As we approach Rosh Hashanah, and think of dipping our apples into honey in the hope of a sweet year, it’s a good time to talk about honey itself.
Honey has many benefits. It cures, it is hallucinogenic and of course, it is sweet. Xenophon of Athens was a Greek military leader, philosopher, and historian. He died in 354 BCE. He tells the story of a Greek army fighting its way through Armenia when thousands of soldiers got drunk or went insane as a result of eating honey. They recovered and proceeded on their campaign of slaughter.
The Greeks often referred to honey containing toxic compounds found in oleander and rhododendrons. And something called “mad honey” was often used by soothsayers and priestesses in Oracles like Delphi. In the Near East, Bee Women had a reputation for healing, putting spells on people, and prophesying. Mithridates used toxic honey to incapacitate Roman armies. So did Russians in the Caucasus. To this day Black Sea Turks like to add small amounts of deli bal to alcoholic drinks for an extra kick. And Maimonides includes honey in his medical tomes as a cure and disinfectant. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/ancient-history/mithridates-poisoner-king-hallucinogenic-honey-venom-arrows.html?chrome=1
The Hebrew word for honey is Devash. It is mentioned fifty times in the Bible. Most famously in the phrase that the Land of Israel is a land “ flowing with milk and honey.” The narrator of Song of Songs (4:11) uses honey to describe the woman he loves. But the big question is what kind of honey are we talking about? Because a bee is not a kosher creature, and one may not eat what comes from a non-kosher animal.
I was taught that this was referring to the honey that came from dates, not bees. The “Seven Fruits of the Land of Israel” as mentioned in Deuteronomy( 8:8) were, “Wheat, barley, the fruit of the vine, and figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and honey” which are all plants or fruits. So that it would make sense that the reference to honey did mean date juice, honey. Honey is also mentioned in the context of sacrifices. In Leviticus (2:11) the Torah says that no Devash (honey) or Se’or (leaven) may be placed on the altar but does not tell us why. Rashi says that Devash refers to date honey or any fruit extract, not bee’s honey.
I had heard that honey from bees, was not known in the Middle East at that time. Bee honey, it was said, was a much later import into the Middle East. We now know this not to be the case and archaeologists have evidence of bee honey in Israel long before the Israelites arrived. But from the Biblical text itself, we can see that honey did not always come from dates. Deuteronomy (32:13) talks about honey coming from rock, not palms. And the term Yaarot Devash ( Song of songs 1:5, and 1 Samuel 14) is normally taken to mean honeycomb.
Samson ( Judges 14.5) killed a lion, and on his way to an ill-fated banquet in Timna sees that bees have created honeycomb in the carcass. And he made a riddle out of it to confuse his enemies “ what is sweeter than honey and stronger than a lion.” Then his Philistine fiancé, using Delilah’s tactics seduced him into revealing the secret. When it came to women Samson was a sucker twice.
There is evidence in the Bible ( 1 Samuel 14) of honey’s psychedelic powers. When Jonathan was pursuing the Philistines, he dipped his staff into some honeycomb he had found in the wild, tasted it and it opened his eyes and revived him! Both Psalms and Proverbs talk about the sweetness and benefits of honey and its link to wisdom. On the other hand, they warn that too much is not good either.
The Talmud indeed has a problem with bee honey. In Bechorot 7b, the Gemara asks “Why do the Sages say that the honey of bees is permitted? ( Given that a bee is not kosher). They say it is because the bees bring it into their body, but they do not excrete it from their body.” The assumption was that the bee had a separate sac that held the nectar and then exuded it, without it passing through their bodies. The trouble is that this is physiologically incorrect and honey from bees should not be allowed any more than milk from a non-kosher animal is. However, Rav Sheshet doesn’t try to make the sun go round the earth and he quotes Rabbi Ya’akov, who simply says “the Merciful One permits it” as an exception. There is a discussion as to whether one can deduce this exception from the text in Leviticus 11:20, but still, it is an exception. And some commentators suggest that it was permitted because the Almighty did not want to deprive us of sweetness!
What can we make of this? That anything that gives us pleasure should be permitted? Of course not, but where do you draw the line? And then can one assume that all hallucinogens should be allowed too?
The fact is that customs evolve, interpretations vary, and rules are changed which is true for all systems. The best example is the case of Yossi HaGlili (TB Hullin 116a) who said you can eat chicken in milk because he said the law based on “You shall not cook a goat in its mother’s milk” only applies to quadrupeds. But then the rabbis of his time decided otherwise. When his sons asked what they should do, he replied that in his day there had not been a vote so he could still follow his father’s tradition. But since the vote, they had to follow the majority.
In the end law and custom both often defy logic. But of course, defying logic does not mean we can simply abandon it whenever we choose. Tradition plays a very important part in Judaism. As Proverbs says, “ Do not reject your mother’s traditions.” Still, it is nice to discover that the rabbis actually allowed something pleasurable that they might otherwise have forbidden and encouraged us to enjoy the (permitted) pleasures of life!
I wish you all a very sweet year ahead, Shanah Tovah UMetukah