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Jewish Recipes --> Jewish Foods --> Foods

Encyclopedia Judaica 1906

Foods By : Emil G. Hirsch Wilhelm Nowack Solomon Schechter Samuel Krauss

—Biblical Data:
I. Vegetable Food:
II. Animal Food:
—In Talmudical Times:
Fruits and Vegetables.
—In the Middle Ages:

—Biblical Data:

There are two main divisions of food, vegetable and animal.

I. Vegetable Food:

As among all the Oriental peoples, and as is the case even to-day among the fellaheen of Syria, vegetable food, and chiefly grain ("dagan"), occupied the first place in the diet of the Israelites.

Cereals: The most important of the cereals was wheat (hittah" or "hittim."). (For the earliest mode of preparing this, see Baking; Bread; Cookery; and comp. "Z. D. P. V." ix. 3.) The grains were at times reduced to grits ("geres"); hence the prescription that "'abib ?alui" and "geres karmel"—probably "geres" of garden grains, which are palatable and mature especially early—should be offered as "minhat bikkurim." The grain was generally ground into flour ("kemah"), the fine flour ("solet") being distinguished from the ordinary kind. The flour was made into bread, either without leaven ("mazzah") or with it ("lehem"; Lev. vii. 13). Barley ("se'orim") was used like wheat (comp. II Sam. xvii. 28), being generally made into bread (comp. Judges vii. 13; II Kings iv. 42; Ezek. iv. 9, 12). Spelt ("kussemet") was apparently used much less than wheat or barley. It appears, however, from Ezek. iv. 9 that, besides millet, spelt also was made into bread.

Vegetables ("yarak," because raised in the "gan ha-yarak" or garden; also "'eseb"; "orah," I Kings iv. 39; or "zer'onim," Dan. i. 16): Lentils ("'adashim") were the principal vegetable, which many considered especially toothsome (comp. Gen. xxv. 29 et seq.) There were several kinds of beans ("pol"); two kinds are known at present in Syria, the Egyptian and the South-European (comp. "Z. D. P. V." ix. 4). Beans were occasionally made into bread.

Cucumbers were manifestly also much used; even to-day the poorer inhabitants in the large cities of the East, as Damascus and Cairo, live largely on bread and cucumbers or melons. Cucumbers ("kishshu'im"; Num. xi. 25) are generally eaten raw, and made into a salad with vinegar. The popular watermelon ("abattia?"; Num. xi. 5; to-day called "battikh") also belongs to the cucumber species.

Num. xi. 5 mentions leeks ("hazir," which were especially esteemed in Egypt), onions ("be?alim"), and garlic ("shumim"), all belonging to the Allium genus. They were generally eaten raw with bread. To-day in Syria ripe onion-bulbs are pickled like cucumbers and eaten as a relish with meat (comp. "Z. D. P. V." ix. 14). From Job xxx. 4 it is clear that the poor also used orach ("mallua?"), the young leaves being either boiled or eaten raw.

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Fruit: There was an early fig ("bikkurah") and a late fig ("te'enim"), the latter being generally dried and pressed into round or square cakes ("debelah"). Grapes ("'anabim," "eshkol anabim")were eaten either fresh, or dried as raisins ("zimmukim"); they were also pressed into cakes (I Sam. xxv. 18). It is doubtful whether the Israelites knew grape-sirup, though the fact that the Arabic "dibs," corresponding to the Hebrew "debash," is used to designate both the natural and this artificial honey or sirup, shows that they probably knew the latter (Gen. xliii. 11; Ezek. xxvii. 17). Olives ("zayit") were probably eaten, as to-day, both raw and prepared. Mention may also be made of the pomegranate ("rimmon"; Deut. viii. 8; Song of Songs iv. 3); the fruit of the mulberry fig-tree ("shi?mah") eaten by the poor, and of the date-palm ("tamar"), which is treated like figs and grapes; and, finally, pistachio-nuts ("botnim"), almonds ("shekedim"), and walnuts ("egoz"). The fruit of the carob was used, while not quite ripe, for flavoring water, though it was not a food proper. The Israelites may have known apples, although the word "tappua?" is of doubtful signification (see Apple).

Spices: The spices used by the Israelites include cumin ("kammon"), dill ("kezah"), mint, and mustard. Salt ("melah"), of course, was very important even in early times. To "eat the salt" of a person was equivalent to eating his bread (comp. Ezra iv. 14); a covenant of salt was inviolable (comp. Num. xviii. 19; II Chron. xiii. 5).

