One whiff of my mom’s honey cake and I know that Rosh HaShanah is near. As the start of the Jewish new year approaches, the smell of the traditional dessert permeates my home. During the Rosh HaShanah meal, various foods are used to symbolize wishes for the upcoming year; honey is prominent amongst them. Even preschoolers, who sing “dip the apple in the honey,” know that honey symbolizes sweetness for the upcoming year. Additionally, when you walk down the streets, it is common to hear a fellow Jew wish you a “Shana Tova U’Metukah” or “Have a good and sweet year.” But recently, I discovered that honey symbolizes so much more than sweetness.
Bees use their stinger for positive and negative actions. A stinger is vital to the honey production process. It is ironic that the same stinger that can cause harm can also produce something so sweet. Bees teach us an important lesson about taking our negative qualities and turning them into good. When I learned this, I thought of the quotation engraved on my ring, which says “from a little light banishes a lot of darkness.”
In the famous story of Samson, he successfully slayed the lion he was sent out to kill and left, but returned to the sight and witnessed the unexpected. Samson saw bees creating honey in the lion’s belly. He was shocked because from death, bees were creating something new. Two opposites existed in the same place. Samson’s story also echoes the story of the Jews who first entered Israel. They had to defeat the lion—their enemies—in order to be rewarded with honey—the land of Israel. This connection can be drawn from Israel being described as “the land flowing with milk and honey.” Just like Samson was forced to slay the lion to gain a reward, so to the Jews had to defeat the enemies before delving into the rewards and sweetness of Israel.
Honey also teaches us about hard work and unity. An individual bee cannot create honey alone. The creation of honey relies on collaboration and requires many bees working together. This is a very important lesson for Jews to learn, for we are a small nation who must work together to survive and succeed. In the Tanach, the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because the Jews lacked unity. If all the Jews worked together, we would be one step closer to the goal of rebuilding the Beit HaMikdash.
Many commentators believe that the honey referenced in the Torah is actually date honey. A date tree takes many years and much effort to grow. One must bury the seed, protect it from the cold, pick the perfect soil; a single flaw can stop the growth process. After eight years of protecting the tree, dates will finally grow. Even though the process requires a lot of time and effort, the task is worth the reward of sweet fruit and a feeling of success.
Understanding the greater significance of the honey is so vital to Rosh HaShanah. The smell of my mom’s honey cake reminds me of so much more than just the new year. As 5780 begins, I hope to carry with me that which is learned from the bees, and work towards a year of positivity and unity.
The recipe for my mom’s honey cake is as follows:
- 3 ½ cups flour
- 2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- 3 large eggs, separated
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- Zest of one lemon
- ⅓ cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup honey
- 1 cup coffee, brewed
Preheat oven to 350
Grease a 10-inch tube with margarine and lightly dust with flour. Set aside.
Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cream of tartar into a mixing bowl. Add the sugar, cinnamon, egg yolks, lemon juice, lemon zest, vegetable oil, honey and coffee. Mix well.
Beat the egg whites until stiff. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter. Pour the batter into the tube pan. Bake in a 350 oven for 1 hour. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then remove to a wire rack.
Sonya Kest is a senior at Yula Girls High School in Los Angeles.