There has been an association between humans and bees for many thousands of years. All the world’s major religions attest to this, with many references to bees and honey (and, indeed, to the ‘honey industry’) in religious writings and ‘sacred’ books. This article looks at bees and honey in Judaism.
Bees, honey, and mead all have a part in Jewish scriptures, teaching, and traditions.
It is said that bees are honored and viewed positively within Judaism, not just because of the honey they produce, but also because of their co-operative, organizational social structure, which is seen as a good example for human society.
There are many mentions of bees and honey in the written teachings of Judaism and their interpretations, ranging from the use of honey as a thanksgiving offering to likening a swarm of wild bees to a hostile army.
The first thing to mention is that honey is considered a kosher food in Judaism. This is because, although it is created by an ‘unclean’ animal, the honey does not derive from the bee’s body but is made by the bees.
There is an old Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) tradition that involves honey. At Rosh Hashanah the sweet eggy bread (challah) that is served on the Sabbath and on holidays is first dipped in honey, and a prayer for a ‘good and sweet’ year is said after consumption of a piece.
A piece of sweet apple is then dipped in honey with the same prayer being repeated after eating it.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, the rabbi will distribute honey cake to the congregation. There is a further tradition that the recipient ‘begs’ for a piece – symbolizing the hope that it will be the last time he or she will have to beg for anything in the following year, and instead, will be self-sufficient and independent.
Many people will recite Psalms all night on the day known as Hoshana Rabba (the final day of Rosh Hashana) – there is again a custom of consuming apple dipped in honey at the end of the recital.
Although mead plays no part in Jewish ritual, it does appear in Jewish folklore.
For example, there is a tradition (especially in Ashkenaz Judaism in Eastern Europe) of drinking mead to celebrate religious holidays. There is also a tradition of drinking mead during Passover.