Understanding Jewish Meals In Their Ancient Context (by Prof. Peter Shirokov)

The mealtime customs depicted in ancient biblical texts are still practiced by many people living in the lands the Bible describes. In this region of the world meals are not utilitarian and mealtime customs can express social, cultural, deeply symbolic and spiritual ideas. Sharing meals often expresses the universal Near Eastern value of hospitality (Gen 18:1-8; Heb 3:12; Rom 1:13). Meals can affirm kinship, friendship and good will (Gen 31:33-54), acknowledge one’s status (1 Kgs 17:8-16, 2 Kgs 4:8-11), recognize a peaceful disposition and commitment to non-aggression (Gen 26:26-33; Josh 9:14). Depending on the context and occasion meal fellowship can convey an array of non-verbal messages relating to interpersonal relationships.

A vast number of biblical passages revolve around meal settings and the value of studying mealtime customs is a deeper and more precise understanding of these passages. Ancient Israelite meals can be divided into ordinary, festive and sacred. In the East all aspects of life are perceived as spiritual occasions and when it comes to meals the kitchen table and the altar are inseparable. For example, the inhabitants of Qumran whose vast libraries of scrolls were discovered in the Dead Sea region saw themselves and their meals as a living human sanctuary. For most Jews meals connected directly to sacrificial worship were considered especially sacred and thus can be seen as a separate category.

Because of the agrarian and pastoral lifestyle, ancient Israelites and their neighbors ate ordinary meals twice a day, one at midday or late morning, while taking a break in the hottest part of the day, and second meal late at the very conclusion of the day (Jer 52:34; Josephus, Antiquities XIV.15.11, VI. 24.1). The morning meals were usually simple and evening meals more elaborate (Luke 7:12; 24:29, Josephus, Antiquities VI. 4.1). The timing and frequency of meals could be influenced by status and occupation (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 10a). Ordinary meals consisted of bread made from wheat and barley, parched grain, olive oil and olives, stews from lentils, beans and vegetables. Israelites ate fish, honey, fruits of all kinds, grapes, dates and figs, raisins and dairy products like curds and cheeses. The meat of clean animals (Lev 11:3-8, Deut 14:4-8) was consumed rarely, usually as a part of sacred meals and during the most festive occasions. Besides domesticated animals Israelites occasionally ate wild game and fowl (Gen 27:3-4; Exod 16:13). On the Sabbath it was customary to eat three meals instead of two (Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 10, Josephus, Life 54).

Dining areas were typically shaded from the sun, sometimes indoors, at other times on the roofs (1 Sam 9:26) and on porches attached to the exterior of the house. Because of food preparation meals could be lengthy. Seating at meals was arranged by status and places of honor (Mat 23:6), to the right and to the left of the host (1 Sam 9:22-24; Matt 20:21-23). Meals were eaten sitting (Gen 37:25; Exod 32:6; 1 Sam 20:24) or reclining (Matt 26:6; Luke 7:46; Josephus, Antiquities, 15:9. 3). Reclining was the custom of the wealthy and usually practiced by most at festive meals (Amos 6:4; 14:10, 1 Esdras 4:10, Tobit 2:1). While reclining one’s head rested close to the chest of the person dining besides, explaining the biblical phraseology of “being in one’s bosom” (John 13:23, Luke 7: 28; 16:22, Matt 8:11).

Because bread was an indispensable staple and substantial part of most meals it often served as a reference for the meal itself (Gen 37:25; Exod 2:20; 1Sam 28:22-25; Matt 6:11). Bread was not cut, but typically broken with hands which is reflected by the common expression “to break bread” (Lam 4:4; Luke 24:35; Acts 2:42, 46). Dishes were usually shared among all guests (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 47a, Gittin 59b). Since eating was done with hands washing hands before meals was customary (Luke 11:23, Mishna, Yadaim 4:2). For some Jews washing hands and utensils involved in meals was associated with rules of ritual purity (Mark 7:2-4; Mat 15:2, 20; Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 53b, Mishna, Kelim 2:1). Qumran Jews bathed their entire bodies prior to meals. Washing feet was another custom practiced especially prior to reclining at meals (Gen 24:32; John 13:5; 1 Tim 5:10). Ancient mealtime could also be preceded by other hygiene practices, such as the use of oil or perfume (Ps. 23:5; Luke 7:44-46).

