HONEY (Heb. דְּבָשׁ). The principal honey of Israel seems to have been a thick syrup made from either grapes or dates, called dibs in Arabic. It is often mentioned in lists of foodstuffs of the land (e.g., Deut. 8:8; II Sam. 17:29; II Chron. 31:5; for the phrase "land flowing with milk and honey" see
). It is considered a delicacy (I Kings 14:3; Ezek. 16:13), and is mentioned as the epitome of sweetness (Ps. 19:11; 119:103; Prov. 16:24; Ezek. 3:3). Along with leaven it was prohibited in burnt offerings (Lev. 2:4). Manna had the taste of "wafers (?) in honey" (Ex. 16:31), but the Talmud declares that it had this taste only for children (Yoma 75b). Its quality of sweetness caused it to be used figuratively for gracious and pleasant things, such as the words of God (Ps. 19:11; 119:103), the wisdom of Torah (Prov. 24:13; 25:16), the speech of a friend (Prov. 16:24; Song 4:11), as well as the seductive language of the strange woman (Prov. 5:3). Bees' honey, found wild, is sufficiently rare to have been considered among the finest of foods ("honey out of the rock" in Deut. 32:13; Ps. 81:17). This wild honey figures prominently in the story of the wedding of
at Timnah (Judg. 14), where Samson, having found honey amid a swarm of bees in the carcass (more plausibly, skeleton) of a lion he had killed, wagered 30 festal garments on the riddle "out of the eater came something to eat, out of the strong came something sweet" (Judg. 14:14). The Philistines, unable to solve the riddle, had Samson's wife learn the answer: "What is sweeter than honey, what is stronger than a lion?" (Judg. 14:18). Samson, enraged, slaughtered 30 men in Ashkelon to pay the wager, and departed. Bees' honey was also found in the forest, where it was eaten by Jonathan in violation of his father's oath (I Sam. 14:24–30). Because it is the source of honey, the date is included among the seven choice agricultural species of Ereẓ Israel (see Deut. 8:8). During the talmudic period, however, honey came to refer specifically to bees' honey, with the result that a distinction was made; regarding vows, the commonly accepted use of the word determined the extent of the vow, and it was decided that "He who takes a vow to abstain from honey is permitted to eat date honey" (Ned. 6:9).
In accordance with the rule "that which issues from an unclean creature is unclean" (Bek. 1:2) it should follow that bees' honey is forbidden since the bee belongs to the class of unclean insects. The rabbis, however, permitted its use by asserting that honey is not the product of the bee; it is merely stored in its body (Bek. 7b; likewise, a Neo-Assyrian text of the eighth century B.C.E. refers to the "buzzing insects that 'collect' honey"). The custom practiced in many families, of dipping bread in honey (instead of the usual salt), during the period from Rosh ha-Shanah to Hoshana Rabba, symbolizes the wish for a sweet new year. Similarly, on Rosh Ha-Shanah, an apple is dipped in honey and eaten, and a prayer for a "good and sweet year" is recited.
During the Middle Ages, there developed a picturesque ceremony of introducing the child to his Jewish studies; it included the custom of writing the letters of the alphabet on a slate and covering them with honey. These the child licked
with his tongue so that the words of the Scriptures might be as "sweet as honey" (Ma'aseh Roke'aḥ, 295–6, Maḥzor Vitry, ed. by S. Hurwitz (1923), 628, 508). Honey cake was a feature of the same ceremony. Called "Honig lekakh" in Yiddish, it is a favorite pastry to this day.