Although the subsequent Jewish mystics give reason to the apples, less so do they focus on the honey. It is not enough to answer that we dip our apples in honey for “a sweet new year.” Couldn’t we simply eat candy? Lick sugar cubes? Drink sweet beverages? Really, why honey?
We trace the custom at least back to the 16th century with Rabbi Moses Isserles’s teaching in the Shulchan Arukh. However, this teaching merely highlights special symbolic foods we eat to merit blessing on the holy day.
I would humbly propose that there are two core reasons we eat honey. The first is an explicit reference in the Torah, while the second is far more metaphysical.
Judaism emphasizes three themes of our faith and existence: creation, redemption, and revelation. Most of our liturgy, holy days, and ritual, revolve around these three themes.
On occasion, some rituals and customs tie all three together. One of those is the parting of the Reed Sea and our time in the Wilderness. When we were famished and griped to God, longing for something to eat – the delicacies of Egypt – God provided us with Manna. Both a daily portion and a double portion for Shabbat.
We learn about the Manna in the same portion we learn of the parting of the waters – it’s the same shabbat we celebrate song, and life, and redemption – Shabbat Shirah.
Likewise, we learn that raw manna tasted like wafers that had been made with honey (Exodus 16:31). Through this reference, honey (implied in this Torah image) becomes the bedrock of sustenance and redemption. The Israelites experience God’s saving grace in the honey-taste of the manna – and it reappears daily, not only when they need it, but also when they want it.
Further, honey is a peculiar substance. Generally speaking, the byproduct of a non-kosher animal cannot be kosher. A bee is not kosher – so how is honey permitted? Potentially, the rabbis of yore misunderstood the science, not fully understanding that honey was the byproduct of the bee. Later, they rationalized their ruling, explaining that bees suck nectar from flowers with their mouth (proboscis). This nectar mixes with saliva and is swallowed into the honey sac. In the sac, enzymes invert the nectar into honey. Essentially, the nectar is never actually digested. The saliva transforms the honey; the bees are therefore merely carriers/facilitators.
Oddly enough, to the rabbis of the Talmud bee honey is not a secretion but a transformation brought along by the bee. Or better stated: a non-kosher creature which can harm, and dies with its sting, brings about sweetness – kosher from the non-kosher, sweetness from the sting.
The High Holy Days are not simply about praying and hoping for a sweet new year. They are about finding the sweetness among the harsh – a perfect message for this profoundly difficult year.
The High Holy Days are about taking stock in our lives and not only recognizing the surface-level silver-lining, but the true positive that comes from the negative – the sources of inspiration, transformation, revelation, and redemption.
We dip in honey to force ourselves to pause and we find the symbolic honey in our own life. Sure, it tastes sweet and delicious, but so much went into that thick and viscous drop. So much that shouldn’t make sense. So much that frees us and delivers us. So much that saves us.
This year, as you taste your honey for Rosh Hashanah, savor it a little bit longer on your tongue – don’t only just taste the sweetness of tomorrow, but recognize the strength and freeing power of yesterday, wield it, and bring about the dawn of our collective redemption.