The Land of Milk and . . . Molasses?

September 8, 2015 | Tami Ganeles-Weiser
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The custom of eating honey on Rosh Hashanah is widespread among Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizraḥi Jews; in biblical times, however, honey was a rarity. Tami Ganeles-Weiser explains how honey entered Jewish cuisine:

[B]ee’s honey wasn’t common in ancient Israel—in fact, [the Torah’s phrase] “the land of milk and honey” is a bit of a misnomer. The reason for the lack of honey is simple: the bees of the region were a particularly aggressive strain. Their ferocity made raiding hives for honey a risky task, so bee’s honey was a delicious, if rare, happenstance. (King Saul’s son Jonathan found honey on the ground during the battle of Mikhmash and “his eyes brightened,” [according to the book of Samuel].)

“Honey” was frequently made from sources other than bees, such as dates, figs, and even pomegranates. The “land of milk and honey” refers to molasses from dates, sources say. Archaeological findings at Beit She’an in Israel indicate that around the 9th century BCE, people started keeping tame, non-native Anatolian bees. By talmudic times, . . . the Hebrew word devash, which once referred to all kinds of syrup, generally meant bee’s honey.

Scholars granted honey a unique status as the only kosher product of a non-kosher creature. The bee, it was ruled, was a carrier, not a creator.

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