How bees and honey contribute to the Rosh Hashanah tradition
Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, in his Kitzur Shulhan Arukh (published 1864), endorses an old custom for Rosh Hashanah: “. . . We dip the challah in honey and, after eating a piece the size of an olive, we say, “May it by your will that You renew for us a good and sweet year.” After this, we dip a piece of sweet apple in honey and say the benediction, “. . . who creates the fruit of the tree,” and, after eating it, we again say, “May it be your will that you renew for us a good and sweet year.” (129:9)
For Amalia Haas, organic beekeeper and Jewish educator from the Cleveland area, this custom has special meaning.
“In the fall, when we wish each other a Shanah Tovah U’metukah, a good and sweet year, we are really wishing for the adequate rain, abundant sunlight and healthy soil that go into a productive year for honeybees,” she says. “If the honeybees benefit, all agriculture benefits. For bees to thrive, the landscape for miles around has to be healthy for a long period. It is a big-picture blessing.”
Haas explains that, unlike the conditions for other farm animals, the “conditions for bees are not localized. Bees fly within a 10-mile radius. A beekeeper has to trust her neighbors … The bees depend on the practices of neighbors in the whole 10-mile radius.
“The amount of bee labor that goes into the production of honey boggles the mind,” she says. “An 8-ounce jar of honey may contain the nectar of a million flowers. A 12th of a teaspoon of honey may contain the lifetime output of a single bee.”
To produce honey, Haas explains, “Bees need flowers. Not just an occasional gladiolus in the front yard or one rose bush.”
Our landscapes can have too few flowers, she explains.
“A suburban neighborhood can become a desert for bees. More than half the area is typically paved-over streets and sidewalks and houses,” she says. “The double whammy comes where people have vanity lawns. A manicured lawn is a food desert for bees. To get a vanity lawn, people use pesticides and herbicides, which eventually end up on your table.”
Rabbi Herschel Finman thinks about a healthy environment for bees. In designing Jewish Ferndale, a new multicultural Jewish facility, he considered, but opted against, installing beehives. He decided that “a place for everyone should not be off limits to those with bee-sting allergies.” Instead, the facility has a flower garden to provide sustenance for bees and other pollinators.
Haas, who is founder and CEO of Bee Awesome, has studied Torah in Israel and America, and uses her knowledge of beekeeping to teach Torah.
On a recent trip to Detroit for the Hazon Jewish Food Festival at Eastern Market, Haas presented a talk, “A Land of Milk and Honey,” at which participants tasted varieties of honey, relating the different honey flavors to the ecosystems that support them, and to the Torah of nature.
To order Haas’ honey, go to honeybeejewish.com.
Honey, Don’t Be Fooled
Not everything sold in a honey jar is honey. Real honey has pollen, which the bees collected from flowers in the neighborhood of their hive. Plenty of stores sell something that looks like honey.
If the sample has no pollen at all, it has been ultrafiltered or it might not even contain honey at all. It might, for example, consist of corn syrup with a dash of flavoring. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration maintains that any ultrafiltered product can no longer be considered honey; but the FDA does not inspect honey.
Who protects the consumer? The German research company Intertek, smaller concerns in other countries and laboratories in universities around the world employ sophisticated chemists to authenticate samples of honey and identify the cheats.
But millions of dollars in profit tempt producers to keep cheating. Honey costs more than corn syrup. China, Vietnam and India produce ultrafiltered, often adulterated, sometimes contaminated, honey for wholesale prices approaching 30 cents a pound. The United States imposes a high tariff on these products, but smugglers find ways to avoid tariffs.
Think spy novels: My informant, a local chemist who inspects honey professionally, asked me not to use his name or mention where he works.
The bad news: A publication called Food Safety News in 2011 asked a Texas A&M University chemist, Vaughn Bryant, to check samples of honey purchased at 60 stores. He found that 76 percent of the samples had no pollen. No “honey” from drugstores had pollen; so, too, no “honey” in single-service packages. Three quarters of the honey from supermarkets and chain stores had no pollen.
My informant says people went to jail for the fraud uncovered in 2011, but the fraud continues. He confirms that “honey is the third most faked commodity in the world.”
The good news: Honey purchased at health-food stores, from small producers or from local farm stands all turned out to be the real thing. Do your shopping at those sources.
One Word Makes A Difference In This Honey Cake Story
Once upon a time, a young college student fell in love with a young man she had met in class, and they planned to marry. Though the fiancé was a handsome, intelligent, polite young man and a strictly observant Jew, the woman’s mother did not approve at all. So, the young woman found a little apartment to live in while she waited for the wedding date.
On her own for the first time, the young woman found she needed someone to teach her a lot about managing a home and cooking and baking and so forth. Abandoned by her own mother, she also needed emotional support. My mother, Rose Finkelman, became the mentor and stand-in mother of the bride.
As part of the tutorial in baking, my mother sent this young woman a honey cake recipe, probably learned from her own late mother, a recipe that had never failed.
The bride-to-be followed the recipe carefully and served her fiancé fresh-baked honey cake. Alas, though he loved her dearly and hated to say so, he found the cake inedible.
The mortified bride-to-be consulted with my mother to try to figure out what had gone wrong — she had followed the recipe faithfully. They went over the recipe again and again without finding the mistake. Eventually, they discovered that where the recipe called for 1 cup of coffee, the bride-to-be had added 1 cup of instant coffee powder straight from the jar.
Thereafter, whenever my mother wrote out the recipe for an acquaintance or friend, she added the word “liquid” — 1 cup of liquid coffee.
Oh, I bet you also want to know what happened to the young couple and the obstinate mother. Well, the bride’s mother became reconciled to her daughter and her son-in-law in time to visit the grandchildren.
Rose’s Honey Cake
2 eggs, separated
½ cup oil
1 cup sugar
1 cup liquid coffee
2½ cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. ginger
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. cloves
½ tsp. cinnamon
Beat egg whites until stiff. Blend oil, sugar, egg yolks. Add honey. Add other ingredients. Fold in egg whites.
Bake in greased tube pan at 350 degrees for one hour.
Louis Finkelman Contributing Writer