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Today we present another installment in our continuing series Foods of the First Century. If you’re new to Sowing the Seeds and would like to start at the beginning, or if you’ve missed one along the way, you can access the entire series by clicking on Foods of the First Century under the Archives by Topic header in the lower part of the left sidebar.
KASHRUT OR KOSHER
Some clarifying notes are required before we begin our study of fish and fowl. Kashrut is the body of Jewish law dealing with what foods can and cannot be eaten and how those foods must be prepared. Kashrut comes from the Hebrew root Kaf-Shin-Reish, meaning fit, proper or correct. It is the same root as the more commonly used word kosher, which describes food that meets these standards. The word kosher can also be used, and often is, to describe ritual objects that are made in accordance with Jewish law and thus fit for ritual use.
The short answer to why Jews observe these laws is, because the Torah (The Law) says so. The Torah does not specify any reason for these laws, and for a Torah observant Jew, there is no need for any other reason. In his book To Be a Jew, Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin suggests that the dietary laws are designed as a call to holiness. The ability to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, pure and defiled, the sacred and the profane, is very important in Judaism. The clean and unclean designations of Pharisaic Judaism, which prevailed at the time of Christ, were derived by attempting to codify these distinctions to the Nth degree.
As always, we’ll rely upon Biblical references to set us on our way.
An important food source in ancient times and modern, fish are mentioned 37 times in the Old Testament (8 times in the Torah, 1 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Nehemiah, Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah) and 36 times in the New Testament…all but one being in the Gospels.
There were severe kosher restrictions relating to the consumption of seafood. Both Lev. 11:9 and Deut. 14:9 say, “Of the things that are in the waters, you may eat anything that has fins and scales…” Thus, shellfish such as lobsters, oysters, shrimp, clams and crabs were all forbidden. The Jew’s gentile neighbors, of course, regularly consumed shellfish.
Fish of all varieties are permitted under Jewish law provided they have detachable scales. Some of the fish not considered kosher are: Angler See, Basa, Beluga (Sturgeon), Billfishes including Marlins and Swordfish, Blowfish, Catfish, Eels, Freshwater Cod, Lumpfish, Sharks, Rays and their relatives.
|Fish Plate with Center Sauce Dish|
AVAILABILITY OF FISH
The variety and availability of fish was primarily determined by geographic region. Judea, being on the Mediterranean Sea, enjoyed a wide variety of salt water fish. Fish were also plentiful in the region of Galilee because of Lake Genneserat…aka the Sea of Galilee or the Sea of Tiberias. The primary catch in the Sea of Galilee was the small bass we now know as Tilapia. Fresh fish were less plentiful in the eastern regions since their only source would have been small ponds, lakes, or the Jordan River.
Fish farming is not a modern innovation. Both the Romans and the Jews operated fish farms. A particularly large group of fish ponds were constructed at Herod’s capitol, Caesarea. If not eaten fresh, the fish would have been split, cleaned, salted, and dried in the sun, or smoked, to preserve them for later use. Dried fish was a routine trade item throughout the Roman Empire. Galilean fishermen such as Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew, and their partners the Zebedees (James, John and their father) sold their catch all across the Eastern portion of the Roman Empire.
Tradition tells us that, in addition to a sales outlet in Capernaum, the Zebedee family also had a second market in Jerusalem. In the Passion narratives, recall that John was known to the gatekeeper at the High Priest’s house whereas Peter was not and had to rely on John to get him in. With reference to the Biblical story commonly called The Loaves and Fishes, the little boy with the two fish and seven barley loaves obviously had dried fillets, most probably Tilapia.
GARUM…THE POPULAR FISH SAUCE
Another staple of that era was Garum, or Liquamen, a salty, pungent fish sauce used both as a condiment and an ingredient in many recipes. Should you get a hankerin’ for some authentic Garum, here’s an ancient recipe from Gargilius Martialis’ cookbook, De medicina et de virtute herbarum:
“Use fatty fish, for example, sardines, and a well-sealed container with a 26-35 quart capacity. Add dried, aromatic herbs possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others, making a layer on the bottom of the container; then put down a layer of fish (if small, leave them whole, if large, use pieces). Over this, add a layer of salt two fingers high. Repeat these layers until the container is filled. Let it rest for seven days in the sun. Then mix the sauce daily for 20 days. After that, it becomes a liquid.”
Doesn’t that sound just yummy? If you’d rather not make your Garum by the gallon, here’s a modern alternative: Cook a quart of grape juice, reducing it to one-tenth its original volume. Dilute two tablespoons of anchovy paste in the concentrated juice and mix in a pinch of oregano. Be sure to let me know how it turns out.
Partridge (1 Samuel 26:20; Jeremiah 17:11)
Pigeon (Genesis 15:9; Leviticus 12:8)
Quail (Psalm 105:40)
Dove (Leviticus 12:8)
|A Quail in Israel|
There are several interesting things to be gleaned from the above list. First, chicken is not mentioned. Chicken was known and available in the First Century, but generally reserved for the upper classes.
Secondly, all of those birds listed were available wild. This isn’t to imply that everyone trapped their own birds, but I’m confident many in the rural areas did. We know from archaeological studies that aviculture was widespread and well developed in the ancient world. (See our earlier post Aviculture in Ancient Israel.) Interestingly enough, all of the birds in the list are still raised commercially.
|A Sand Partridge - Native to Israel|
KOSHER RESTRICTIONS ON FOWL
The Torah also designates a number of birds as forbidden…all birds of prey or scavengers. Eggs from these non-kosher sources were forbidden as well. The Biblical list omits several groups of birds that comprised part of the First Century diet. For instance, waterfowl such as ducks and geese are not mentioned, but frequently appear in the writings of Roman historians. Grouse, or ptarmigan, are also overlooked, but were surely eaten.
So there we have it, the Fish and Fowl of the Roman world available to the earliest Christians. Two weeks from now, on May 21st , we’ll examine Meats and Milk. Meanwhile, this coming Wednesday we’ll look at Roman Merchant Ships.
Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings.
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