Though there are many biblical examples of Jews sharing meals with non-Jews and accepting food from non-Jews in earlier times (Gen 14:18, 26:30; Exod 18;12; Deut 2:28, 23:4-7; 2 Kings 4:8, 25:29-30), the social and the spiritual meanings of meals restricted such interaction during the Second Temple Period. The possibility of defilement and association with food involved in idol worship was assumed (Acts 10:28; 11:3; Joseph and Aseneth 7:1; Mishna, Hullin 2:8) and tensions over such table fellowship surfaced among early Jewish followers of Jesus (Acts 15:29; Gal 2:12). Besides the Jewish-Gentile tensions during the Second Temple Period, table fellowship was often restricted even between the members of various Jewish groups (Qumran Community Rule, 1QS 6:16-21, Josephus, Wars II.139).

Some Jews ate only after the morning prayers (Acts 2:15). It was customary to recite short prayers just before meals (1 Sam 9:13, Matt 14:19, 15:36, 26:26; Luke 9:16; John 7:11. Qumran War Scroll, 1QM 2, Mishna, Berachot 6:5; Josephus, Antiquities II.12.12; Apology of Aristides 15). Yet the Jewish custom was to express proper thanksgiving through prayers following the meals (Deut 8:10; Josephus, Wars II. 8.5; Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 35a). Some Jews celebrated special occasions with banquets lasting late into the night, while Qumran Jews preferred simplicity, eating in complete silence (Josephus, Life 44, Wars II. 8.5; Qumran War Scroll, 1QM 2.129-133).

Biblical literature demonstrates that many people groups in the ancient Mediterranean had their own unique customs associated with meals and their practice and meanings were often deeply symbolic and very significant to them, yet diverse and not always consistent.

(This text is an excerpt from an entry in Online Lexham Bible Dictionary by Logos Press).

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  1. Dan Manahan

    I’ve been told that the “napkin” in John 20 refers to a meal time custom wherein the master of the house would fold his napkin to indicate a brief deputure from his meal, but that he would soon return to finish. It was a signal to servants not to clear his meal. Is there any validity to this?

    1. Frank Goff

      I am interested in knowing the exact etiquette for the servant time to clear or not clear the table of their masters.

  2. Kaitie-Lynn Cohen

    I have a slightly off-top question regarding clean/unclean food (I searched this site for those topics and found only this to be anywhere near related)- it has to do with Noah being told he could eat of the moving things of the Earth. The Hebrew word is remes… which seems to be used to indicate “crawling things” and reptiles in many places in Genesis. Those are clearly unclean animals, so what exactly was Noah being told he could eat in 9:3?
    Using the principle of first use of the word leads to Genesis 1:24-25… which mentions the livestock and things the crawl, with the latter being where remes appears.
    Can you provide some sort of clarification from a more scholarly perspective, please?

    1. Prof. Peter Shirokov

      Yes, you are absolutely right כָּל־רֶמֶשׂ (kol remesh) implies non-clean crawling creatures in most contexts in Torah. However, one has to take into account the specific context of this passage and the force of what is being communicated. God is not specifying that Noah should eat creeping and crawling things specifically. Rather the term is being used in opposition to יֶרֶק(yerek) – greenery. This is how this verse has been understood in Jewish tradition for ages… Rhetorically כָּל־רֶמֶשׂ (kol remesh) represents thins that move vs. things that do not move (plants). All living creatures are implied in this term and it is used in the broadest sense possible, not in a literal sense of “things and crawl” only. God is expanding Noah’s diet because the environment and his options have changed. So the unclean animals are allowed (not mandated) because the term implies all living creatures in totality.

  3. Brad Thompson

    Although I’m not Jewish, its amazing to me to see so many of these customs being passed down from family to family over the two thousand plus years. I see many of these customs in my family. And I have seen other Gentile family practice the same. We are indebted to the ancient Jews…for sure…

  4. Peter Shirokov

    You are most welcome. Yes, no mention of chicken coups… people who hunted often found nests and eggs and could eat them, naturally.

  5. Kostya

    Thanks Peter, some useful and interesting information here. My wife and I often wondered about the consumption of eggs in the Bible. Eggs are mentioned a few times in the Bible, but not in the context of a meal, and not specifically as coming from domesticated fowl. Yet it seems that eggs were part of people’s diets since very ancient times.