We know the minimum essentials of an early diet in the Land of Israel from a brief notice in the Mishnah, M. Ketubot 5:8. The excerpt refers to what husbands separated from their wives must provide them: “He who maintains his wife by a third-party may not provide for her less than two qab of wheat or four qabs of barley (per week). Said R. Yose, ‘only R. Ishmael ruled that barley may be given to her, for he was near Edom.’ And one pays over to her a half-qab of pulse, a half-log of oil, and a qab of dried figs or a maneh of fig cake. And if he does not have it, he provides instead food of some other type.”
As Nathan MacDonald suggests in What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat?, the Israelite diet was relatively stable over a long time, so we can probably assume this diet was a minimum standard at an earlier time in Israelite history as well, the time represented in the Bible. We see that the minimum standard was for a grain-based vegan diet. Wine and meat, fish and dairy products, which we know Israelites did enjoy at times, are absent from the minimum standard, as are most fruits and vegetables.
We assume that women augmented their provision from other local sources and that in circumstances other than this specific situation described in the Mishnah, people had greater variety in their diets. At least the biblical text suggests that, with wine as another staple. Written and archaeological evidence indicate that the diet also included other products from plants, trees and animals. Deut. 8:8 mentions the Seven Species, wheat, barley, figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates and dates. In Exodus 3:8 and many other places, the Bible describes the Land of Israel as a land “flowing with milk and honey”.
Archaeology also tells us that legumes were an important part of the diet and that the Israelites enjoyed goat and sheep’s milk when it was available in the spring and summer and ate butter and cheese. Land was used in different ways in Israel according to climate and topography, but in some areas, faunal remains tells us there were sufficient cattle and sheep to provide .45 liters of milk and 44 gm. of meat per person per day. (MacDonald) Very likely much of the meat was traded at market for wine and oil, and Israelites reserved meat-eating for special occasions.
Israelites ate their food, including poultry, eggs, fish, fruits and vegetables, fresh and in season. Episodes of hunger, drought and famine were part of their lives, and the Bible tells us of this reality. Food that could be preserved, was, in order to provide for these times: grapes were preserved as wine and raisins; olives became oil. Israelites dried figs, beans and lentils, and they stored grains.
So that’s what the Bible tells us in concrete terms about the Israelite diet. As MacDonald points out, it may or may not accurately reflect what they ate, but archaeology and other tools fill in the picture a little more.
My exploration offers a different look at Israelite eating, a somewhat more philosophical approach presented in the text of the Bible. Our journey begins with the first chapters of Genesis.
The creation accounts of Genesis 1-3 provide us with an ideal vision, creation according to a plan with meaning and purpose. There are three “elements” in the cosmos of these stories, G-d, human beings and the rest of creation. The second creation account, the Garden of Eden, describes the relationship between these elements.
There is no violence, and it is a vegetarian world: Gn. 1:29, the first creation story: “And G-d said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food; and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.'” Every creature is vegan, even the animals!
In the Garden, everything is in harmony. G-d plants a Garden, humans “dress it and keep it”, a river waters it, and creation thrives, without fear and without bloodshed. In this second story as well, in Gn. 2:16, G-d provides a vegan diet: “And the Lord G-d commanded Adam, saying: ‘Of every tree of the Garden thou may eat freely eat…” There is but one restriction: “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eat thereof thou shalt surely die”.
When Adam and Eve do eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are exiled from the Garden into life, preventing them from taking from the tree of life, eating and living forever. A flaming sword bars reentry to the Garden.
The human beings who exit the Garden are like G-d in having ethical consciousness. They are unlike G-d in that they do not live forever, nor does any other part of creation. The world of exile is very different from the world of the Garden. Not only is it a world that includes death, it is disharmonious, and violence prevails. The first story following exile is one of fratricide, and it involves an issue of animal flesh.
As disharmony and violence overwhelms this world in exile, beyond the Garden, G-d brings a flood and a new creation. Noah sacrifices animals as a sign of thanksgiving, and G-d in return promises to never again destroy the earth. And then…even as G-d issues a first commandment to this new creation, “be fruitful and multiply,” G-d decrees a new diet, which signifies the nature of this world in exile.
