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Sometimes, when Devash is mentioned in scriptural passages, Rashi observes that the Hebrew word is general and included many sweet fluids.

For example, Leviticus 2:11 commands “For you shall not cause to go up in smoke any leavening or any Devash”; Rashi remarks that any sweet fruit extract is called Devash. At Deuteronomy 26:02, Rashi discusses Deuteronomy 8:8 and the identity of Devash as date honey.

At these places, I have always thought that Rashi was trying to correct the assumption that bees’ honey was intended; Rashi meant that not only bees’ honey was included, but a broader class of sweet fluids. But I wonder: maybe bees’ honey really has nothing to do with it at all, and Rashi thought some other example would come to the reader’s mind, like molasses made from sugar cane; and he was broadening from that narrow case. I’m trying to figure out what suggested bees and whether that association is correct.

In the first place, of course, the use of the word English “honey” suggests bees. And perhaps the translators choose the word “honey” because of Judges 14, which seems to be the one clear scriptural association of Devash to bees. Translation of some other passages use the word “honeycomb,” as Psalm 19:11 and Proverbs 27:7; but the latter refers to trampling a “honeycomb”, and since it would be unlikely that anyone would trample a beehive, perhaps that translation should be questioned.

I suppose that the flow of thought in the Deuteronomy citations, and the emphasis on products of the land, seemed motivated by the idea that bees’ honey is not a product of the land because bees are flying animals. But maybe Rashi meant that sugar cane could not be the intended Devash, because the land of Israel is praised for dates but not for sugar cane.

At 1 Samuel 14:25 to 27 and Song of Songs 5:1, Rashi seems clearly to understand that bees don’t enter into it, although English translations there might use the word “honey.” Similarly, in Deuteronomy 32:13, there seems to be no thought of bees.

So perhaps the correct translation of Devash is “syrup” or "molasses"?

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We find in the Mishnah in Makhshirin Perk 6 Mishna 4 that דבש means honey of bees specifically:

שִׁבְעָה מַשְׁקִין הֵן. הַטַּל וְהַמַּיִם, הַיַּיִן וְהַשֶּׁמֶן, וְהַדָּם, וְהֶחָלָב, וּדְבַשׁ דְּבוֹרִים. דְּבַשׁ צְרָעִים, טָהוֹר, וּמֻתָּר בַּאֲכִילָה:
There are seven liquids: dew, water, wine, oil, blood, milk and bees’ honey. Hornets’ honey does not cause susceptibility to uncleanness and may be eaten

So it is reasonable that Rashi in Chumash has to explain that in Tanach, דבש is used to mean all sweet foods generally as opposed to bees' honey.

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  • Doesn't "דבש דבורים" imply that דבש by itself doesn't mean honey of bees specifically, especially as it comes right next to "דבש צרעים"? – magicker72 Mar 17 at 1:15
  • That is the source for how devash is generally defined across Shas. – N.T. Mar 17 at 18:54
  • if true, you want to say something like that in your answer. – magicker72 Mar 17 at 20:02
  • What does it mean to say that "that is the source etc."? You're saying that because of this Mishna in Machshirin, the Rishonim understand the word Devash as bees' honey in other places? I'd be interested in seeing that idea developed, if you could. I lean toward @magicker72 's view, that "Stam Devash" seems not to be from bees, if the case of bees must be specified while the case of fruit or cane need not be. Could the association of Devash with bees' honey be post-biblical? – Chaim Mar 19 at 12:31
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As a general rule, unless specified otherwise, d'vash will mean fruit honey, particularly date honey (see shiva'as haminim where d'vash is reffering to dates), and also fig honey (a few examples are found in the gemara with stories relating to figs' honey).

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I think you might technically be correct that דבש just means a sweet sticky substance; honey, molasses, and syrup should all be equally applicable.

Rashi in Leviticus 2:11 clearly says that the term דבש refers to any sweetness from fruit. It's even clearer from his commentary on 2:12, where he says that you bring from the דבש the first fruits, such as the first figs and dates. This fits with his explanation of Exodus 13:5 ארץ זבת חלב ודבש refers to fig and date honey.

As you pointed out, in 1 Samuel 14:25-27 Rashi explicitly says that יערות דבש refers to sugar cane. He even quotes "R' Nathan the Ishmaelite" that in arabic that kind of דבש is called 'sukra.' This approach is also taken by Mahari Kara and the Metzudos.

(In contrast, the Radak, Rabbeinu Yeshaya and Ralbag (loc. cit) all assume the reference is to bee's honey.)

We see that Rashi assumes דבש can refer to sugar cane sap, date honey or fig honey (as the OP cited). I don't know of an explicit source in Tanach where Rashi explains דבש to mean bee honey. Perhaps he learns that when the mishna and gemara refer to דבש דבורים it's a borrowed term.

(If he understood that דבש in Tanach can refer to bee's honey, it's difficult to explain why he needed to explain that Shmuel 14 was talking about sugar cane- which is exactly what the Radak asks on Rashi. It's much simpler to assume that the verse is talking about honey from a beehive, a common occurrence, instead of assuming that sugar cane grows in israel and needing to bring a proof from the arabic. But if דבש always means a fruit sweetness in Tanach, it would explain why he couldn't simply explain it as bee honey.)

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