Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Honey on Rosh Hashanah

*A version of this article also appears in the High Holidays issue of SoulWise Magazine.

On Rosh Hashanah we eat many symbolic foods. The most salient is honey—we eat honey cake, we dip challah in honey, and we dip apples in honey with the request, “May it be Your will to renew a good and sweet year for us.”

The custom of eating symbolic foods on Rosh Hashanah comes from the Talmud: “Abaye said '[A]t the beginning of each year, you should accustom yourself to eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates...',” each of which symbolizes something good for the coming year.

But why honey? Why not cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or agave syrup? Firstly, because those sweeteners were unavailable or hadn't been invented yet when the custom came about. On a wellness level, honey has antioxidant and antibiotic properties which the others lack. As long as we're asking Hashem for health and wellness, we might as well do our part.

On a deeper level, the Talmud teaches that honey is 1/60th of the mann which sustained our ancestors in the midbar. This comparison is no accident—it is to remind us on Rosh Hashanah that, like the mann, all of our material “sweetness” comes from G-d.

Even more than it is a symbol, honey is truly a special gift from G-d that many take for granted.

Bees make honey by fermenting flower nectar. On average, bees collect nectar from 10 million flowers to produce a little over four cups of honey. To visit those millions of flowers takes 10,000 hours of combined flight, or over 37,000 miles of travel. And bees don't just make honey. They also make propolis, royal jelly, and beeswax. Just over two pounds of beeswax represents the energy from over 15 pounds of honey.

The elegant alchemy achieved through this chain of events is baffling, mirroring the mystical concept of seder hishtolshelus by which our reality exists.

Plants catch the sun's light (beaming from about 93 million miles away) and convert that energy into nectar. The bees collect that nectar on the brightest days of the year and carry it into the dark depths of their hives where part of it is converted into beeswax. That wax is then harvested by the beekeeper and made into candles, which are then used to illuminate the darkest of our nights (there is a minhag to use a beeswax candle to light the Chanukah menorah).

Despite their historical role, the bees are dying. In the last ten years, up to 80 percent of commercial beehives in affected areas have been lost to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Factors contributing to CCD include exposure to pesticides, mites, and pollution. Almost 90% of wild honeybees have been lost since 1990 due to urban sprawl and destruction of natural honeybee habitat.

Bees do not only provide honey. They also pollinate over two-thirds of our crops which need pollination, including apples, tomatoes, almonds, and cucumbers. If we don't change the destiny of the honeybee soon, we're going to lose more than just honey.

As we dip our apples into honey and pray for a sweet year, let’s be aware that each of us CAN make a difference to ensure that there will be honeybees (and honey, and fruits and vegetables) for future generations. Here are a few simple tips:

*Plant bee-friendly plants in your yard

*Don't use chemicals and pesticides around your home

*If a colony of bees moves onto your property, call a bee rescue hotline rather than an exterminator

*Buy local, raw honey

*Buy local, organic produce

*And you can even become an organic beekeeper yourself!

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