shemesh. “In Jewish mysticism, the apple has a very significant meaning, hinting at the Garden of Eden.”
According to kabbalists in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, apples should be cooked in sugar, not served in honey. This, in fact, is how Iraqi Jews serve apples on the holiday even today: as a simple jam of apple and sugar. Hayyim even specified that one has to recite “a sweet new year” without adding “as sweet as honey,” as is customary in many communities.
Honey was not allowed as part of the sacrifice in the Temple and later, in the Kabbala, became associated with certain negative connotations. “Maimonides said that the pagans used to spread honey on their sacrifices, and to disassociate ourselves from the pagans, the Torah forbade bringing honey to the Temple, so it wouldn’t look like pagan worship,” Shemesh says.
So if you’re looking for ways to spare the bee population and try something new this year, just like our ancestors, you can choose between fresh dates, date molasses or silan, grape dibs or just apple jam. There’s a lot to choose from. And may the new year be sweet.