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Food and Culture in Rabbinic Judaism

May 31st, 2011

by Steven Fine Review of Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism by Jordan D. Rosenblum (Cambridge University Press, 2010) 223 pages.

The composition of [this] excellent spiced wine [is as follows]:  Into a copper bowl put 6 sextarii of honey and 2 sextarii of wine; heat on a slow fire, constantly stirring the mixture with a whip.  At the boiling point add a dash of cold wind, retire from stove and skim.  Repeat this twice or three times, let it rest till the next day, and skim again.  Then add 4 ozs.  of crushed pepper, 3 scruples of mastich, a drachm of each of [nard or laurel] leaves and saffron, 5 drachms of roasted date stones crushed and previously soaked in wine to soften them.  When this is properly done add 18 sextarii of light wine.  To clarify it perfectly, add [crushed] charcoal twice or as often as necessary which will draw [the residue] together [and carefully strain or filter through the charcoal] (1:1).[1]

The shells of the lobsters or crabs [which are cooled] are broken, the meat extracted from the head and pounded in the mortar with pepper and the best kind of broth.  This pulp [is shaped neatly into neat little cakes and fried] and served up nicely  (2:43).[2]

Pepper, fresh mint, celery, dry pennyroyal, cheese, pignolia nuts, honey, vinegar, broth, yokes of egg, fresh water, soaked bread and the liquid pressed out, cow’s cheese and cucumbers are arranged in a dish, alternatively, with then nuts;  [also add] finely chopped capers, chicken livers; cover completely with [a lukewarm, congealing] broth, place on ice [and when congealed unmould] and serve up (4:1).[3]