This diet is described in the Noah story in the new creation following the flood (Gn. 9:2-4): “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all where with the ground teemeth, and upon all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all. Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall you not eat.” The world in exile is one dominated by fear, disharmony and violence.
From this point, the biblical text presents us with a certain ambivalence toward meat-eating, a reality of this new world. First, as we see in the above quote, the new diet is immediately circumscribed. The blood is prohibited since the life is in the blood.
Most dramatic is the story in Exodus 16 and retold in harsher terms in Numbers 11. Ex. 16 tells us the “whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness; and the children of Israel said unto them: ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots…for Ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger’.”
The Lord tells Moses He will cause bread to rain from heaven for the people, who should go out to gather a day’s portion every day. On the sixth day, they should gather twice as much to provide enough for the seventh day, the Sabbath. In the evenings, “the quails came up” so the Israelites had meat, and in the mornings, as the dew dried, there was, on the “face of the wilderness a fine, scale-like thing, fine as the hoar-frost on the ground”. Moses describes this as the bread the Lord has given them to eat, manna. No matter how much or how little each gathered, each ended up with just sufficient for his needs. And they ate manna for forty years, until they came to the Land.
In Num. 11:7, manna is described as a vegetarian food, “like coriander seed”. The people gathered it, ground it, beat it and cooked it to make cakes of it, and it tasted like cake baked with oil. And yet they complained in Num. 11:10: “And Moses heard the people weeping, family by family, every man at the door of his tent; and the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly; and Moses was displeased”. Moses complains about being saddled with these people who weep for the meat they had in Egypt and disdain the manna, who trouble Moses with their weeping, saying, “Give us flesh, that we may eat”.
G-d tells Moses to bring 70 elders of the people to the tent of meeting, and G-d says (Num. 11:19-33): “‘Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you…’ And there went forth a wind from the Lord, and brought across quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp…about two cubits (3 feet) above the face of the earth…he that gathered least gathered ten heaps…While the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague”.
Beyond the prohibition to not eat the blood, delivered immediately after G-d permits meat-eating in Gn. 9, there are additional prohibitions. Lev. 17:3-5 allows meat to the Israelites in the wilderness only in the context of sacrificial worship. Only after entry to the Land are people permitted to eat meat even if it’s not part of an offering (Deut. 12:20).
In Isaiah 55:1-2, in exalted poetry with so many phrases and images reminiscent of the creation stories, we read: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come Ye for water, and he that hath no money, come Ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do Ye spend money for that which is not bread? And your gain for that which satisfies not? Hearten diligently unto Me, and eat Ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.”
In the banquet on the holy mountain described in Isaiah 25:6-8, meat-eating is once again associated with a world in exile, a world ruled by death — and absence of death with redemption: “And in this mountain will the Lord of hosts make unto all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well-refined. And He will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering that is cast over all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever; and the Lord G-d will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of His people will He take away from off all the earth; for the Lord has spoken it.”
At the banquet, as the people enjoy their fare, G-d eats death and effects a return to the Garden, a harmonious cosmos where G-d, human beings and nature live in harmony: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together…” (Is. 11:6), a place where not only the potential for fulfilling our ethical mission exists but for eternal life.
Jewish commentaries and scholars pick up on the ambivalence toward meat-eating expressed in the Bible. Pesahim 49b states: “Only a scholar of Torah may eat meat, but one who is ignorant of Torah is forbidden to eat meat”. Nehama Leibowitz, a modern Torah scholar, says we have been given a “barely tolerated dispensation”. Rav Kook, a vegetarian, believes permission to eat meat was “a concealed reproach and a qualified command”.
The Bible presents an ideal world in the first chapters of Genesis, a world of potentialities, a world in which G-d, humans and creation live in harmony. Exile throws all of creation into disharmony, fear and violence as humanity struggles to fulfill its mission in a world of partial vision and alienation from G-d and from creation. One of the symbols of this exilic condition is that creatures kill other creatures for food.
Through ethical conduct and in ritual moments, humanity experiences temporary moments of harmony, peace and fulfillment, yet the facts and practices of daily living continue to enmesh us in shame and in blood guilt. Living requires taking life. One of the functions of religious cultures is to provide a framework for living with this fact of our existence.
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