Why Jews dip apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah — and why vegans say the custom is a problem
By Josefin Dolsten
NEW YORK (JTA) — The truth is, there is no commandment in Judaism to dip an apple in honey on Rosh Hashanah. But what would the Jewish New Year be without the custom?
It’s a question that bedevils vegans, many of whom won’t eat honey because it’s an animal product.
So what’s a mock chopped liver/seitan brisket/vegetarian stuffed cabbage kind of Jew to do?
Jeffrey Cohan, the executive director of Jewish Veg, explains all the ways that honey production is problematic. In order to produce as much honey as possible, many honey producers manipulate the bees’ natural living patterns, including clipping the queen’s wings to prevent her from flying away, and replacing the honey produced with sugar water, which animal rights activists say is less nutritious. Some vegans regard the whole process as cruel and exploitative.
“‘Tza’ar ba’alei chayim’ is a core Torah mandate, so to start the new year right away by violating tza’ar ba’alei chayim does not get the year off to the best start,” he said, using the Hebrew term for the prohibition against causing unnecessary harm to animals.
One of the more common substitutes is honey made from dates, according to Cohan. Date honey is not only vegetarian but has its roots in the Bible. Dates are one of the seven species of the land of Israel mentioned in the Bible. Scholars say that the description of “a land flowing with milk and honey” actually refers to date honey, not bee honey.
“[B]ecause date syrup is actually in the Torah, it makes the most sense from a Jewish perspective,” Cohan said.
Proponents of eating date honey also cite its health benefits.
Brian Finkel, the co-founder of a company selling organic date honey, says the product has 25 percent less sugar and a lower glycemic index than bee honey and is a great source of antioxidants.
Finkel, who grew up outside Chicago but moved to Israel in 2013, first tasted date honey while studying at a yeshiva in the Jewish state after finishing high school. Silan, as the product is known there, is a popular ingredient in cooking and baking, and as a dip.
The entrepreneur had a self-described “eureka moment” when he thought to introduce it to American consumers.
Last year, Finkel and his business partner, David Czinn, launched D’Vash Organics. Since then, Finkel said, they have sold hundreds of thousands of bottles of date honey, in stores across the United States and through the company’s website.
The product is produced in a U.S. factory that is not certified kosher, but Finkel said he is looking to produce a kosher version so that observant Jews can have it around the holidays — and year round.
“I think it goes great with apples, it goes great with challah,” he said. “I definitely encourage people to use it on those things, around the holiday time, to make the new year that much sweeter.”
Making the new year sweeter is the whole point of the custom. Some trace it to Nehemiah 8:10, where the Jews of the Second Temple period celebrating what would eventually become Rosh Hashanah are told to “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet.”
As for the apple, the custom was started among Ashkenazi Jews in medieval Europe, when the apple as we know it had become more accessible due to cultivation, said Jordan Rosenblum, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies food and Judaism.
Apples are in season and therefore plentiful in the fall, when the holiday of Rosh Hashanah occurs. In 14th-century Germany, the Jewish sage known as the Maharil described the custom of dipping apples in honey as long established and rich with mystical meaning.
Dates did not grow in Europe, but honey made by bees was available, so that became the topping of choice, said Leah Hochman, an associate professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who researches religion and food.
“You have all these Diaspora communities that are adapting to their new environments, and over time people used substitutes that had some sort of relationship to the seven species to honor the ever-longed-for return to Zion,” Hochman said.
The custom traveled with European Jews when many of them left for the United States in the 19th century. Many settled in the Northeast, a region where apples grow well.
“They have that tradition, and they come to a place that’s great for apple growing, so that further cements it,” Rosenblum said.
Hochman said that as apples and honey became associated with Rosh Hashanah, the combination gained a symbolic meaning.
“Over the course of time, the tradition became crucially important for understanding our wishes for a new year, that they’re sweet,” she said.
It also helped that bee honey is kosher, even thought the bee itself is not. Rabbis explain that unlike milk from a nonkosher animal, which may not be consumed, bee honey is derived from the nectar of a flower and not from something that’s part of the bee’s body.
9 things you didn’t know about Yom Kippur
By MJL Staff
(My Jewish Learning via JTA) – Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, starts at sundown on Tuesday, Sept. 18. Traditionally one of the most somber days on the Jewish calendar, it’s known for fasting and repentance – not to mention killer caffeine withdrawal headaches.
