Tuesday, September 11, 2007


My friend, the blogger and bee-keeper Treppenwitz berated thanked me (and others) for sending him a link discussing the discovery of beehives showing a beekeeping industry going back to First Temple times.

Well, to show him that he's not the only one discussing the issue, I'll take it on - but from a linguistic standpoint. (The fact that I was planning on discussing the word anyway, in my series on the simanim, is pure coincidence...)

This article discussing the discovery has this quote about the Hebrew word d'vash דבש:

While the term "honey" (dvash in Hebrew) appears 55 times in the Bible, it refers to date or fig honey in all but two references: Judges 14:8-9, when Samson took honey from the lion's carcass, and I Samuel 14:27, when Jonathan dipped his rod in a honeycomb during a battle and his countenance brightened.
Sarna has a similar note in his commentary on Shmot 3:8 -

Honey in the Bible (Heb. devash) is predominantly the thick, sweet syrup produced from dates and known to the Arabs as dibs. Apiculture seems to have been unknown in Palestine; the few explicit references in the Bible to bees' honey pertain to the wild variety. While the date itself is never mentioned, the inclusion of honey among the seven characteristic products of the land listed in Deuteronomy 8:8 indicates that, like all the others, it too derives from the soil.
I happened to take out a book from the local library that discusses this issue in detail: Fruit Trees in the Bible and Talmudic Literature, by Yehuda Feliks (Rubin Mass, 1994). The chapter on dvash is in Hebrew, and I can't quote the entire thing here, but I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. I will summarize a few points he brings up:

  • The phrase ארץ זבת חלב ודבש ("land flowing with milk and honey") in the Torah is clearly referring to honey from fruit trees, as it is praising the agricultural bounty of the land.
  • However, in Yeshayahu 7:22, when it mentions כי חמאה ודבש יאכל כל הנותר בקרב הארץ "Everyone who is left in the land shall feed on curds and honey", it is a parody of the Torah verses. For here, the prophet is describing a time when the land is desolate - and therefore the bees can proliferate. (The milk for the curds will also be widely available, because the cows and sheep will be able to graze on the previously tended croplands).
  • Bee honey is not seen as a sign of blessing for the land, even though it is seen as fortunate to find it (as in the story of Yonatan mentioned above). Yaakov also probably sent bee honey to Yosef (Bereshit 43:11), because it mentions מעט דבש - "a small amount of honey", and bee honey would have been hard to obtain.
  • Many sources where the honey is mentioned as coming from rocks (Devarim 32:13, Tehilim 81:17) it is likely referring to fig honey, as figs (unlike dates) grow in rocky terrain.
  • Although the rabbis generally identify the biblical dvash with dates (Sifrei Devarim 297, Mechilta D'Rashbi 13:5), when they used the word dvash themselves, they were referring to bee honey. For example, the Yerushalmi (Bikkurim 1:3) interprets the biblical word: "And dvash - this is dates. Could it be actual dvash (e.g. bee honey)?" They answer that since the dvash in the verse is obligated in tithes, it cannot be referring to bee honey, but rather date honey. We also see that if someone makes an oath that they will not eat dvash, they are allowed to eat date honey (Nedarim 6:9)
While the article was written before the recent discovery (and sadly Prof. Feliks passed away last year, and did not merit to review it), I don't think the discovery radically challenges anything in the article. Certainly bee honey was considered a rare treat, and there would have been efforts to make the product more widely available. And by Talmudic times, these efforts had succeeded so well, that bee honey became the dominant meaning of "dvash".

But the meaning of eretz zavat chalav u'dvash still refers to the agriculture of the Land of Israel, particularly, as Feliks points out, in comparison to that of Egypt, whose dates were much dryer and did not easily produce honey.

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