A Sweet New Year
We’re less than two weeks away from Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, and my desk (read: work-from-home kitchen table) is overflowing with children’s books about the High Holidays, groups games revolving around apples and pomegranates, lesson plans and registration forms for a whole pile of programmes I’ll be running over the holiday season. The holidays can be a full month of craziness, but every year I try to bring a different angle for the activities - focussing on the idea of the birthday of the world, on new opportunities, or on the biblical narratives of Jonah, Hannah or Isaac.
The Jewish month of Tishrei, the month where we celebrate the High Holidays, has more festivals than any other month - 13 special days out of 30, plus 2 more Shabbats this year. Each holiday has tons of additional prayers, rituals, meanings and more, plus it’s own special prayer book, called a machzor. All of this can feel really overwhelming, and can make it difficult to find personal significance and meaning amongst all the other things we feel like we have to get done this month.
This year I’m focussing on exploring the Jewish holidays through the physical world around us - tapping into the plants, foods, and materials which make up these beautiful rituals. And so on an overcast Thursday morning at the end of August, or the very middle of the month of Elul, I caught the 976 bus north to the village of Luss, nestled on the western banks of Loch Lomond, to spend a day hands-on with Rosh HaShana at The Bee School.
There are a number of symbolic foods that we eat during Rosh HaShana, but the most common is the classic combination of apples dipped in honey. The roundness of the apple represents the annual cycle, while the honey represents the sweetness we wish for the year ahead.
Another bit of symbolism represented by the honey is the dichotomy between the sweet potency of the honey, and the sting of the bee which makes it. These binaries are often present within Jewish ideas - the good and the bad existing alongside each other, providing a counter-balance, a meter through which to steady the intensity and necessity of both things.
I got off the bus with visions of floral tastes, honeycomb textures and the cute bee-patterned napkins I bought at Asda last Rosh HaShana. But over the course of the afternoon, I got to encounter bees in so many new ways.
Did you know that honey is flower nectar that has been partially digested and then regurgitated by around 6 different bees (aka multi-bee vomit) before being deposited in the honeycomb structure to be stored for winter when food is less available and the cold weather keeps bees inside the hive? I learnt more than I could ever need to know about these tiny creatures, including how the queen can determine the sex of her eggs, how the workers can revolt against her and boil her alive if they feel she’s not producing enough, and how when the future queen is born, she kills off all the other eggs in the hive which have the potential to become her competition. We learnt about how male bees (drones) essentially explode after reproducing with the queen, how if they’re not successful they fly off to intoxicate themselves on the sap of a lime tree, and about how unwanted intruders into the hive (like mice) are stung to death and then coated with a sticky substance called propolis to stop their decaying bodies from contaminating the honey.
Other parts of it were less graphic, but equally as fascinating. For example, we learnt how bees can communicate to each other the precise location of a plant 3 miles away, through an intricate waggle dance they perform in the pitch darkness of the hive. They see movement and colour five times faster than humans do. And without them and the pollination they carry out, we wouldn’t be able to survive.
This brought us to a discussion of how climate change and farming practices are affecting bees. For example, many large-scale commercial farming operations will import captive-bred bees from mainland Europe and release them into their polytunnels to pollinate their crops - especially soft fruits. However, it’s often simpler and cheaper for them to kill the bees when the work is done and buy more next season, rather than breed their own. So they do. We learnt about how the lack of green corridors and pesticide-free plants means that the bees we do have find it more and more difficult to survive. We discussed the importance of not over-tidying our lawns and other things we can do to help the world around us, but also how desperately we need the world around us to sustain us.
After learning with our brains, we got out the spoons and started learning with our mouths. We tasted pollen granules - bits of plant dust scraped off the bodies of the bees and compacted into wee pellet form. We tried honey propagated from different plants - lavender, acacia, heather and wildflower, and compared it to the store-bought variety. And then we pulled on the bee suits (and gloves, and hoods) and walked out to the hives in the woods.
It felt surprisingly peaceful. I was surrounded by a cloud of bees, bouncing off the net in front of my face, landing on my arms, buzzing next to my ears, but I felt totally safe in there. We opened the hive and pulled out the sheets, examining the bees as they clustered around. Each layer down the hive was covered in more and more bees, until at the bottom there were layers of bees climbing over each other, a mass of bodies writhing in the stickiness.