However, the holiday has some lesser-known associations as well.
1. The word “scapegoat” originates in an ancient Yom Kippur ritual.
Jews historically have been popular scapegoats — blamed for an array of ills not of their creation. But, and we’re not kid-ding, they really do deserve blame (or credit) for the term scapegoat. In Leviticus 16:8 (in the Torah portion Achrei Mot), the High Priest is instructed on Yom Kippur to lay his hands upon a goat while confessing the sins of the entire community — and then to throw the animal off a cliff.
2. Another animal ritual, swinging a chicken around one’s head, has sparked considerable controversy, and not just from animal-rights activists.
In 2015, the kapparot ritual, in which a chicken is symbolically invested with a person’s sins and then slaughtered, spurred two lawsuits in the United States: one by traditional Jews claiming their right to perform it was being abridged by the government and another by animal-rights activists. Centuries earlier, the ritual drew criticism from notable sages like the Ramban (13th century) and Rabbi Joseph Caro (16th century), whose objections had less to do with animal welfare than with religious integrity.
3. Yom Kippur once was a big matchmaking day.
The Talmud states that both Yom Kippur and Tu b’Av (often described as the Jewish Valentine’s Day) were the most joyous days of the year, when women would wear white gowns and dance in the vineyards chanting “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty, but set your eyes on a good family.” Given the aforementioned caffeine headaches and the difficulty of making a decision on an empty stomach, we’re glad this particular tradition is no more.
4. Food and drink are not the only things Jews abstain from on Yom Kippur.
Other traditional no-nos on Yom Kippur include bathing, wearing perfume or lotions, having sexual relations and wearing leather shoes. The less-than-attractive aroma resulting from the first two restrictions (not to mention the romantic restrictions imposed by the third) may explain why the day ceased to be an occasion for finding true love.
5. In Israel, Yom Kippur is the most bike-friendly day of the year.
Although many Israelis are secular, and there is no law on the books forbidding driving on Yom Kippur, virtually all the country’s Jews avoid their cars on this day. With only the occasional emergency vehicle on the road, bikers of all ages can be seen pedaling, even on major highways.
6. Eating a big meal before the holiday begins will make your fast harder rather than easier.
Traditionally, the meal eaten before beginning the fast is supposed to be large and festive, following the Talmudic dictum that it is a mitzvah (commandment) to eat on the eve of Yom Kippur, just as it is a mitzvah to fast on Yom Kippur itself. However, eating extra food — particularly in one last-minute feast — does not help to keep you going for 24 hours, says Dr. Tzvi Dwolatzky of Israel’s Rambam Health Care Campus. He suggests eating small amounts of carbohydrates (bread, potato, rice, pasta), some protein (fish, chicken) and fruit.
7. On Yom Kippur in 1940, London’s Jews kept calm and carried on.
In the midst of the Battle of Britain, the relentless Nazi bombardment of London that began in September 1940, the city’s synagogues went on with their Yom Kippur services. According to JTA, while air raid warnings “twice disturbed” the morning services on Oct. 12, 1940, “most synagogues carried on regardless” and a “large proportion of the men attending services wore uniforms of the various forces.”
8. Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidre services are the only night of the entire Jewish calendar when a prayer shawl is worn for evening prayers.
According to the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs, the tallit (prayer shawl) is worn during Kol Nidre as “a token of special reverence for the holy day.” It is traditional to wear a tallit or a white garment for the entire holiday, with the color white symbolizing both our spiritual purity and our removing ourselves from the vanities of the material world. Many people actually wear a white robe called a kittel.
9. A Virginia rabbi’s pro-civil rights movement sermon on Yom Kippur in 1958 riled up local segregationists and sparked fears of an anti-Semitic backlash.
JTA reported that Virginia’s Defenders of State Sovereignty group demanded that local Jews “move quickly to refute and condemn” Rabbi Emmet Frank of Alexandria’s Temple Beth El for his sermon criticizing the state’s “massive resistance” to school desegregation and said that if he had intended to destroy Christian-Jewish relations, “he could not have been more effective.” While a “leading member” of the Reform temple reportedly said a “considerable” number of congregants worried Frank’s stand “might result in increased anti-Semitism,” others “sided with the rabbi, holding that he held a spiritual and moral duty to speak out for social justice.” The congregation stood by Frank, and The Washington Post published an editorial calling him a “courageous clergyman.”