II. Animal Food:

In ancient times, as to-day, much less meat was eaten in the East than among Western peoples. It was served daily only at the king's table (I Kings v. 3), and there because sacrifices were offered every day. Otherwise, animals were probably slaughtered only for the great festivals ("?aggim"), at the yearly sacrificial feasts of families and tribes, at family festivals (such as circumcisions and weddings), for guests, etc. (comp. Gen. xviii. 7; II Sam. xii. 4). Furthermore, only certain kinds of animals were permissible as food, the restrictions dating back to very early times. For details see Dietary Laws.

Animals: The most important animals for food were cattle, sheep, and goats, sheep ranking first (comp. I Sam. xxv. 11, 18; II Sam. xii. 4; Amos vi. 4; Isa. liii. 7). In addition to lambs ("karim"; Amos vi. 4), fatted calves ("meri'im") are often mentioned (Isa. i. 11; Amos v. 22; I Kings i. 19, 25), especially those that were fatted in the stall, as distinguished from cattle in the pasture ("'egel marbe?"; Amos vi. 4; Jer. xlvi. 1; Mal. iv. 2). From early times the eating of meat was allowed on condition that the blood of the slaughtered animal be taken to the altar, the meat not being eaten with the blood (comp. I Sam. xiv. 33 et seq.); thus every slaughtering became in a certain sense a sacrifice, this being changed only when the worship was centralized by the Deuteronomic legislation. Meat was generally boiled (Ex. xxiii. 19; Judges vi. 19; I Sam. ii. 13; Ezek. xxiv. 3, xlvi. 20), though sometimes it was roasted, usually, perhaps, on the spit (I Sam. ii. 15; Ex. xii. 8). Game was considered as a delicacy (Gen. xxvii. 7).

Milk, Cheese, and Honey: Milk, of large as well as of small animals, especially goat's milk, was a staple food (Deut. xxxii. 14; Prov. xxvii. 27). It was kept in skins (Judges iv. 19). "?em'ah," designating cream as well as bonnyclabber and cheese, is often mentioned (Prov. xxx. 33). Cream is generally called "shefot" (II Sam. xvii. 29), though this reading is uncertain. It was frequently offered as a present, carried in cylindrical wooden vessels; and, sprinkled with sugar, it was eaten out of little dishes with wooden spoons (comp. Riehm, "Handwörterb." pp. 1715 et seq.). Cheese made of sweet milk was probably also used ("?ari?e he-?alab"; I Sam. xvii. 18, this passage in any case showing that "?alab" designated curdled as well as ordinary milk). The proper designation for cheese is "gebinah" (Job x. 10).

Honey ("debash") is frequently mentioned in connection with milk, and is probably the ordinary bee's honey; that flowing of itself out of the honeycomb ("nofet ha-?ufim") was especially relished (Ps. xix. 11; Prov. xvi. 24). According to Isa. vii. 15, honey seems to have been a favorite food of children.

Fish: Little is known of fish as food (Num. xi. 15), it being mentioned but rarely (Jer. xvi. 16; Ezek. xlvii. 10; Eccl. ix. 12). Yet there can be no doubt that it was a favorite diet. Fish were fried, and prepared with honeycomb. They were probably more generally eaten in post-exilic times. The fish-market, where fish, salted or dried in the sun, were sold, was probably near the fish-gate (compare Zeph. i. 10; Neh. iii. 3, xii. 39; II Chron. xxxiii. 14). According to Neh. xiii. 16, fish were imported by Syrian merchants, some fish coming from Egypt, where pickled roe was an export article. In later times fish were salted even in Palestine (comp. the name "Tarichea," lit. "pickling").

Hardly anything is known of the price of food in ancient times. At the period of the composition of II Kings vii. 1, 16, the worth of one seah of fineflour or two seahs of barley was one shekel. In Men. xiii. 8 the price of an ox, a calf, a ram, and a lamb is given as 100, 20, 8, and 4 denarii respectively (comp. Matt. x. 29).E. G. H. W. N.

