Honey: How Sweet (and Holy) It Is

By | Sep 02, 2015

Honey is potent stuff in the Jewish world. Since ancient times, it has been a powerful trope for love, hope and promise, and it is the key ingredient of the iconic honey cake, which retains its High Holiday status to this day.

Honey serves as a metaphor throughout the Torah, in passages such as Song of Songs 4:11, which says, “The sweetness of Torah drips from your lips, like honey and milk it lies under your tongue.” Indeed, consuming honey was often used to symbolize consuming Torah knowledge, says Jordan D. Rosenblum, professor of classical Judaism at the University of Wisconsin and author of Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism. That’s true in Ezekiel 3:2–4, which says, “Feed your stomach and fill your body with this scroll which I am giving you. Then I ate it, and it was sweet as honey in my mouth.”

Use of bee’s honey by humans dates to at least the Mesolithic period. In Valencia, Spain, cave paintings of men climbing ladders to beehives were created between 9000 and 4000 BCE. In ancient Egypt, the earliest known evidence of beekeeping dates to approximately 2600 BCE. But bee’s honey wasn’t common in ancient Israel—in fact, “the land of milk and honey” of the Torah 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.”)

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, according to the late food historian Gil Marks’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, 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. Rosenblum believes that the rationale was a type of reverse engineering, necessary since honey was “a common, readily available sweetener that is very shelf-stable. It lasts a long time and does not require refrigeration. Also, I would argue, the fact that it is discussed so positively in biblical texts and many others surely influenced the rabbis to look for wiggle room to declare it permissible.” Furthermore, honey was sometimes viewed as having medicinal value. Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher and physician, suggested that honey was a curative elixir for some, particularly for the elderly, to whom he suggested mixing honey with warm water to ease digestive woes. Still, he was concerned that possible overuse might lead to gluttony and health repercussions. He writes, “Honey and wine are bad for children and good for the elderly, certainly in the rainy season.”

Honey’s symbolism has given it a significant place in Jewish customs. Among Ashkenazi Jews, the sticky nectar has been tied to learning. The deliciousness of knowledge was emphasized the day boys entered cheder and were handed a slate with Hebrew letters smeared with honey, which they were instructed to lick off, a palpable and tasty lesson in the delectability of consuming wisdom.

Holidays were also historically marked with honey. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews have long served luscious desserts topped with a honey syrup: Baklava was and is popular at Sukkot and other holidays, and tishpishti, a cake of Turkish origin made with nuts, was a popular Passover confection because it could be made unleavened. Honey was often associated with Shavuot, to represent accepting the Torah. Eating dairy, also traditional on Shavuot, harkened back to “the land of milk and honey.” Serving sweets—including honey—to welcome and celebrate the New Year or for special occasions has been common since antiquity. Today, on Rosh Hashanah, when bee’s honey is de rigueur, the hope is for a good and sweet new year.

Honey cake on Rosh Hashanah is now sealed into the Jewish culinary canon. “Honey cakes were made in antiquity,” says Darra Goldstein, professor at Williams College and editor of The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. They are “so ubiquitous that they can’t be traced to a single source.” Gil Marks notes that the honey cake traditions were spread by Arabs into Sicily and Moorish Spain. Although Arab cultures soon developed a taste for sugar, honey continued to be popular in Europe, Marks says, making its use in cakes an inevitability. In Europe, honey cake was known as lekach, from the German word for “to lick,” and it was remarkably similar to the honey cake still eaten today.

“Both Eastern European and German Jews brought their own versions of honey cake when they immigrated to the U.S.,” says Goldstein, “and you’ll find variations ranging from dense and chewy to the extraordinarily light and multi-layered cake [pastry chef] Michelle Polzine makes at 20th Century Cafe in San Francisco.” Even today, when it’s sometimes hard to find a honey cake recipe in a contemporary cookbook, the old standard remains beloved. “All Jewish families I know still make honey cake at Rosh Hashanah, and for me, it remains symbolically important,” says Goldstein.  “I don’t see it as a relic, because people either make their family’s own recipe to carry on a meaningful tradition or else they play around with more modernized recipes to adapt to changing tastes.” —Tami Ganeles-Weiser

recipe / Makes 1 (9- or 10-inch) cake, about 16 servings

Ginger and Spice Honey Cake

by Tami Ganeles-Weiser

2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon roasted ground cinnamon (can be purchased at grocery store)
1/2 teaspoon whole green cardamom seeds
1/4 teaspoon whole anise seeds
1/8 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon lavender
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups dark brown sugar, packed
5 large eggs
1 cup plain yogurt or sour cream
1-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and finely grated
1 cup honey, any floral variety, from mild to medium, lavender preferred 
Seeds of one vanilla bean (split a vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out seeds)

1. Heat a medium cast-iron skillet or saute pan over medium heat until the pan is hot. Add the cardamom seeds, anise seeds and coriander seeds and stir, toasting for ten to 20 seconds or until fragrant. Remove from heat and place the seeds in a spice grinder or a coffee grinder dedicated to spice grinding. Add the lavender and grind the mixture until fine. Remove and set aside.

2. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Spray a 9- or 10-inch tube or bundt pan with nonstick vegetable oil spray and dust it with flour. Set aside.

3. Sift together the flours, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, cardamom, anise, coriander, lavender, if using, and salt onto a large sheet of parchment or wax paper and set aside.

4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter and brown sugar and mix at medium speed for about 5 minutes, until light in color and light and fluffy in texture.

5. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, sour cream or yogurt, ginger, seeds of vanilla bean, and honey until completely combined. Set aside.

6. With the mixer set at low speed, add the flour alternately with the wet mixture, scraping down the sides and bottom with each addition, beginning and ending with the flour mixture and mixing until just combined.

7. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour 20 minutes, or until a thin knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

8. Cool completely before serving. Leftover cake can be wrapped well with plastic and stored at room temperature for up to 2 days. It is actually better the second day.

recipe / Makes about 5 cups

Pomegranate Molasses and Honey Fall Fruit Salad

The tart-sweet combination of molasses and honey sets this salad of fall fruits apart.

¼ cup pomegranate molasses or date molasses   
¾ cup honey, lavender or floral strongly preferred
1 cup apple cider or juice
1 (2-inch) piece peeled fresh ginger root, cut into three pieces   
1 (2- to 3-inch) cinnamon stick
2 cups fresh figs, cut in half
1 cup pomegranate seeds (and any recovered juice, see Kitchen Tips)
½ cup dried pitted cherries
½ cup dried pitted apricots, cut in half
1 large crisp apple, Granny Smith preferred

1. Combine the molasses, honey, and apple cider or juice in a nonreactive saucepan (see Kitchen Tips) set  over medium-low heat and whisk until fully combined. Add the ginger and cinnamon, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook for 30 minutes, or until the mixture is reduced in volume by about half. Set aside to cool. This can be made up to 5 days in advance and stored in the refrigerator in a covered container and brought to room temperature before serving.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the fresh figs, pomegranate seeds, cherries, and apricots and stir gently, just to combine. Core and cut the apples into ¼- to ½-inch pieces, add them to the fruit mixture, toss gently, and serve.

To serve with the ginger and spice honey cake, preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat. Cut the cake into slices and arrange on the prepared baking sheet in a single layer, touching if necessary. Heat in the oven for 3 to 4 minutes, until the tops are toasted. Remove from oven and, with a large spatula, turn the slices over . Return to the oven for 1 to 2 minutes to toast the second side. These can be toasted individually, as each person wants. Place the pieces on serving plates. Spoon ⅓ to ½ cup of the fruit salad on top of each toasted cake slice. Drizzle with 2 to 3 tablespoons of the sauce from the salad. This is delicious as is, but a dollop of sour cream or quark is a lovely addition.

Kitchen Tips
1. To remove the seeds from a pomegranate, wear rubber gloves to avoid staining your hands. With a sharp knife, cut off the ends and make several cuts into the skin, working from one cut end to the other to pry the pomegranate into wedges. With your gloved fingers or a spoon, gently dig out the seeds, working carefully to keep the sacs of juice intact.

2. A nonreactive pan or container is one that is made from material that will not create a chemical reaction with ingredients and alter the flavor or color of the food (acids such as vinegar or tomatoes, for example, can react with aluminum pans). Good choices for nonreactive containers include glass, glazed ceramic, and enamel (not chipped). For cookware, choose stainless steel, enamel (not chipped), glazed ceramic, or heat-safe glass. Copper is a reactive metal that is great for whipping egg whites, but, like aluminum, can react with other ingredients when subjected to high heat, causing unwelcome changes in food. These two metals conduct heat really well, so some lines of cookware use a layer of copper at the bottom (where the pan meets the heat source) but a nonreactive metal to hold the food.

Entertaining on Rosh HaShanah? Click here for a Honey Cake Cocktail recipe.

3 thoughts on “Honey: How Sweet (and Holy) It Is

  1. Moishe says:

    The author misquotes Song of Songs 4:11, which does not have the word Torah in it.

  2. I learned a great deal from this piece and thoroughly enjoyed reading it!

  3. Priscilla Alexander says:

    My grandmother’s honey cake was dense, moist and chewy, and had dried fruit, including apricots.

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