FREDERIC, Wis., April 4, 2012 — The bees again are doing their part to sweeten the remembrance of Passover, the Jewish observance of when God freed Israel from Egypt’s slavery. The bees’ honey has been making its culinary contribution on this day of commemoration for untold generations.
The Passover festival, which begins in the United States on Friday, April 6, commemorates the emancipation story in the Bible, an event scholars say happened around the 15th century B.C.
The Passover telling is found in the book of Exodus. Here the ancient Hebrews were slaves for 400 years under the harsh hand of Egypt’s Pharaohs.
God heard their cry for freedom and sent Moses to tell Pharaoh: “Let my people go.” Pharaoh refused. And the Lord sent 10 mighty plagues to force Pharaoh’s hand. The last plague was the angel of death sent to kill every first born.
The Hebrews were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a spring lamb. Thus upon seeing this, the angel would “pass over” their homes.
And after 3,500 years, Jews around the world still celebrate their freedom on Passover, a holiday filled with special foods and wine and desserts — desserts made with honey.
Teaching with Honey
But honey is not only used by Jews to remember Passover. Since the Middle Ages, it’s also been used as a teaching tool by rabbis to reward children in a host of learning ways, regarding their Jewish heritage.
“Teaching with honey is practiced as part of a ceremony, celebrating the third birthday of the boys,” said Rabbi Aharon Katashvili from the Chabad community in Israel. “This age means reaching some maturity in Jewish tradition, so the boy is now ripe for learning the Bible.”
Rabbi Katashvili does not speak English well, so his explanations were graciously translated by Mr. Erez Tsur, quality manager of the Israeli Honey Board.
“The boy is clad in a Tallit (prayer shawl) and seated in the lap of the rabbi who pours honey onto a platter drawing the Hebrew letters. Then the rabbi reads each letter and the boy repeats it, passing his finger over the letter and licking the honey from it.”
Tradition says “the words of the Bible are sweet as honey.”
Many times family and friends watch and cheer and toss candy at the children as they accomplish an important step in their learning. “Moreover, it’s a custom to eat honey cake afterwards.”
The Orthodox practice has its roots in the Middle Ages, said Rabbi Katashvili. Some say it started in European communities, and some say it started in Israel as part of an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Samuel the prophet, west of Jerusalem.
The rabbi said the kids are really excited about it, because it’s like a small adulthood ceremony. “It means they are not babies anymore.”
Land of Milk and Honey
Bees, beekeeping and honey are an integral part of life in Israel. Honey is mentioned in the Bible 55 times. And the land Israel itself was first named in the Bible as the land of “milk and honey.” Since that Old Testament time, honey has played a constant role in the Holy Lands.
The oldest archaeological find relating to beekeeping is an apiary in Israel in the Jordon Valley of around 900 B.C. There in the bygone town of Tel Rehov, some 30 hives made of clay were discovered by Hebrew University archeologists. They say this shows honey was produced on a large scale.
Today that production continues. Israel is home to some 500 listed beekeepers and produces about 3,000 tons in a good year, said Tsur. “Most households don’t buy more than 2 kilos (4.4 pounds) a year, and mainly for Rosh Hashanah (New Year) ceremony.
Modern beekeeping came to Israel with German missionaries in 1892, Tsur said. Today Israelis use the standardized hives developed by a member of the American clergy.
Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth, a Congregational minister from Philadelphia and avid beekeeper, patented his modern beehive design in 1860. With his historic design, and his many writings on beekeeping, he is known as “Father of American Beekeeping.” His paternal efforts are still felt by his flock around the world.
And the honey that comes from ancient or modern beehives still finds its way to the Seder table during Passover. Generation after generation, God’s greatest pollinators bless this Jewish celebration of freedom and remembrance with a sweetness that is God’s gift to all mankind.
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