BMCR 2015.09.12

Meals in Early Judaism: Social Formation at the Table

, , Meals in Early Judaism: Social Formation at the Table. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. xii, 204. ISBN 9781137372567. $90.00.


In studies of late Second Temple and Tannaitic period Judaism, interpreting formal ritual meals has led to important arguments about cultural difference and interchange. Was the Passover Seder, for instance, heavily influenced by Hellenistic symposia, as Seigfried Stein argued, or, as Baruch Bokser claimed, did it derive primarily from the elaboration of biblical traditions in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple?

The edited collection Meals in Early Judaism: Social Formation at the Table reframes this argument about ritual origins and influence. Its essays argue that we should adopt an expansive approach to Jewish ritual meals, comparing them to Greco-Roman parallels but also viewing rabbinic texts together with Philo as components of a broader culture. Meals in Early Judaism also shifts the focus of ritual study from text to context. Rituals are embodied, physical processes which happen in specific times and places, the authors argue. Studying them as such contributes to our understanding of how early Jews used meals to construct their social identities.

Built around “ten theses” formulated during the Society of Biblical Literature’s ongoing seminar on Meals in the Greco-Roman world, the book claims a broad significance for meals. These ten theses, explained in an opening essay by Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, Susan Marks, and Jordan D. Rosenblum, function as guiding assumptions for many of the chapters. They stress the importance of multiple disciplinary frames, the use of ritual theory to understand how food transmits and enacts values, and the importance of both the broader Greco-Roman context and rabbinic particularity.

The book is divided into two sections, the first of which focuses on rabbinic texts. Susan Marks’s chapter, “In the Place of Libation: Birkat Hamazon Navigates New Ground,” draws parallels between the Jewish blessing after meals and Roman libation practices. Drawing on Catherine Bell and Pierre Bourdieu, Marks emphasizes that birkat hamazon is not just a text, but a practice, and she claims that the rabbis “emphasize situation as a variable of practice,” that is, that the conditions for reciting the blessing shed light on rabbinic social formation (78). Judith Hauptmann, reflecting on the ten theses, suggests several interesting possibilities concerning the Seder. Building on her previous scholarship, she argues that rabbinic women had a sizeable presence at ritualized meals. Jordan Rosenblum’s “Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism,” investigates how Tannaitic texts mold Jewish interactions with Gentiles around food, and in particular, how these texts raise barriers to intermarriage. Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus’s “Performing Myth, Performing Midrash at Rabbinic Meals,” argues that Jewish food rituals play on the interaction between physical sensations and metaphorical, textual constructions. Midrashic texts and food rituals, he claims, situate God’s presence between metaphor and literal truth.

The book’s second half focuses on the ritual meal of the Therapeutae described by Philo in On the Contemplative Life. In “The Pivotal Place of the Therapeutae in Understanding the Meals of Early Judaism,” Hal Taussig introduces Philo’s text and then argues that, because the Jewish and Hellenistic food cultures were connected, we should read Philo as part of a broad, early Jewish sympotic ethos. Andrew McGowan, in “The Food of the Therapeutae: A Thick Description,” examines what the Therapeutae eat. He argues their simple diet realizes Philo’s ascetic values and that the absence of typical sacrificial food creates a “paradoxical form of cultic identification” (134). Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, in “Contrasting Banquets: A Literary Commonplace in Philo’s On the Contemplative Life and Other Greek and Roman Symposia,” identifies “contrasting banquets” as a literary commonplace of Greek and Roman texts about symposia. That is, symposia texts frequently pit themselves against other symposia, so that participants define their own values by disparaging other banquets. Brumberg-Kraus argues that Philo eschews dialectic and argument in his description of the Therapeutae’s meal because Philo “idealizes the harmoniousness and unity of the Therepeutae community at their meals, in contrast to the discord and drunkenness characteristic of Others’ banquets” (164).

Matthias Klinghardt’s chapter, “The Ritual Dynamics of Inspiration,” examines closely the dance of the Therepeutae described by Philo. Klinghardt contrasts Philo’s dancing, enacted by the participants themselves, with sympotic dancing, which functioned as entertainment for the guests. He uses ritual theory to show how the Therepeutae’s dance creates a “communal rather than individual experience” (145) and reenacts Philo’s understanding of the dancing at the Red Sea. He also emphasizes the strangeness of the mixed-gender dancing described here, which contrasts with other Hellenistic descriptions of sympotic dancing. It might have been useful to discuss Philo’s theory of the spiritual androgyne, which seems relevant to the ecstatic unification of male and female dancers described here.

The book makes two important contributions. First, reading Philo in dialogue with rabbinic sources helps bridge Hellenistic symposia and rabbinic eating rituals. We are not dealing with unidirectional Hellenistic influence, the authors argue, nor with a hermetically sealed Jewish tradition. Rather, the sympotic ethos pervades a complex, multivalent cultural field that included the rabbis, early Christians, Philo, and many others. Second, the emphasis on the performance of rituals raises important new questions: How did the rabbis imagine commensal space? What does the choice of particular foods signify? What role did various eating rituals play in building and constructing communities?

