Rosh Hashanah Day One 5776/2015: The Honey Sermon

Of all the animals on my farm, only the bees cannot truly be called domesticated.  I don’t have to wear a protective suit when I milk the goats, or puff smoke at the chickens when I take eggs from the coop, but the bees are a different story.  They are resident wild creatures, and must be approached with a proper degree of respect and preparation.  Actually, when I first started beekeeping, I thought the garb–a white jacket with sleeves that Velcro-seal tightly at the wrist and a zippered hood with a mesh faceguard—would render me impervious, like a suit of armor.  It wouldn’t matter how gentle or subtle my technique, what kind of day it was, what mood they were in—I could pull out frames covered in clumped masses and brush them cavalierly aside, unconcerned by the obvious change in tone from buzz to scream.  And then, to my surprise…the sudden stick through my pant legs, through the double layer of cloth around my forearms, the barb and the throb of venom entering skin.

On a perfect day, I hop the fence into the goat pasture, where the three tall stacks of white boxes, the hives, are resting on piles of old wooden pallets.  I can see bees coming and going from the entry slots, flying out to forage on the goldenrod, the stand of buckwheat now flowering as a cover crop on the dugout potato beds, the last yellow cucumber flowers on the scraggly vines in the kitchen garden.  When I meet them out in the world they are indifferent to me.  I can even sit sometimes on an extra pallet beside the hives, unprotected, peering closely at the landing board as they return with hind legs caked in pollen.  But today I mean business.  My jacket is on, though I have not yet secured the zipper or tightened the wrist straps, or pulled on the rough canvas gloves, with sleeves that ride almost to the elbow, which lie in the cardboard box I carry, beside scraps of newspaper, a box of matches, and handfuls of dry straw.

The smoker billows like an incense offering.  Straw smothers the flames kindled at the bottom of the cylinder, and then receives their embers with each press of the bellows, sending gusts of thick white smoke through the spigot at the top.  It took several matches to light, in this breeze, and if I am out here long I will have to pause the operation and replenish the straw.  I hope it does not run out in some moment of need.  My hood is on now, and carefully zipped.  My skin is tingling with nervous anticipation.  Sometimes a slight brush of my ankle against a stalk of grass can make me jump though, in general, I have learned to breathe deeply and move slowly.

The box is heavy.  It must be almost full, which can mean over two and a half gallons that I will extract in the house after the last lingerers have been brushed away.  The frames are a human contrivance, even and rectangular, but often the bees will construct scurs of meandering comb, jutting away wildly from the line of the wood.  As I work one of these off it ruptures, smearing its contents against the flat end of my hive tool.  I pause in my work and raise it to eye level.  As the bees swirl around me, I stand contemplating the glistening amber of what, if I were to unzip my hood, remove a glove, and run a finger down the length of the metal, could be my first taste of autumn honey.

***

At his bar mitzvah this past summer, one of our young people spoke about how much he appreciated Judaism, because, he said, “every holiday is really just an excuse to eat food.”  He wasn’t wrong.  You’ve probably heard the old chestnut: all Jewish holidays can be explained with the formula, “They tried to kill us.  They failed.  Let’s eat.”  Even the big fast day coming up in about a week is bounded on either side by special meals.  Setting aside the prayers, ceremonies, and Torah readings, food itself is a cultural language, carrying something of the significance we seek to approach through our observances.

I consider some of our food practices to be strictly culinary, relating to dishes often served in conjunction with festivals, whether for reasons of seasonal availability, or familial and ethnic custom.  As a son of Ashkenaz, I think of brisket, tsimis, gefilte fish, chicken soup, though as a vegetarian Reconstructionist I’m learning to add quinoa and tofu to the list.  These are manifestations of folk tradition, kitchen Judaism, historically women’s Judaism, distinct from the dictates of mandated religious practice, though harmonious with them.

Another category, we might label sacramental foods—moments in our holiday cycle at which we are instructed to eat specific things as a mitzvah, a religious obligation.  Challah and Kiddush wine might fit the bill, but the real champion of this class is Passover, with its matzah, bitter herb, haroset, parsley, and salt water.  Halakha, Jewish law, tells us these are to be held on the palate, chewed, and swallowed not simply for savor, but so that a sacred essence, the journey from slavery to freedom, might penetrate our consciousness on a bodily level.  It’s kind of like communion, l’havdil, except we are not eating god—we’re tasting meaning.

Rosh Hashanah, in particular, introduces a third, intermediate category to the conversation, a blend of cuisine and sacrament, that I will call “auspicious food”—the notion that it might be mysteriously beneficial to eat certain things at this time.  The tradition is traced back to tractate Keritot of the Babylonian Talmud.  In the midst of a wide-ranging discussion of omens and portents, Rabbi Abbaye says to his associates: “Since you hold that signs are meaningful, here’s what I say to you.  Everyone should make it a habit to eat these things on Rosh Hashanah—squash, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates.”

Later commentators elaborate the meaning of Abbaye’s cryptic prescription.  He is making a series of puns, based on the names of these fruits and vegetables in Aramaic.  Squash is k’rah, which can also mean to call out or tear up.  As we prepare to eat it, we are instructed to proclaim, “Yehi ratzon, may it be your will, Oh God, that our merits be called out, and all harsh decrees against us torn up!”  Fenugreek, a savory annual indigenous to the Middle East, is rubia, which sounds like rov or lirbot—to increase.  “Yehi ratzon, may it be your will that our wealth and our merits increase!”  The remainder refer not to what we hope for ourselves, but rather what we wish upon others, particularly people we don’t like.  Leeks are karsi, linked to karet, cut off: may our enemies be cut off!  Beets are silka, like siluk or “removal”—may our adversaries be removed!  Dates, tamri, are connected to a word meaning consume or finish—yehi ratson, may it be your will that our enemies be finished!

