Dip the Apple in the Maple Syrup

sugar.JPGAs we sit down to our Rosh Hashana meals, all eyes go to the challah/apple ceremoniously (or should I say unceremoniously?) dipped in honey. The kids begin to sing that lifeless ditty to the tune of Oh My Darlin’ Clementine “dip the apple in the honey, make a bracha loud and clear. . . . “ (I can’t recall the rest because we banned that song from our house more than a decade ago). Much ink has been spilled (mostly by the honey lobby) perpetuating this custom of dubious and suspect origin in the name of sweetness for the upcoming year. In keeping with the spirit of the New Jewish Food Movement, perhaps we should critically re-examine this custom and explore alternatives. As a maple syrup producer, may I humbly suggest using maple syrup.

At the outset, given the mystical underpinnings of the “simana d’milsa” – the Rosh Hashana symbols, the kabbalah of honey is worth taking a look at. There’s a certain degree of gevurah (severity) in the entire honey making/collecting process what with 50,000 angry bees buzzing about as if to say “you toucha our honey – we stinga you nose” whereas maples represent the ultimate in chesed (lovingkindness) giving freely of not only their wood and shelter but their sap – their very essence.

Unlike the majestic maples which have their roots firmly anchored in the ground and their branches reaching for the heavens, bees have a real problem thinking out of the box.  Even the name “hives” conjures up images of some negative reaction to a food we shouldn’t have eaten. Honey comes in “frames” again an allusion to the inability of the poor bee to transcend his boxlike existence. Sap on the other hand drips lyrically into buckets – conical enclosures open at the top in an upwards spiral reminiscent of the original tzimtzumim (contractions) which accompanied the creation of the world according to the kabbalists of yore.

Plus, bees are racist. It’s true – they don’t like black (I’ve been told it’s because they genetically associate it with the nose of a bear – I learned that the hard way when I went out to my hive one day wearing a black velvet kippah!) Maples on the other hand are warm, embracing and non-discriminatory, offering shade and comfort to all.

Hives are hot and overcrowded and festering with anger and resentment, just waiting to boil over into a rumble. They are drab, propolis encrusted tenements with everyone wearing the same bad suit. Moreover, the hive is separated rigidly into a caste system of workers, drones and a queen. Autocracy is the coin of the realm. Maples, on the other hand, really know how to let their freak flags fly. There are tall maples, short maples, red maples, silver maples, sugar maples, even Japanese maples! They grow at random in the forest on their own schedule – you can’t rush a maple no matter how much you try.

The bee is also the world’s greatest procrastinator. While the maple is champing at the bit to be the first in the spring to give forth fruit, barely waiting for the snows to melt, the bees are huddled together in an apian ménage a 50,000 waiting for warmer weather. (Truth be told, there is a nascent self-improvement movement among the bees. I’ve even seen little motivational posters in the hives bearing such witticisms as “wake up and smell the flowers” and “anything for the buzz”).

Then there’s the music. When you get near a hive, you first hear it – that angry, mindless, whining buzz intoning “danger, danger, run the other way! I’d turn back if I were you.” The pastoral maple however exudes a musical symphony with every drop of sap resonating through the snow festooned forest. It’s beyond kum-ba-ya (incidentally, my colleague Howard Cohen once asked me why I was so anti kum-ba-ya. He told me that the phrase was actually Hebrew – Kum Ba Y-ah and meant “Arise, for the Lord cometh” I told him it was indeed Hebrew but that it really meant Kum – Baaya “Let’s go – there’s a problem” but I digress).

Finally, there’s the whole honey – money thang. Selling bottles of syrup to raise money for Israel trips and the like. That’s like so yesterday. Maple is on the cutting edge of Jewish philanthropy. Just check out www.sweetwhisperfarms.com/rockmaple They don’t say “Rock Maple means Just Maple” for nothing! So this Rosh Hashana, when you’re gathered around the table, break out a bottle of Vermont Grade A Dark Amber and sing along with your kids:

“Dip the apple in the honey,

Make a bracha loud and clear.

But if you use maple syrup,

You will have a sweeter year”

Shana Tova and a year full of “sweet” blessings from Shlomo, Tova, Rivky and me.