These are but a few of the recipes preserved in Apicus’ famous Latin manual of Roman cooking. It contains directions, and notes on how to create exquisite meals for Roman elite families, a virtual “Babette’s feast” of wealth and conspicuous consumption. No text of this complexity preserves the food culture of wealthy late antique Jews, nor, for that matter, the far more simple fare of most people in the Roman Empire. With little effort, though, the recipes of Apicus, modernized for hobbyists,[4] can be converted for the kosher kitchen, as my family and I occasionally do for the great “symposium” in the month of Nisan, otherwise known as the Passover seder.  Robed in white togas (sheets), with ivy crowns (from our garden) and low tables, we variously imagine ourselves in the house of the Lod patrician Baitos ben Zunin, at the seder of Todos of Rome, an imagined banquet honoring emperor Antoninus on the estate of Rabbi Judah the Prince, and especially at the far less lavish meal enacted yearly in the Haggadah’s visit to the home of Rabbi Akiva in Benei Beraq. It was with particular delight, then, that I received Jordan D. Rosenblum’s Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism during the week before this banquet - as I was thumbing through my collection of modernized Apicus cookbooks and relevant websites in search of this year’s recipes. This book focuses on food and table customs in early rabbinic times, the world of the Tannaim. Rosenblum begins his volume in contemporary identity politics -opening with the famous “Traife banquet” in Cincinnati in 1883, an event that became the “Wittenberg Cathedral” incident that led to the creation of a particularly radical American strand of Reform and to a group of deeply incensed traditionalist synagogues that eventually coalesced as “Conservative Judaism.” Each chapter of Rosenblum’s volume begins with a quote of post-classical vintage, including The Merchant of Venice and contemporary scholarship on Jewish and general foodways in the modern world. These quotes scream out that this volume is more than just a classics project, its framing rhetoric (though not its narrative) arguing for more than just antiquarian interest. Rosenblum’s book begins with a section entitled “Realia.” This chapter provides an introduction to what we know about Jewish and Roman food in the eastern Empire during late antiquity, and will be particularly valuable for advanced undergraduates and beginning graduate students. Surprisingly, this chapter makes no mention of the exquisite list of foods that appear in the Rehov synagogue inscriptions, nor of piyyut sources that could have provided windows into the Tannaitic sources that are Rosenblum’s focus. The great Menahem Zulay aptly described these texts as nothing less than “a short walk in the market place (shuq)” in Talmudic Palestine.[5] This opening chapter serves as a useful literary vestibule to the rest of the volume, leading to Rosenblum’s “triclinium,” where issues of identity and conviviality are the fare. It is unfortunate, though probably descriptive of Rosenblum’s approach, that the chapter is called “Realia,” a term still used by Talmudists that relegates material culture to a secondary position in relation to text.  This is a book specifically about food in “early Rabbinic Judaism,” meaning rabbinic literature.  The volume deals with food in “early Rabbinic Judaism,” focusing on the rabbis as portrayed in their own literature, and not food as it actually was consumed by late Roman or late antique Jews more generally. The real meat of this monograph is Rosenblum’s analysis of early rabbinic sources. Rosenblum is generally a good reader of Tannatic sources, and he lays out clearly the ways in which early rabbis reflected upon food culture. Chapter Two, “Jewish identity,” deals first with “Commensality Restrictions” in “pre-Tannaitic” (which means Biblical and Second Temple) literary sources, treating “Food as Metonym/Food as Embodiment,” beginning – predictably – with the “Abominable Pig,” before moving on to Rabbinic reflections of Manna, then Passover law and finally “The Laws of Kashrut.” He continues with discussions of “The Status of Food Correlates with the Status of its Cook,” and “Commensality as Idolatry.” All of these are the special cases that rabbis focus on. I wonder, though, about the “ordinary” meal and the “ordinary” people who lie beneath the text, the sorts or questions teased out of rabbinic sources by Feminist interpreters and folklorists. Chapters Three and Four deal with these questions somewhat more, focusing on the identity of a male member of the rabbinic early community, a Haver, as compared to that of the Am ha-Arets; “Women at the Tannaitic table,” “The Cuisine of the Rabbinic Jew,” “Purity and Commensality,” “The Status of Food Correlates with the Status of Its Cook,” and finally a section called “Reinterpreting Festival Observance.” I, for one, would have found an expansive discussion of how Rosenblum construes “identity” most helpful. He assumes the substructure constructed by his teacher, Michael Satlow (under whom this revised dissertation was written), of Satlow’s teacher, Shaye Cohen, and of Seth Schwartz (whom he thanks in his acknowledgments), as a basis for his work. Rosenblum’s work falls within the scholarly paradigm that I and others have identified with the Morton Smith school of scholarship.  His use of the somewhat atomizing term “Rabbinic Jew,” while perhaps useful, reflects his presentist instincts, drawing his terminology from the contemporary lingo (“Reform Jew,” “Conservative Jew,” “Orthodox Jew”), “Rabbinic” in the sense of a late antique “Rabbinic sect” or “Rabbinic class” and now “Rabbinic Jew.” Description of the religion of the ancient rabbis as Rabbinic Judaism is a relatively recent coinage in modern scholarship (this is revealed most simply through a search of this term at, which might profitably be problematized in a volume focusing upon identity. No review of this book can avoid comparison with David Kraemer’s somewhat more general and even more deeply presentist Jewish Eating Through the Ages (Routledge, 2007). These books, written nearly simultaneously, are not methodologically dissimilar, and cover much of the same territory as far as food laws go. Rosenblum’s focus on conviviality, however, is uniquely his in recent English language literature. The strength of Rosenblum’s monograph when compared with Kraemer’s more wide-ranging presentation is its laser-like focus upon the Tannaitic community. The closest parallel to Rosenblum’s volume is perhaps Baruch Bokser’s elegant study of the The Origins of the Seder (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), with whom Rosenblum pointedly and, in my opinion, correctly disagrees on the relationship between the seder and the Roman symposium. Bokser’s volume, a more sophisticated development of Smith student Jacob Neusner’s text-focused yet narrative and footnote-deprived style of presentation, was uniquely influential for a group of now-senior scholars of ancient Judaism (including Satlow’s dissertation, and my own early work on synagogue sanctity). Rosenblum’s Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism is a timely reevaluation of what the early rabbis said about food consumption and the culture surrounding it. Readers concerned with the ways that the rabbis used food within their larger social construction of reality will emerge satiated regarding the questions discussed by Rosenblum, and thirsting for more as far as both context and chronological span. This volume is an important addition to the growing library on Jewish food culture in antiquity, a working out of tradition that to this day continues to affect, effect and inform the communal lives of traditionally (and less traditionally) oriented Jews, and even some contemporary Christians. Food and Identity is a meaningful contribution to a larger comparativist conversation in current scholarship on the food habits of late antique peoples – including Samaritans, Christians, Zoroastrians, and of course, Romans like Apicus. Steven Fine is Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University, and director of the YU Center for Israel Studies. [1] Apicus: Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, tr. and ed. Joseph Dommers Vehling (New York: Dover Publications, 1977), 45. See now: Apicius, a Critical Edition With an Introduction And English Translation, tr. and ed. Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger (Totnes, England: Prospect Books, 2006). [2] Apicus: Cookery and Dining, p. 62. [3] Apicus: Cookery and Dining, p. 93. [4] The most recent addition to cookbooks based upon Apicus’ manual is by Sally Grainger, Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today (Totnes, England: Prospect Books, 2006). See also the links collected in the Wikipedia article on Apicus, [5] M. Zulay, From the Lips of Poets and Precentors, ed. S. Elizur (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi and Hebrew University, 2004), 76-81 (Hebrew).