After these details are explained, a basic problem still remains: what does Abbaye mean by all of this?  Is he having some light-hearted fun at the expense of more superstitious colleagues, or does he believe himself that the practices he describes have some efficacy, and if so of what kind?  Normative tradition teaches that only three things—repentance, prayer, and tzedaka—each of them intrinsic to what we might call moral or spiritual character, can influence the judgment of God, but here we are given the recipe for a kind of edible Plan B, a salad bar of sympathetic magic.

Before rushing to judgment, however, remember that we still do this ourselves, not necessarily with the original Talmudic inventory, but with the most popular of the later day auspicious food traditions that emerged in its wake.  We still feel that Rosh Hashanah is the right time to lift a special food to our lips and recite a yehi ratzon: May it be your will, Oh God, that you renew us for a year that is as good and as sweet as… honey.  The significant difference, however, is that the benefit we seek to derive from this act is not based on a quasi-mystical play of words, but a sensual experience. We are not casting a spell, but willing the sensation of honey on the tongue to transmit itself by association into a quality that will imbue our year, something that we call “sweetness.”

***

I find “sweet” to be a cloying word, overused and trite, especially in a society so ingenious in its creation of artificial sweeteners.  The Hebrew is matok, a sound that on its own exercises the throat and plays across the palate, unlike the English term, which remains at the gateway of the mouth on a narrow vowel.  We find it in the Bible in some evocative places, as a property of eros and revelation.  “I sat down under his shadow with great delight,” sings the poet of Shir HaShirim, “and his fruit was sweet to my taste.”  When God presents a message to the prophet Ezekiel, in the form of a scroll to be eaten, the prophet says, “Then I did eat it, and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.”

As we see in this verse, d’vash, honey, is often close to matok, sweet, in biblical phraseology, although the most famous deployment of the word d’vash in the Torah is probably misleading.  Scholars suggest that the expression eretz zavat chalav u’devash, “a land flowing with milk and honey”, is not actually referring to the product of bees but to a sweet paste made by pressing dates, analogous to olive oil; that is, a refined, agricultural substance.

The bible does know about bees, however, and when they make an appearance it is usually in a context that is decidedly unrefined, even bordering on savage.  “All the nations surrounded me,” the psalmist writes, “they surrounded me on every side.  They swarmed around me like bees.”  Samson, the wildman of the book of Judges slew a lion on his way to woo a woman, and when he came back along the same route, “he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion; and behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion.”  In the book of Samuel, the starving army of Saul is wandering the countryside, when they come to a woodland.  “The honey dropped,” we read, “and Jonathan [the son of Saul] put forth the end of the rod that was in his hand and dipped it in a honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his eyes were enlightened.”

I question whether we really taste this mitikut, this primal sweetness—erotic, revelatory, dangerous, and raw, in the pale, ultra-pasteurized liquid squirted out of the nozzle-cap of a plastic bear.  While debates rage as to how healthy honey really is for us, there is no doubt that it is an ancient and remarkable fluid, a viscous cordial refined in the body of the bee itself from the effluvia of the living landscape—in the same abdomen that will rip itself apart to plant a poisoned barb in the skin of a thief.

Though now a poster child for our horrible tide of extinction, bees have been part of the human story since before time.  The Hazda, one of the last surviving hunter-gatherer cultures, still list honey as their favorite food, and it is mesmerizing to imagine our own primeval ancestors, their taste buds evolved to savor the rich sweetness of roasting fat, stumbling upon this unanticipated wonder, a humming labyrinth, a guarded wax palace sprouting in the cavities and crevices of the body of the world that, when cracked open, oozed with the nectar of the gods.

***

When I’m done, I place the smoker on the bricks of the front walkway, while it billows out the remainder of its contents.  A breeze carries the scent through the screen door, blending it with the musk of the hive box, now resting on the kitchen counter, and together they strike my nostrils with an aroma I associate with satisfaction.

I am preparing to extract.  The thin layer of capping wax must be shaved off both sides of each frame with a long, serrated knife, and then it will be placed in the basket of a centrifuge, and spun with a handcrank till the honey splatters out against the side walls and drips down to form a pool at the bottom.  Thick late season honey can take hours to pour through the filter, which removes the residue of wax and occasional dead bees, but the yield is an embarrassment of riches: an array of mason jars that gleam a deep gold when the light passes through them, and sticky fingers.

Sometimes a stray bee will follow me back from the hive, whining and thrusting in frustration, though this has never resulted in a sting.  A book I read suggested that, in the old days, the people of a particular village in Cypress knew to bar their windows for three days when the keepers went out to take honey.  The same author suggested it was a mistake to overly prize docility in bees; that we should learn to cope with their aggression because it was a life force that would enable them to survive in the world we had made.  She also said we shouldn’t be so glib with the word “sweet”, because real, raw honey had spice.  You would know its quality if it burned your throat a little going down, a venom of delight.

***

Soon we will take the little yellow apples from the tree out by the wood line, only a little bigger than crab apples, and slice them into quarters.  We will arrange them around the edges of the plate, and in the center will be the well, with its grooved wooden rod that will drizzle out our culinary sacrament.  Yehi ratzon, we will pray.  May it be your will, Oh God, at this auspicious time when I place upon my tongue what I would like to savor in the year to come, that I taste this honey and remember that your world is ancient, tenuous, wild, fiery, and sweet.

 

 

 

 

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