The Alef in Honey in our Homes

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The Hebrew alphabet letters on a fridge which help children to spell.

There is a very old ritual, reported more than 700 years ago, of children learning the alef bet for the very first time. The child would be brought to the synagogue or to the teacher’s house where there was a tablet waiting for him upon which could be found each of the letters of the alef bet backwards and forwards. The teacher would recite a letter and the child would repeat it, and then the teacher would put a little honey on the tablet, and with his tongue, the child would lick the honey which was on the letters. And then he was brought some cake with honey on it which was accompanied by some verses, and then an egg upon which was written a verse from Yechezkel (3:3) “and it tasted sweet as honey to me.” And then they would feed the boy the cake and the egg “because it is good for the opening of the heart” (Sefer ha-Rokeach, cited in Ivan Marcus Rituals of Childhood, New Haven, Yale, 1996 pp. 27-28). This custom, repeated throughout the centuries in shuls and schools, was a powerful ritual to initiate a child into Jewish literacy and learning. But wherein lies the power?

The dictionary defines a ritual as “a sequence of activities involving gestures, words and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to a set sequence” (Webster Dictionary, 2016. A “sequestered place” usually means a house of worship or in the case of honeyed letters, in a school. But for Jews, there is another “sequestered space” where most of our ritual takes place, namely, in the home. Interestingly, this locale for ritual “serves to differentiate Jews from most American Christians who, with the exception of Christmas, lack elaborate home-based religious rituals.” (Cohen, S.M. 2000. “The utility of long interviews in the study of American Jews.” Contemporary Jewry, 21:p. 8). For Jews, the home is that place where religious life takes place in a formal way that has the potential to impact our children’s lives more than school and shul ever could. Just think about your own childhood memories of the chagim.

Rituals are such powerful forces in our lives. They provide “an occasion to release emotions, communicate values, and display priorities that might otherwise be inexpressible. At the same time, through the enactment of ritual, individuals are socialized or habituated into beliefs, values, and commitments.” (Alex Pomson, Randal Schnoor. Jewish Family: Identity and Self-formation at Home. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018. p. 93)

Rituals can teach our children what’s important in life and what we hold dear. It can educate them about where in the endless list of “wants” we prioritize instead a narrow list of “needs.” And it does this most effectively at young ages through the medium of family in the sequestered place of the home, often in the guise of “fun” rituals.

I was speaking recently with someone as together we reminisced about the Rosh Hashanah of our respective youths. We both remembered a large fish stored in our bathtubs which our grandmothers would use to make their own gefilte fish. We remembered the other special foods and the family gatherings (so many food rituals!) And then our attention turned to the simanim, the symbolic foods which we eat at the beginning of the Rosh Hashanah evening meals each of which is accompanied by a prayer for the coming year. We laughed at the reactions of different family members to the presence of that fish head at the table, from utter delight to running away from the table, and her own family custom of having a ram or lamb’s head that was passed around (so that one could be at the head and not the tail). And then we compared notes about the other foods that would appear at the table, each one accompanied by its own unique prayer which often was based on a word play on the name of the food. The word kartei, for example, means a leek of some kind, and sounds like the word karet which means to cut off or destroy, hence the custom to eat that vegetable and recite a prayer that asks for the destruction of our enemies. Sometimes the associations can go a step further into the vernacular. The word gezer, a carrot, is similar to the word for “decree” (gezerah) and the prayer is that there be a decree that our year be a bountiful one since the Yiddish word for carrots, mehr, is similar to the Yiddish word for “more” or “bountiful.” One could even theoretically play this game in English as well (Lettuce have a great year! Raisin our salary, anyone?)

There is, however, a challenge to ritual, and that is that we can take it for granted. We can get used to going through the motions and thereby lose sight of its purpose, of the transcendence which it is supposed to capture. That is why rituals can be particularly powerful for children, because they haven’t experienced it as often as we have, and the excitement and newness of it all carry tremendous power. For children, in particular, says psychologist Linda Miller of Columbia’s Teachers College, rituals can provide the connection for children between “head knowing and heart knowing…Ritual creates a special bond that physically “holds” the transcendent, connecting body and heart. What begins as a physical or sensory experience, we invest with meaning and emotional content…[R]itual opens the moment to the “something more” (Linda Miller, The Spiritual Child. NY: St. Martins, 2015, p. 166), what the Rokeach meant in the 12th century about the ritual of honeyed letters “opening the heart.”

That “something more” can certainly be the connection to family and the food memories that will be engendered, but is that enough? For the foods alone will not make it into a religious ritual or a religious experience that will carry children forward. Instead, it is surely not the food but the accompanying blessings and prayers that are key to the “something more,” namely, our acknowledgement of the Presence of God in our lives, of the dependence that we should feel upon His will (as we say in those prayers yehi ratzon – may it be His will that we have a sweet year…), about the prioritization of our needs versus our wants, of the central role that God and Torah should play in our lives in the coming year in order for our wishes to come true. Perhaps it might be worthwhile to go a little off script, and go around the table and ask everyone, especially children and young people, what it means to them personally to have a sweet year, or what it means to want more of something, or what it means to be at the head and not at the tail. Perhaps we could even ask children for their own prayers for the coming year, and to use that as an opportunity where appropriate to help shape their visions for the future and to help them see the role that God plays in the fulfillment of those wishes. That way, the sweetness of Torah will not be relegated only to a single day in time when they first learned the alef-bet, nor restricted to sweet memories of symbolic foods and family gatherings, but rather to a daily rather than a yearly encounter with “something more,” the presence of HaKadosh Baruch Hu that infuses their aspirations and their day to day lives. And lettuce say, amen!

Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than 35 years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.