—In Talmudical Times:

Merely a few of the many data in the Talmud that throw a clear light on the private life of the Jews can be mentioned here. Bread was the principal food; and as in the Bible the meal is designated by the simple term "to eat bread," so the rabbinical law ordains that the blessing pronounced upon bread covers everything else except wine and dessert. Bread was made not only from wheat, but also from rice, millet, and lentils ('Er. 81a). Bread with milk was greatly relished. The inhabitants of Ma?uza in Babylon ate warm bread every day (compare Shab. 109a). Morning bread that was eaten with salt is mentioned (B. M. 107b; compare Ab. vi. 4). Wheat bread makes a clear head, ready for study (Hor. 13b). The same result is obtained, according to another reading, from bread baked over coals (ib.). Bread bakers are often mentioned, rabbis also following that trade.


Meat was eaten only on special occasions, on Sabbaths and at feasts. The pious kept fine cattle for the Sabbath (Be?ah 16a); but various other kinds of dishes, relishes, and spices were also on the table (Shab. 119a). A three-year-old calf with its kidneys was considered excellent (ib. 119b). Nor were the tongues of animals despised (Yalk Makiri to Prov. xviii. 21). Deer, also, furnished meat (Bek. iv. 29b; Hul. 59a), as did pheasants (Tosef., Kil. i. 8), chickens (Shab. 145b), and pigeons (Pes. 119b). Fish was eaten on Friday evening in honor of the Sabbath (compare Grünbaum, "Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Sprachund Sagenkunde," p. 232); sometimes it was prepared in milk (Hul. 111b). Pickled fish was an important article of commerce, being called "garum" among the Jews, as among the Greeks and Romans. Pliny ("Hist. Naturalis," xxxi. 95) says expressly of a "garum castimoniale" (i.e., kasher garum) that it was prepared according to Jewish law. Locusts were eaten, though without blessing, as they signified a curse. Eggs were so commonly eaten that the quantity of an egg was used halakicly as a measure. The egg was broken (?. Y. iii. 2) and occasionally dipped in wine (Hul. 6a). The unsalted yolk of an egg eaten on ten successive days causes death ("Alphabeta di-Ben Sira," ed. Steinschneider, p. 22b). A regular meal consisted of chicken stuffed with meal, fine bread, fat meat, and old wine (ib. 17b). The Talmudic axiom, "Without meat there is no pleasure; hence meat is indispensable on feastdays," is well known.


As regards other dishes, the Jews were acquainted with most of those known in antiquity. The first dish was an entrée—something pickled, to stimulate the appetite (Ber. vi. 7); this was followed by the meal proper, which was ended with a dessert, called in Greek ?????µa. Afi?omen is used in the same sense. Titbits ("parperet") were eaten before as well as after the meal (Ber. vi. 6). Wine was an important item. It was flavored with myrrh (compare Mark xv. 23) or with honey and pepper, the mixture being called "conditum." There were vinegar wine ('Ab. Zarah 30a), wine from Amanus, and Cilicia (Tosef., Sheb. v. 223), red wine from Saron, Ethiopian wine (B. ?. 97b), and black wine (Abba Gorion i. 9). Wine in ice came from Lebanon. Certain wines are good for the stomach; others are not (Yer. Shek. 48d; see Wine). There was Median beer as well as a beer from Egypt called "zythos" (Pes. iii. 1), and beer made from a thorn (Spina regia; Löw, "Aramäische Pflanzennamen," p. 231; Ket. 77b). To eat without drinking means suicide (Shab. 41a).

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruit was always relished, and many kinds, Biblical as well as non-Biblical, are often mentioned. A certain kind of hard nut even the wealthy could not procure (Pesi?. 59b). The custom of eating apples on the Feast of Weeks (Targ. Sheni to Esth. iii. 8) belongs to those minute observances that are so numerous in Jewish life. In the same way fruit and herbs were eaten on New-Year's eve as a good omen (Hor. 12a). Children received especially on the evening of Passover nuts and roasted ears of corn (B. M. iv. 12; Pes. 119b). Olives were so common that they were used as a measure ("zayit"). "While olives produce forgetfulness of what one has learned, olive-oil makes a clear head" (Hor. 13b). "Bread for young men, oil for old people, and honey for children" (Yoma 75b).

Herbs occupied a chief place on the evening of Passover, and they were also a favorite dish on the Sabbath (Ta'an. 20b), being eaten either dry or soaked (Tosef., Sheb. iv. 6). Many vegetables were included in the comprehensive name "?i?niyyot" (Be?ah 12b; compare 'U?. i. 5), especially beans. Other vegetables were cucumbers, melons, cabbages, turnips, lettuces, radishes, onions, and garlic. The smell of garlic, frequently mentioned in later times in association with the Jews, is referred to in the Talmud (Sanh. 11a).

