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The Talmud as a Jewish ‘Canterbury Tales’ of Earthy, Ribald Moral Inquiry

Along with other questions of mind and body, this week’s ‘Daf Yomi’ is also a field guide to Talmudic-era cuisine

Adam Kirsch
July 21, 2015
Inset photo: NBC
Inset photo: NBC

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Before Seinfeld, there may not have been a widely accepted term for “double-dipping”—the social infraction, immortalized by Jason Alexander on the show, of dipping an already-bitten chip into a communal dip. But if the name was missing, the concept existed—in fact, as Daf Yomi readers saw in this week’s reading, it was already a problem in Talmudic times. On one occasion, we read in Nedarim 49b, two sages, Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Yehuda, were eating porridge together; one of them used a fork to scoop porridge out of the serving bowl, and the other used his fingers. (The Talmud doesn’t specify which man used which technique.) The former said to the latter, “For how long will you keep feeding me your filth”—as if to say that the dirt from his fingernails was getting into the porridge. To which the latter replied, “For how long will you keep feeding me your spittle?” In other words, the rabbi with the fork was guilty of double-dipping—eating off the same utensil he dipped into the porridge and thereby getting his saliva in the food. When George Costanza did the same thing, then, he could have defended himself by saying he was following Talmudic precedent.

Anecdotes about the sages are one of the Talmud’s favorite subjects, and this week’s reading, mainly in chapter 6 of Nedarim, contained a number of such stories, all having to do with food. Indeed, the whole chapter was dedicated to food, including the names of different dishes and how they were prepared. The reason has to do with the main subject of the tractate, the taking of vows. Apparently one of the most common kinds of vows was swearing not to partake of a certain food: The first mishna in the chapter, for instance, deals with someone who swears not to eat cooked foods. This is yet another example of the kind of unreasonable promise the rabbis associate with vowing.

To determine the exact scope of such a vow, then, the rabbis must determine exactly what is meant by cooking. Does it include roasting, boiling, or baking? This inquiry leads the rabbis to a wide-ranging discussion of culinary practices, in a way that turns the chapter into a kind of field guide to Talmudic-era cuisine. We hear about roasted meat, boiled eggs, fig compotes (which one particular slave knew how to make in 800 varieties), pickled vegetables, and the Babylonian dish kutecha, a dip made of bread and sour milk. It’s enough to give any Talmud student an appetite.

Yet Talmud scholars, the chapter also teaches, did not often get a chance to indulge in such dainties. Whether because they were too poor, too busy with study, or too ascetic in general, the sages were expected to be frail. In Nedarim 49a, there is a dispute about whether sick people should be fed gourds: One source says that soft gourds are good for the sick, while another says that a gourd is like “an angel of death” to a sick person, since they are hard to digest. Like all contradictions in the Talmud, this one must be resolved, and the Gemara suggests that perhaps the two sources are talking about different kinds of gourds: Perhaps soft gourds are healthy and hard ones unhealthy, or perhaps the rind is hard to digest and the pulp inside easy to digest. But Rava comes up with a different explanation: When a baraita says that gourds are good for the sick, it doesn’t mean people who have an actual illness, but rather “the sages,” who are generally frail. It is interesting to see how early in Jewish history bodily strength ceases to be a considered a virtue, and mental strength is elevated instead.

When George Costanza ‘double-dipped,’ he could have defended himself by saying he was following Talmudic precedent.

For all their frailty, however—or perhaps because of it—the rabbis had definite opinions about food, about the best kinds and how they should be eaten. “This is what Rav said: Porridge eaten with a finger is tasty, and all the more so with two fingers, and all the more so with three.” (Clearly, the porridge-eating rabbi with the dirty fingernails subscribed to this theory.) Rav Huna agreed that porridge was a delicacy, advising his son, “If you are invited to eat porridge, for such a meal you should travel up to the distance of a parasang”—a Persian measurement roughly equivalent to three miles. Even better is ox meat, which is worth a journey of three parasangs.

Figs, on the other hand, are said to be hard to digest: Rabbi Shimon would decline a dish of figs, saying, “These do not leave the intestines at all.” Here as at many earlier points in the Talmud, we see that the rabbis placed a particular emphasis on digestion, as we see in a story about Rabbi Yehuda. A “heretic” once tried to insult him by saying, “Your face is similar either to usurers or to pig breeders.” The meaning of this insult seems to be that Yehuda looked too well-fed, rather than having the refined pallor appropriate to a scholar. The reason for his glow of good health, Yehuda replied, was not that he followed a low and profitable occupation, but that he had regular bowel movements: “I have twenty-four bathrooms on the way from my home to the study hall, and all the time I enter each and every one of them.” This might seem excessive, but to the rabbis it was clearly a sign of good health.

Apropos of the poverty and wealth of the sages, the Talmud tells a series of tales about Rabbi Akiva, some of which we have heard before in earlier tractates. For instance, we are told about how Akiva’s wife heroically allowed him to stay away studying Torah for 24 years, condemning herself to a life of poverty and celibacy; and how she was rewarded when he returned as a great man, at the head of a flock of 24,000 disciples. When she tried to present herself to Akiva, his followers didn’t recognize her and tried to fend her off, but he stopped them: “Both my knowledge and yours are hers,” he said.

But Akiva, at least, did not remain poor. One account has it that he inherited a fortune from his father-in-law, a wealthy merchant. But this is too prosaic an explanation for other sources, who give legendary-sounding accounts of how Akiva came into money: He discovered the prow of a wrecked ship stuffed with gold coins, or else a piece of driftwood full of gold. A third version says that Akiva borrowed money from a wealthy woman, telling her that God would be his guarantor; when the loan came due, the woman miraculously found a purse full of jewelry, as if God had repaid the loan so that Akiva could keep the money.

In addition to being physically frail, we learn, some mighty scholars were also unattractive. “The daughter of the emperor” once told Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya that he was “magnificent Torah in an ugly vessel.” He responded by asking her whether in her household she kept wine in plain earthenware jugs; when she said yes, he advised her to try switching to beautiful gold and silver jugs. She did, and of course the wine spoiled. “The same is true of the Torah,” Yehoshua concluded; ugliness is a protective shell for knowledge. When the princess retorted that, after all, some scholars were both learned and good-looking, Yehoshua replied, “If they were ugly they would be even more learned.” I wonder if there is any psychological truth in this remark: Do good looks make a person too complacent to seek knowledge? Is mental refinement a compensation for physical flaws? Like so much in this week’s reading, Yehoshua’s saying raises fascinating questions about the relationship of mind and body in Jewish tradition.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.