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33 Responses to “Dip the Apple in the Maple Syrup”

  1. David Sax Says:

    being Canadian I’m actually shocked that we’ve never done this. Though to be honest we do eat apples and maple syrup throughout the year, usually atop pancakes or french toast or baked together or mmmmmmm

  2. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    David? David? Can you hear me? Just the thought of the apple and maple seems to have sent you into a gastronomic swoon. Ladies and Gentlemen, I rest my case.

  3. msk Says:

    Great post. I’ll have to try this tonight with my local Pennsylvania-produced Grade B syrup. One small quibble: Grade A syrup is lovely and sweet, but to me contains so much less maple flavor than the darker, richer Grade B. Once in Vermont we bought some syrup from the kind people at Neighborly Farms (a dairy farm) that they called Grade C that was too good to describe. I might go into the same swoon as David just thinking about it.

  4. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    sshhh – soon everyone will want grade C! I agree with you wholeheartedly. The label game (Fancy Grade A Grade B) is only a function of color – it’s like buying a CD because you like the cover art! The truth is that we sell the Fancy to the tourists but if you look in the fridge of any good Vermonter there’s a bottle of black C grade (I don’t think you can legally sell it) bursting with maple flavor. The way I look at it, if you want sugar, buy Domino’s at 19 cents a pound – if you want maple, you want it to taste like maple! Grade A Dark Amber is a great multipurpose syrup – it is still refined enough to bring out the best in a delicate vanilla ice cream and sturdy enough to hold its own in a mix or recipe – this Rosh Hashana – grilled maple squash with a drop of vanilla and dusted lightly with cinnamon.
    For all you maple wannabes, why not join me at the Hazon Food Conference Friday nite Maple Tisch where we might have a few different grades of syrup to try (plus my special single malt maple, but I digress) shabbos and maple – How sweet it is!

  5. Rachel Says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post! We live in western Massachusetts, quite near the Vermont border, and a local farmer taps our trees each spring. I take great pleasure out of serving an erev Rosh Hashanah meal featuring as many local foods as is possible (last night: the last of the local zucchini, sauteed and served with mint in the Sicilian Jewish style) but had never contemplated apples & maple syrup. Next year!

  6. cyberdov Says:

    So where can one get grade C – or even grade B? I have been keeping my eyes open for a few years now in local stores (NYC area) but have yet to see it.

  7. Howard Nadel Says:

    Interesting study, but was it IRB approved

  8. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    cyberdov – Grade B – we’ll be G-d willing canning some in the near future so you might want to stay tuned. Grad C – you’d need to be friends with a maple farmer to get some:)

    Howard – what is the IRB?

  9. stacey Says:

    cyberdov – I bought a gigantic container of vermont grade B at the union square farmer’s market. The maple syrup ppl are there on Fri & Sat and the jug says “deep mountain”.

    Rabbi Shmuel – yum! As a vegan, my preference in maple syrup in, on or around everything.

  10. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    Grade B is usually available around the end of the season (when the sugar content of the sap drops it takes longer to evaporate and it caramelizes (turns darker) hence the color)

    as a vegan you should be doubly alert to only buy syrup with a hechsher – some producers (though most don’t) still use porkfat to defoam but more critically, many producers cook (eg hotdogs, kielbasi) in the sap pan during the long nights boiling (I didn’t know that either until I started sugaring) so know where your syrup is from and what’s going on in it!

    I may bli neder bring some “C” grade syrup to the food conference for my maple tisch (tasting only!) black as molasses and sweet as. . . well, um, er. . . maple syrup!!

  11. Hillary Says:

    In case you were dying to know what the rest of the song’s words were, it goes:

    “Dip the apple in the honey,
    say a bracha loud and clear.
    Shana tova u’metukah
    Have a happy, sweet new year!”

    Hehe, I’m sure you were sick of it though but I couldn’t resist, because we just taught that song to my 1 year old niece. She loves it!

  12. Hannah Lee Says:

    Dear Rabbi Shmuel,

    At the local farmer’s market, the maple syrup vendor claims that they use organic butter to stop the boiling.
    What do the hechsered vegan syrups use instead?