Talmudic as well as Biblical times give evidence of a healthy, happy view of life. Sweets eaten during meals are frequently mentioned (B. M. vii. 1; Esth. R. i. 9). There is a saying of Rab (Abba Arika) that a time will come when one will have to render an account for all that one has seen and not eaten (Yer. ?id. 66d). It is said, however, of Abba Arika that, after having had all the precious things of life, he finally ate earth. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus is also reported to have eaten earth (compare the "geophagi" [earth-eaters] of the ancient authors). There is hardly any difference in food between Palestine and Babylon; only some details referring to the ritual are mentioned (Müller, "?illuf Minhagim," Nos. 19, 67).

—In the Middle Ages:

The Jews were so widely scattered in the Middle Ages that it is difficult to give a connected account of their mode of living as regards food. In Arabic countries the author of the Halakot Gedolot knew some dishes that appear to have been peculiar to the Jews, e.g., "paspag" (p. 60, ed. Hildesheimer), which was, perhaps, biscuit; according to the Siddur Amram (i. 38), the well-known "?aroset" is made in those countries from a mixture of herbs, flour, and honey (Arabic,"?alikah"). Maimonides, in his "Sefer Refu'ot" (ed. Goldberg, London, 1900), mentions dishes that are good for health. He recommends bread baked from wheat that is not too new, nor too old, nor too fine (p. 8); further, the meat of the kid, sheep, and chicken, and the yolks of eggs. Goats' and cows' milk is good, nor are cheese and butter harmful. Honey is good for old people; fish with white, hard meat is wholesome; so also are wine and dried fruits. Fresh fruits, however, are unwholesome; and he does not recommend garlic or onions (p. 9).

There is detailed information about Italian cookery in the amusing little book "Masseket Purim." It discusses (according to Abrahams, "Jewish Life in the Middle Ages," p. 151) pies, chestnuts, turtledoves, pancakes, small tarts, gingerbread, ragouts, venison, roast goose, chicken, stuffed pigeons, ducks, pheasants, partridges, quails, macaroons, and salad. These are dishes of luxurious living. The oppressed medieval Jews fared poorly rather than sumptuously, indulging in joyous feasts only on Sabbaths, festivals, circumcisions, and weddings. For example, the Jews of Rhodes, according to a letter of Obadiah Bertinoro, 1488, lived on herbs and vegetables only, never tasting meat or wine ("Jahrb. für die Gesch. der Juden," iii. 201). In Egypt, however, meat, fish, and cheese were procurable (ib. 208); in Gaza, grapes, fruit, and wine (ib. 211). Cold dishes are still relished in the East. Generally, only one dish was eaten, with fresh bread daily (Jacob Safir, in "Eben Sappir," p. 58a, Lyck, 1866).

Some characteristically Jewish dishes are frequently mentioned in the Judæo-German dialect: from the twelfth century onward, "brätzel" (Glassberg, "Zikron Berit," p. 122, Berlin, 1892); "lokshen" (Abrahams, l.c. p. 152); "pasteten" (ib. p. 151; compare Yoreh De'ah, Bet Yosef, § 97); "fladen" (Yoreh De'ah, ib.); "beleg" (i.e., goose sandwich), still used (Yoreh De'ah, Ture Zahab, § 101, 11). The favorite "barscht" or "borshtsh" soup is a Polish dish (ib. § 96); best known are the "berkes" or "barches" eaten on the Sabbath (Grünbaum, l.c. p. 229), and "shalet" (Abrahams, l.c. p. 151), which Heine commemorates ("Werke," i. 436), and which the Spanish Jews called Ani. The Sabbath pudding ("kigl" or "kugel" in Yiddish) is also well known. For more detailed information on several of these dishes see Cookery.

Bibliography: Krauss, Lehnwörter, ii. 640, s.v. Mahlzeiten, Speisen, and Getränke;
Wiener, Die Jüdischen Speisegesetze, Breslau, 1895. For the Middle Ages: Güdemann, Gesch. des Erziehungswesens . . . bei den Juden, iii. 112, and passim;
Berliner, Aus dem Inneren Leben der Juden in Deutschland, v., vi.;
Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, ch. viii., London, 1896;
several documents of Prague regulating the high living of the Jews in the eighteenth century are given in Neuzeit, 1891, No. 47, p. 481.

Sept 2005 - Sept 2013