Rosh HaShanah’s customs feature involves eating specific foods to symbolize a fortuitous new year. One of the most commonly practiced traditions, drizzling honey on round-shaped challah, signifies our hope for a sweet (honey) New Year from beginning to end (the round challah).
Why not just use white processed sugar to symbolize sweet things? As it happens, honey has been utilized for centuries by many civilizations, as both a food source and natural remedy. “Honey” usually refers to bee-honey, but it also can refer to the sweet extracts derived from fruits, such as figs, or carob; in fact, when Israel is referred to as a land “flowing with milk and honey,” the reference is actually to honey from dates.
Most common today, any reference to honey is that which is produced by bees. The quality, flavor and the designation of a specific type of bee honey depends upon the type of blossom from which the bee derived its nectar. Some honey is clear, others are dark brown, each with a very different taste and other unique qualities. During pollination, bees collect this nectar and store it in their stomachs, which are specifically designed to hold nectar. There, the nectar is chemically decomposed into simple sugars, which the bee then places into honeycombs of a hive. Eventually, the watery sugar turns into thick, sticky honey.
Honey has long been recognized by people for its health benefits. Long before it was customary to eat honey on the Jewish New Year, it was used to heal dermatological and other health problems. The Talmud discusses honey as a treatment for skin wounds and burns, and to prevent possible infection. Scientists believe that the healing properties of honey may be related to its hydrogen peroxide content, an antibacterial chemical. Honey is an excellent antiseptic, serving as a natural protectant against bacterial infection, as well as a bandage, as its viscous texture protects the skin. The Talmud states that honey was applied to the backs of camels and horses to treat blisters and scabs formed from their heavy loads, and even suggests that honey can be used to treat ocular diseases. For instance, a person diagnosed with “bulmos” a life- threatening metabolic disorder, was advised to consume honey to repair their eyesight (Yoma 83b). This medical application is loosely based upon Samuel 14:29, in which Jonathan, exhausted from battle, came upon a beehive and consumed its honey, causing his eyes to brighten. This verse inspired a modern-day Lebanese ophthalmologist, to use honey to cure ocular edema.
A recent study suggested that honey would hasten healing of laboratory rats with eye wounds. The rats whose eyes were treated with honey had their abrasions heal faster than did those in the control group. Honey is also used in clinical practice as a treatment for respiratory disorders. Honey placed in hot tea can be inspired as well as ingested.
However, not all honey is equally effective in its curative properties. An especially potent honey is called manuka honey. It originates from a flower native to New Zealand and
Australia, and is used in skincare products and is incorporated into over-the-counter bandages available in pharmacies.
Cultures spanning all the populated continents and generations have integrated honey into daily life and tradition. The ancient Greeks were the first to take on beekeeping. The Greek word for “nectar” translates to “victory over death,” and honey, a nectar derivative, was recognized as an anti-aging solution. In Greek mythology, honey was the food of the gods granting immortality, wisdom and other powers. Aphrodite used honey in her beauty regimen, and baby Zeus was raised on honey for nourishment. Egyptian pharaohs were buried with jugs of honey in their tombs, and the corpse of Alexander the Great was allegedly placed in a sarcophagus filled with honey in order to preserve the body. Similarly, Herod the Great preserved his second wife, the last living Hasmonean, in honey. Honey is one of the only foods that does not spoil, even after hundreds of years in storage.
Honey is also incorporated in many religious traditions. When a Jewish boy begins to learn the Hebrew letters of the alphabet, it is customary to write the letters in honey on a cake, so the boy can begin learning with sweetness in his mouth.
When we commemorate Rosh HaShanah with honey, we draw upon all the history, mysticism, healing properties and anti-aging effects of this divine sweet substance. So, when you dip your apple in honey, keep in mind that you wish your loved ones to be preserved without aging, to continue in health, and to be able to combat all ills.
Wishing you all a very happy, healthy, and “Honeyfull” New Year!
Samantha Sinensky is a junior at The Ramaz School in Manhattan.