For the week ending 17 November 2007 / 7 Kislev 5768

To Bee or not to Bee

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Balint in Grinall, Iowa
Dear Rabbi,

I have the following question that no one could answer yet: Why is honey kosher? I thought that the product of non-kosher animals was not kosher as well. Bees are not kosher, so why is honey kosher? I appreciate your time and hope you know the answer. Thank you.

Dear Balint,

The Mishna in Tractate Bechorot states:

“That which comes from something which is tameh [non-kosher] is tameh, and that which comes of that which is tahor [kosher] is tahor.” So you are right, Balint — the product of a non-kosher animal is not kosher. So why is bee-honey kosher?

The Talmud in the same Tractate quotes a beraita (an halachic teaching from the time of the Mishna) which says: “Why is bee-honey permitted? Because even though bees bring honey into their bodies, it is not produced by their bodies”. What does this mean? How do bees make honey?

Honeybees use nectar from flowers to make honey. With long, tube-like tongues they suck the nectar out of flowers and they store it in special “honey stomachs”. This honey stomach serves as a nectar backpack in which the honeybees transport the nectar back to the hive.

There, the honeybees pass the nectar on to worker bees. These bees suck the nectar from the honeybee’s special honey stomach, process it and then spread the nectar throughout the honeycombs where water evaporates from it, making it a thick syrup. The honey is then stored until it is eaten. [In one year, a colony of bees eats between 120 and 200 pounds of honey!]

Therefore, since honey does not come from the body, but rather through the body of the bee, Maimonides codifies bee-honey as being kosher, as does the Shulchan Aruch.

You may wonder: How could one even think that bee-honey is not kosher? The Torah refers to the Land of Israel as “a Land flowing with milk and honey”! Certainly the Torah would not choose a non-kosher product as a means for describing the beauty of the Land of Israel! This may come as a surprise, but the honey mentioned in the verse about “milk and honey” is not bee-honey, rather it is fig-honey. Another excerpt from the Talmud Tractate Berachot interprets the verse, “It is a Land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates, a Land of olives and honey” — as referring to date-honey.

  • Tractate Bechorot, pages 5b, 7b.
  • The Codes of Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Foods 3:3.
  • Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 81:8.
  • Tractate Megillah, page 6a, Rashi.
  • Chumash, Book of Devarim, 8:8.
  • Tractate Berachot, page 41b, Rashi.

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