Rosh Hashana Is a Time to Reflect on Bees
According to the Mishnah, there are four “new years” in Jewish tradition: one for the trees, one for the kings, one for tithing, and one for the years. Rosh Hashana, which ends this evening, is the New Year of years and marks the anniversary of the creation of the world. To celebrate, Jews around the world will eat apples dipped in honey and bake sweet, honey-based treats.
But as Jews mark the happy and sweet occasion, they should also take a moment to reflect on the edible gifts before them. The honey didn’t just magically show up at the grocery store. It was grown by flowers, collected and stored by bees, and harvested by beekeepers. And the process — which is already complex and tedious — is becoming more tenuous as environmental degradation wreaks havoc on nature’s gifts.
Things Aren’t Golden for Honey
Last year, President Barack Obama acknowledged that bees are in trouble. The statement from the White House said:
“. . . The number of managed honey bee colonies in the United States has declined steadily over the past 60 years, from 6 million colonies (beehives) in 1947 to 4 million in 1970, 3 million in 1990, and just 2.5 million today. Given the heavy dependence of certain crops on commercial pollination, reduced honey bee populations pose a real threat to domestic agriculture . . .
. . . Contributing to these high loss rates is a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD), in which there is a rapid, unexpected, and catastrophic loss of bees in a hive. Beekeepers in the United States have collectively lost an estimated 10 million beehives at an approximate current value of $200 each . . .
. . . Some of the viral agents that are impacting honey bee colonies are also not reported to be adversely affecting native pollinators, such as bumble bees . . .”
Repairing the World, One Hive at a Time
The tradition of “tikkun olam,” which means “repair the world,” calls on Jews to take social action and pursue justice. When it comes to addressing environmental degradation, the mission is clear: caring for creation is a top priority. And when it comes to honey, many Jews practice tikkun olam by working with bees and extracting the honey themselves in a more sustainable way.
At Bela Farm, outside Toronto, Ontario, beekeeper Sabrina Malach tends 30 active beehives. The farm, which is part of Shoresh, a Jewish environmental organization, is a rural space where the urban Jew can experience life outdoors, grow plants, touch and feel where their food comes from, and celebrate festivals and holidays “on the land” where they traditionally — and historically — took place. It’s a place where Jews can connect to creation — where they can honor the source of their sweet honey.
“Bees teach that nature is generous and abundant,” said Malach. “It’s through pollination that I see the spirituality of beekeeping. They are species that helps other species thrive and survive.”
Malach isn’t the only Jewish beekeeper who feels this way. From the California coast to the New York skyline, the back-to-the-farm movement is spreading among Jews and popularizing beekeeping programs. Programs at Urban Adamah in Berkeley, California teach kids and community members about bees and beekeeping. Avraham Laber, an Orthodox rabbi and beekeeper, uses his hobby to stress the importance for Jews to take responsibility for their communities and planet.
“What we see in the service of honeybees is the amazing lesson that everyone can be both a giver and receiver,” said Laber. “God created them that they don’t just have to beg for help. They can offer something in exchange — their nectar — to get what they need.”
Honey is more than a sweet treat on Rosh Hashana. In the Book of Samuel, Jonathan, King Saul’s son, relied on honey to give him energy to fight the enemy. Israel is referred to as the land of milk and honey (although the Bible passages may refer to “fig” honey rather than bee honey). And other people of faith, including Muslims during Ramadan, have a special relationship with the sugary gold.
As the New Year begins on the Jewish calendar, Jews should reflect on the gifts that they receive and do their best to ensure that future generations will receive the same just deserts. And check out these delicious honey-based recipes from our friends at Eat Drink Better.
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