That said, in the case of the rabbinic chapters, the book’s attempt to get beyond the text to the underlying social reality sometimes runs afoul of important methodological cautions. Rabbinic texts have complex, mediated literary lenses and textual histories. Sometimes, the authors skip too quickly over that textual mediation to conclusions about the rabbinic social world and actual rabbinic practices.

For instance, discussing Tosefta Avodah Zarah 4:6, Rosenblum asserts without evidence that the Tannaitic authors of this passage “perceive a greater need to distance a rabbinic Jew from any marriage banquet involving non-Jews” because “the Hebrew Bible does not consistently prohibit intermarriage” (63). Yet it is not clear that the wedding feast is the reason for special stringency, rather than one example in which Jews would be invited to a banquet with non-Jews. Nor is it clear that the rabbis perceived the biblical treatment of intermarriage as inconsistent; no rabbinic texts are cited to suggest so, and the simple sense of Exodus 34 itself prohibits intermarriage. While prohibitions on eating gentile food obviously have a “commensal” dimension, Rosenblum does not precisely show how the concern about intermarriage is functioning in the passage. Further, when discussing a midrash from Sifre Numbers 131 which depicts a slippery slope from sex with a Moabite woman to idolatry, Rosenblum assumes it interprets Exodus 34. In fact, it relates to Numbers, in this case 25:1-3 (indeed, Moabites are not one of the nations mentioned in Exodus 34:11) and so is independent of the Tosefa.1

Similarly, Hauptmann’s essay is over-quick to infer rabbinic motives and realities from the texts she adduces. Hauptmann suggests that the Mishnah’s “specification of four cups of wine [at the seder]” is an attempt to curb the “excessive drinking” popular at Hellenistic meals (46). But this specification, in Mishnah Pesahim 10:1, is introduced as a minimum : “even a poor Israelite… they do not give him less than four cups of wine, even from charity.” Elsewhere, she assumes that a story about R. Assi’s wife reported in the Babylonian Talmud actually happened. By contrast, recent scholarship—like Jeffrey Rubenstein’s Talmudic Stories, Daniel Boyarin’s Carnal Israel, and Barry Wimpfheimer’s Narrating the Law —reads such stories as literature, reflecting the views and mediation of their creators rather than historical reports about the past. The story does not provide strong evidence that women were really present at significant ritual meals.

Other essays ignore the layered nature of rabbinic texts—a crucial prerequisite to connecting those texts to particular social contexts. As an example of why a food ritual’s context matters, Marks, Rosenblum and Brumberg-Kraus suggest that wedding meals “served as key venues for developing and consolidating the small-but-growing rabbinic movement” (18). Adducing stories from BT Ketubot 8a in which rabbis recite wedding-related blessings, they connect them to New Testament accounts of wedding banquets to prove that wedding meals were recruiting grounds for growing religious movements. But the Babylonian Talmud includes texts produced over a half millenium, and scholars must separate the text’s strata before connecting any statement to a social context. In this case, Rav Ashi, one of the rabbis in the stories they cite, is a sixth-generation Babylonian Amora, supposed to have lived in the late fourth and early fifth century. While the New Testament is good evidence about the usefulness of weddings to nascent religious sects in first- and second-century Palestine, it is a weak comparandum for material from late Amoraic Babylonian, where the “rabbinic movement” was in a very different stage of development.

The editors are to be commended for insisting on the relevance of diverse theoretical modes, which present early Jewish food texts with a number of new theoretical questions. The chapters are peppered with references to writers and singers like Jonathan Safran-Foer and Shlomo Carlebach, studies of food in twentieth century America, Japan and India, as well as anthropologists and sociologists like Claude Levi-Strauss and Pierre Bourdieu. But the bibliography almost completely omits Hebrew scholarly sources and even important English books basic to the study of Hellenistic-Jewish interchange, like Lieberman’s Greek in Jewish Palestine and Hellenism in Jewish Palestine. More engagement with recent scholarship on rabbinic texts would have flagged the methodological problems surrounding them. Nonetheless, Meals in Early Judaism raises important questions about the broader import of an under-studied area of life in early Judaism.


1. Later in the essay, Rosenblum offers a simple, unified reading of Tosefta Avodah Zarah 4:11 without recognizing the problem that the two halves of the text contradict each other. See the classic discussion in Saul Lieberman. Tosefet Rishonim. Vol. 2. Jerusalem: Bamberger and Ṿahrman, 1939. p. 195. Also see Tzvi Arie Steinfeld. “On the Custom of Throwing a Chip Into the Oven.” in A People Alone: Studies in Tractate `Avodah Zarah (Hebrew). Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2008. pp. 204-5.