    I was so pleased to find out about you and your farm.
    Please post something soon!

    Shalom from Pennsylvania

  13. Hannah Lee Says:

    Thanks for telling me about your farm’s use of extra-virgin olive oil (off-line), Rabbi Shmuel. But as I can’t respond otherwise, I’m posting here again to say that I would love to read more about your farm; the rhythms of a farming year; how you and your family got started; are your children in Jewish day school (when not home-schooled); and rabbinical musings.

    I still struggle within the Orthodox community where the majority of Jews are not aware or do not appreciate the issues of sustainability and where a simcha is defined as an occasion to eat meat and drink wine.

  14. Rabbi Tuvia Says:

    Gevalt! Bees racist? Mindless? Wow, what judgement of the poor bee! Someone who understands bees know that the sound they make is a happy sound just like a dog bark can be a sign of happiness. It is also unfair to sit in judgment of Hashem’s choice of caste system for bees. He gave us an amazing creation whose product is permissible to us and is used as a way of describing (according to Rashi) the plentiful land given to us.

    As far as your comments on heschsher, it might be a good idea to review the halachot of kashrut.

    “should be doubly alert to only buy syrup with a hechsher – some producers (though most don’t) still use porkfat to defoam but more critically, many producers cook (eg hotdogs, kielbasi) in the sap pan during the long nights boiling (I didn’t know that either until I started sugaring) so know where your syrup is from and what’s going on in it!”

    This is very misleading. The porkfat is a legend to scare people into buying foods with a hechsher. Even IF porkfat was used many years ago, it does not change the flavor, it is not meant to change the taste, and it gets boiled off. This is kashrut 101. Maple syrup is kosher, period.

    Those of us with experienec in the maple syrup industry know the tales that have been around way too long.

  15. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    “Gevalt! Bees racist? Mindless? Wow, what judgement of the poor bee! Someone who understands bees know that the sound they make is a happy sound just like a dog bark can be a sign of happiness. It is also unfair to sit in judgment of Hashem’s choice of caste system for bees. He gave us an amazing creation whose product is permissible to us and is used as a way of describing (according to Rashi) the plentiful land given to us.”

    Relax. Take a deep breath. Can you say “tongue in cheek?”

    As far as the kashrus issues or additives involved in maple syrup production I must respectfully disagree based on my own empirical observations as an industry producer for over a decade and not merely in reliance on rural legends. I personally have seen both of those practices. Concededly, they are not done on a large industrial scale, but given that the demand for syrup invariably outstrips the supply, many, if not most of the larger producers supplement their own production by buying the entire output of small backwoods producers (who by the same token, love to make syrup I do not know your involvement either in the maple industry (I don’t recall ever seeing a meeting you at VMSMA events or IMSI events or Maplerama) or the Kashrus industry but I see nothing wrong in advocating a gold standard of kashrus just as those who advocate a gold standard of local and organic

  16. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    erratum – should read (who by the same token, love to make syrup but cringe at the thought of selling it)

    this is not the forum for a detailed discussion of the minutiae of Isur V’Heter or hilchos ta’aroves but I would certainly welcome your comments off-line at swfarms@together.net.

    And have a sweet, sweet new year no matter what your choice of sweetener may ultimately be :-)

  17. Rabbi Tuvia Says:

    Rabbi Shmuel,

    With all due respect, you are new to the maple syrup industry. Ten years is still a sugaring newbie. The gold standard of Kashrut is to buy products that have hashgacha ONLY when they need Hashgacha. A few years ago, I saw toilet paper with Hashgacha. Does it need Hashgacha? Certainly not. Are people thinking they become a Baal Nefesh if they are Machmir and buy the “gold standard” of toilet paper with Hashgacha? Gimme a break. The kashrut industry has become a big business today.

    As far as your tonhue in cheek description of hashem’s creations, I suggest learning from Rav Yehuda HaNasi. He made the mistake of not showing compassion to Hashem’s bria and suffered terribly. In our attempt to emulate Hashem’s ways we don’t mock His creations.

