Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Vows, food, etc., in the Talmud

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: 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.
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.
Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.