Most foods that come from non-kosher animals are not kosher. For example, milk from a cow or a goat is all good, but pigs’ milk is a no-no. Once in the Himalaya I was offered yak butter tea, a local speciality where black tea tea is served with melted yak butter instead of cows’ milk, and I had to do a quick google search to determine if yaks were in fact a kosher animal (they are).
Honey is the one exception. Bees, like most insects, are not kosher, but honey is. Why is this?
We read in Mishneh Torah, Ma’achalot Asurot, Chapter 3, Verse 3:
דְּבַשׁ דְּבוֹרִים וּדְבַשׁ צְרָעִים מֻתָּר מִפְּנֵי שֶׁאֵינוֹ מִתַּמְצִית גּוּפָן אֶלָּא כּוֹנְסִין אוֹתוֹ מִן הָעֲשָׂבִים בְּתוֹךְ פִּיהֶן וּמְקִיאִין אוֹתוֹ בַּכַּוֶּרֶת כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּמְצְאוּ אוֹתוֹ לֶאֱכל מִמֶּנּוּ בִּימוֹת הַגְּשָׁמִים:
Honey produced by bees and hornets is permitted. [The rationale is that] it is not a product of their bodies. Instead, it is collected in their mouths from herbs and then expelled in their hive so that they will be able to partake of it in the rainy season.
There’s some nice symbolism in there about working hard to store up energy for when it’s needed later on, but what catches me is the idea of taking something in, processing, and letting it go. The bees take in nectar from the flowers, but they don’t fully digest it. They take it in, hold on to it for a while, and then let it go again. The bee is sustained by this process. The nectar is transformed. Everyone is benefitting from the sharing of ideas, the coming together of different entities, the passing of particles from one space to another.
Despite living in Scotland, I often think that I spend most of my life in a wee Jewish bubble. I spend my days in Jewish places, doing Jewish things with Jewish people. Lately I find myself branching out more. My interest in nature and experiential outdoor education is something I’ve been investing a lot into. Luckily for me, there are so many places that these two interests overlap. And I think that, like the nectar, the Jewish practices are strengthened by this process. Dipping the apple in the honey is a beautiful practice, but this year, after all my time traipsing around apple orchards and picking through bee hives, I’ll have a far deeper appreciation for the apples I’ve picked from neighbourhood trees as I dip them into raw local honey.
I left the Bee School full of delicious coffee, artisanal honey and tons of bee knowledge, and climbed up Beinn Dubh, the looming hill rising above Luss. The islands of the Highland Boundary Fault Line spread across Loch Lomond, dark against the bright water reflecting the fading sky. The hill rises up 624 metres before reaching the summit, a grassy plateau with a vaguely disappointing summit cairn at an indistinct point on the path.
Rosh HaShana is a journey. Despite being the celebration of the new year, it’s not actually the first month of the year. That would be Nissan, the month of Passover, making Tishrei, the month of Rosh HaShana, the seventh month of the year. This shows the importance of the idea of a cycle, as opposed to a linear timeline. Up the hill, down the hill, and back around again. I sat up at the top, thinking about the thousands of bees swarming around in the hives below, slowly turning nectar into honey, storing it up, hidden in the darkness of the hive.
On Rosh Hashana, we wish people a ‘good and sweet year’ - Shana Tova U’Metuka שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה. Why good and sweet? Isn’t that slightly redundant? The Rabbis explain that ‘good’ can be taken at face value. We can see when things are good. But even when things aren’t what we perceive to be ‘good’, we hope that we’ll have the strength to sweeten them, and to see the innate goodness hidden within them. This is the beehive. At first, the bees can be frightening, they can even sting. But all wrapped up in the bee suit, breathing calmly, moving slowly, you can get to the rich honey hidden inside.
Coming up: I have a number of other projects exploring the materials of the High Holidays coming up! In September I’m running an apple orchard celebration for children, where we’ll be picking apples, cooking them up right in the orchard, and celebrating our favourite Rosh HaShana fruit. For Sukkot, I’ll be facilitating two willow-weaving sessions, where participants can get up close and personal with the local UK ingredient in the lulav, and I’m also hard at work transforming a found sheep horn into my very own shofar. Keep posted for more updates about these materials and how I’m incorporating them into my High Holiday celebrations.