The Sustenance of Torah and Honey

— by Hannah Lee

If Jews are mandated to avoid superstitions, why do we have so many symbolic foods on the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe?  I was privileged to hear Rabbi Meir Soloveichik answer this question at the Chabad Center of the Main Line on Sunday night.  This was the inaugural event of a year-long Torah-and-food series being coordinated by The Kohelet Foundation to showcase the Torah knowledge, foodie esprit, and sharp wit of Rabbi Soloveichik, the Director of the Strauss Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan. The series will also launch the kosher restaurant, Citron and Rose, due to open this fall.  The chef de cuisine, Yehuda Sichel, demonstrated two recipes that incorporate honey.

More after the jump.
Athletes are notoriously superstitious, began Rabbi Soloveichik, and Baseball Hall of Famer Wade Boggs had a curious ritual wherein after multiple steps in his pre-game preparations, he would take his bat and carve out the Hebrew letters for Chai (life) in the batter’s box. It helped him hit over .350 in four straight seasons and score over 3,000 hits in his 18-year baseball career, primarily with the Boston Red Sox (but also the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays). It was even more remarkable because he was not a Jew!  His sister later was quoted as distinguishing between superstitions and her brother’s rituals for focusing the mind.  Each act helped Boggs to tune out the noisy stadium of people and concentrate on his goals.

The symbolic foods of Rosh HaShanah, the simonim, similarly help us understand what actions to take for the new year.  Sephardi Jews serve the head of a lamb while Ashkenazi Jews serve the head of a fish.  These foods represent thoughtful action in which the head should direct the body, just as a dog’s head should wag the tail and not the other way around.  (The rosh in Rosh Hashanah actually  means “head” and not “new,” which linguistically would be chadash.)  The decisions we make on Rosh Hashanah have the power to reverberate through the rest of the year. The simonim can inspire us to actively engage and focus on the aspects of life and the values that are truly important to us.

Honey almond crunch cake gale gandAbout 1,000 years ago, the Jewish sage Rokeach wrote about the use of honey smeared onto a tablet on the first day of school for young boys.  Honey cake, lekach, with Torah verses iced on top was similarly served to engender a love of learning. By the 14th century, lekach was the centerpiece of all Jewish celebrations. Up until the 20th century, lekach and schnapps were customarily served and referred to as shorthand for a Jewish celebration.

Jews are akin to bees in their service to God, according to a midrash (homiletic method of biblical exegesis) on Devarim, Deuteronomy, the final book of the Chumash, the Jewish Bible. Why are bees so central?  First, because bee honey never spoils.  (The Rabbi retold the story from Calvin Trilling about his mother serving leftovers whose origin no one in the family remembers.) Second, they offer one of the highest caloric content of any natural foods.  The Biblical Yonatan, in a battle with the Philistines, came upon a beehive and was revived by a taste of honey. Finally, it’s unique amongst foods that are kosher despite its source from a non-kosher creature.

Typically, products from non-kosher animals are not kosher, such as camel’s milk, because camels do not chew their cud and lack split hooves. Honey, however, is not technically produced as part of the bodily processes, whether digestive or mammary. Pollen is stored in the bee’s stomach but nectar is stored in a separate sac. Other bees in the hive add enzymes that turn the sucrose into glucose and fructose. Worker bees then evaporate most of the moisture by fanning their wings, leaving only about 18-percent water in honey.

Lekach, honey cake, reminds us of all the enjoyable experiences — the mitzvot, Biblical commandments — that are truly sustaining, being gifts from God. It says in Proverbs that Torah is like milk and honey.  Mother’s milk is a basic necessity of life, but honey represents all the delights of this world.  Just as the Biblical Shimshon (Samson) was able to take pleasure in the honeycomb that was created amidst the carcass of the lion that had attacked him, so too may Jews take joy from the belly of the beast of this complicated and maddening world. Me, I’m going to try Chef Sichel’s recommendation to substitute beer for the liquid in the traditional recipe for honey cake.

Citron and Rose, located at 368-370 Montgomery Avenue in Merion, will be open Sunday — Thursday for dinner.  Catering contact information: [email protected]. For other events in this series, contact [email protected].