Shemini: Kashrut of Honey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

This week’s Torah portion is Shemini, which has rules for the ancient
priests and how they must comport themselves, and also a long chapter
detailing which animals are considered kosher- fit for eating- and
which ones are not. You probably know the basic outlines: no pork,
shellfish, creepy-crawling things, and meat only from a few permitted
species of birds and ruminants. Most people don’t realize this, but
the Torah itself does permit certain species of locusts to be eaten
(although, you will be relieved to learn, we have lost the traditions
as to exactly which ones) but not other flying insects. (See
Vayikra/Leviticus 11:21-21 and D’varim/Deuteronomy 14:19.)

In almost all cases, if we’re not supposed to eat an animal, we also
don’t use products derived from that animal. For example, food that is
certified kosher will not have certain chemicals derived from animal
fat or milk from non-kosher animals. So far, so good, but for one big
exception: bee honey. In this week’s parsha, and again in D’varim, we
are told quite specifically not to eat swarming or flying insects,
except a few locusts- so why is honey from bees kosher when milk from
horses (for example) isn’t?*

Basically, the distinction is this: a horse (an example of a
non-kosher animal) produces the milk directly from its body, or an
ostrich (a non-kosher bird) produces an egg, but a bee merely
transforms the nectar of the flower into honey. What happens, as I
understand it, is that a bee takes the nectar into its body and an
enzyme breaks down the nectar a bit, which is then released into the
beehive and the fanning action of the worker bee’s wings evaporate
some of the liquid, making the resulting honey thicker and more
viscous. Thus, there is an ancient tradition, going back to the
Talmud, of drawing a distinction between the “product” of a non-kosher
animal, like eggs or milk, and something the animal merely “carried,”
like nectar on its way to being honey.

I make no claim for deep spiritual metaphor in this distinction, but
having learned it I do have greater respect for how well the ancient
sages observed the natural world. The entire practice of kashrut
[“keeping kosher”] is based on careful distinctions based on
long-standing traditions, and without knowing the concepts it can all
seem bit arbitrary. Yet to paraphrase one source on the topic, knowing
more about where our food comes from helps us have a sense of great
awe, wonder and reverence for the infinite ways life expresses itself
upon our Earth.

Shabbat Shalom,


*Full Disclosure: This question was posed to me by a high school
student last night and I had to hit the books today to learn the
answer, so kudos to Craig “stumping the chump” and sparking the Torah
email this week.

1 Comment »

  1. Rakhem Menashe said

    Shalom Rav, I ve read your article and was really helpful.I am from Beit El community of Imphal ,Manipur.Thanks for your good words of Torah.

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