    For anyone not familiar with the story, Wikipedia describes it as follows:

    Various stories are told about Judah haNasi to illustrate different aspects of his character. One of them begins by telling of a calf breaking free from being led to slaughter. According to the story, the calf tries to hide under Judah haNasi’s robes, bellowing with terror, but he pushes the animal away, saying: “Go — for this purpose you were created.” For this, Heaven inflicted upon him kidney stones, painful flatulence, and other gastric problems, saying, “Since he showed no pity, let us bring suffering upon him”.

    The story remarks that when Judah haNasi prayed for relief, the prayers were ignored, just as he had ignored the pleas of the calf. Nevertheless, it goes on to describe him subsequently preventing his maid from violently expelling baby weasels from his house, on the basis that “It is written: ‘His Mercy is upon all his works.’” For this, Heaven removes the gastric problems from him, saying, “Since he has shown compassion, let us be compassionate with him”.

    Rabbi Judah HaNasi also said, “One who is ignorant of the Torah should not eat flesh” — possibly as a result of these experiences.

    I wish you a sweet year in which you produce lots of sweetness for all to share.

  18. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    Rabbi Tuvia – when do I get the pleasure and privilege of knowing who I am conducting this conversation with?

  19. Rabbi Tuvia Says:

    Rabbi Shmuel, the pleasure is mine. I am simply a yid, placed on this earth like many others, trying to be an or lagoyim and a faithful servant of Hashem. The reason I visited your post is that I have a real tuyveh for maple syrup.

  20. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    Gee — while I acknowledge your humility as well as your noble mission statement, for a “simple Jew”, you’ve been awfully busy in these posts. You managed to challenge my knowledge of kashrus, my own practices of kashrus, my knowledge of the maple industry, my relationship with animals, Orthodox kosher supervision and launch into an animal-rights diatribe buttressed by your Wikipedia story (and I thought that story was a gemara in Baba Metzia).

    Looking back at the other posts, it seems that everyone seemed to have gotten the joke except you. Since this is the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov, perhaps we should consider his words “the evil things we see in others is shown to us as a reflection of those very traits in ourselves”. That being said, if I’ve done something to offend you in the past, then I offer my most sincere and humble apologies.

    One of the reasons I disassociated formally with HAZON, is to avoid engaging in diatribes such as these (you’ll note that the post upon which you commented is a year old). I used to conduct a “maple tisch” at the food conferences on Shabbos night where dozens of us would sing, farbreng, share the sweetness of Hasidic stories and some of my finest private stock syrup. Given your background, you might wish to apply for the position.

    Hatzlacha Raba and Shana Tova

  21. Rabbi Tuvia Says:

    Rabbi Shmuel,

    I don’t know who you are and I am sure your knowledge of kashrut is as deep as the strong roots of your maple trees. My posts were not meant to chas v’shalom disparage or insult your beliefs in any way.

    Aside from your idea of the “gold standard” of kashrut or your issue with bees, let me ask you this:

    Does 100% pure maple syrup require hashgacha?

  22. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    “Does 100% pure maple syrup require hashgacha?”

    I’m afraid you’ll have to consult Wikipedia. I offered you the opportunity to contact me off-line. You have not done so. I asked for the courtesy of knowing to whom I was speaking. You have not afforded me the same. Accordingly, I question whether this is truly a “machlokes l’shem shamayim” or something else. Moreover, given the injunction of “da mah shetashiv” – “know how to answer appropriately” — since I don’t know to whom I am responding, I am unable to respond to your query.

    Chai Elul is also the birthday of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi – the founder of Chabad chassidus. He once told his followers “they are are those who say “that which I am permitted to do, I do, and that which I’m not permitted to do, I will figure out a way of doing it” and then there are those who say “that which I am prohibited from doing I don’t do and that which I’m permitted to do, I ask whether I need to do it or not.” I suspect that to a large degree in fact that aphorism crystallizes much of our differences. Unfortunately we’ll never know.

    A guten, gebentsched and zeesen yohr.

  23. Rabbi Tuvia Says:

    Eschew obfuscation.

  24. Mrs. Rosenfeld Says:

    My Rabbi taught me that 100% pure maple syrup from Canada was kosher and did not need a hechsher .

    Is he wrong?

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