The rabbi who’s in the honey

By Simon Rocker, September 24, 2008
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It is probably just as well that Rosh Hashanah takes place now rather in a couple of months' time. According to recent reports, stocks of British honey could run out before the end of the year.

The shortage has been blamed on the combination of a soggy summer with a drop in the bee population. In many Western countries, bees have been dying off at a worrying rate, the varroa mite having taken its toll in the UK, while the still-unexplained colony collapse disorder continues to ravage hives in the United States (with some trying to finger an organism known as the Israel acute paralysis virus as one of the main culprits).

But in a small corner of Essex, one rabbi at least has managed to ensure that his congregants can usher in a sweet year in the traditional way. Rabbi David Hulbert of Bet Tikvah, a Liberal synagogue in Barkingside, is supplying them with honey from his own hives.

He has been keeping bees for seven years, having taken over the role of honey-provider from a pair of congregants who farmed it on the edge of Epping Forest. A few weeks ago he extracted 60lb of honey from the pair of hives in the back of his mother-in-law's garden over the road from his Woodford Green home.

The children of local neighbours were only too happy to help in the process of collecting it from his colony of 60,000 bees.

"It's wonderful from an educational point of view and children love it," says Rabbi Hulbert. "In the time of the Gemara, everyone knew all about agriculture and how animals work. Now kids think that food comes from Waitrose and Sainsbury's. But this is a form of agriculture that you can do on a small scale - even if you only have a balcony."

And as the fruit-laden branches of the pear tree above the hives and next door's apple-tree demonstrate, the pollinating insects bring additional benefits, too.

Rabbi Hulbert's honey is now going off in jars with home-made labels carrying biblical quotations, such as "Maoz yatza matok", "Out of strength came forth sweetness" (an allusion to Samson's riddle in Judges 14, after he found a swarm of bees in a lion's carcass). Honey is best-known in the Bible as a sign of the bounty of the promised Land of Israel - "a land flowing with milk and honey".

Traditionally, interpreters have taken this to mean date honey or other fruit syrup. But Rabbi Hulbert has his doubts. "Everyone knows that all round the Mediterranean apiculture is a major activity and always has been, so why should Eretz Yisrael have been any different? The great commercial society of Egypt did it."
And proof seemed to arrive with an archaeological discovery in Israel a year ago. Professor Binyamin

Mazar of the Hebrew University unearthed 30 beehives at Tel Rehov, near Bet She'an dating from the 10th century BCE (the time of King Solomon) - the "earliest known apiary in the Middle East", Rabbi Hulbert says, complete with "old comb, honey and even dead bees".

The Torah also refers to honey coming "out of rocks" (in Parashat Ha'azinu, which is read the week after next), he points out. "Dates do not grow in rocks, but you find do wild honeycombs in caves."

Honey, too, appears elsewhere in religious poetry. "Sweeter than honey" are said to be the words of Torah, in Psalm 19; and God's love, in the mystical song Yedid Nefesh, sung on Shabbat afternoons. Honey also has one curious distinction. "It is the only food that comes from a non-kosher source," notes Rabbi Hulbert, "apart from human milk."

    Last updated: 3:52pm, March 3 2010