The sweetest thing

The 15th-century ‘Washington’ Haggadah, now in the Library of Congress, is a treat for the eyes and, to judge by the evocative illumination, for the tastebuds as well.

Humans are creatures of incentives, and a piece of chocolate goes a long way as reward for good behaviour. According to one medieval Jewish custom, the gateway into learning is lined with honey. A 14th-century book of Jewish traditions from southern France known as The Paths of Life, records the following:

The custom that the sages, may their memory be blessed, followed, when they had their children sit down to study Torah: it was customary when a person sat his son down to study Torah that the letters be written on parchment or on a tablet. He is washed and dressed in clean clothes. Loaves are kneaded with honey and milk for him. Fruit and various other delicacies are brought to him. He is delivered to a scholar who brings him to the school. He eats of the loaves made with honey and milk, of the fruit and of the various delicacies and the letters are read out loud to him. Afterward they are covered with honey and he is told to lick the honey on the letters. He is then taken back to his mother.

The Hebrew letters slated for learning were all the sweeter for it. If this won’t keep kids in school, I don’t know what will.

This pedagogical approach may have been based on Psalm 39: ‘Taste and see that the Lord is sweet’. The metaphor of the sweet word of God had a long tradition in the West, both in Hebrew and Christian cultures. In his mystical work Meditationes, the 12th-century theologian and archbishop Anselm of Canterbury wrote: ‘Christian soul, taste the goodness of your Redeemer, be on fire with love for your Saviour, chew the honeycomb of his words, suck their flavour which is sweeter than sap, swallow their wholesome sweetness.’

Honeyed words to taste in learning and contemplation. The reader and learner may capture the words with her eyes, but their sweetness is seized by the mouth and heart. The Jewish children learning the Hebrew alphabet understood that knowledge is not abstract, but a living and flavoursome thing, whose aftertaste stays on for the rest of one’s life.

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