We have a bone to pick — a fishbone, to be more precise.
Last week media attention focused on a new study by archaeologists Dr. Yonatan Adler and Prof. Omri Lernau. They examined fishbones from ancient Israel and found that – despite clear Torah prohibitions, remains of non-kosher scaleless fish were found in ancient Israel in areas where Jews and gentiles lived. The wider media got hooked on the bait of what seemed a scoop: “Bad Judeans? Despite biblical ban, non-kosher fish were eaten in ancient Israel” ran the title of the Times of Israel feature coverage. In the published study, the authors claimed that the consumption of non-kosher fish during the period of the First Temple was ubiquitous: “All the fish assemblages from Judah available for analysis contained significant numbers of scaleless fish remains, especially catfish.” Moreover, the authors claimed that outside of the Torah there is no direct reference to these prohibitions until the first century BCE.
In his Times of Israel podcast, Adler offered that for him, the importance of the study went well beyond the history of diet; that, indeed, he has much larger fish to fry. These findings, he claimed, support his larger thesis: “We do not have any evidence that the Judean masses prior to the middle of the second century BCE had any knowledge of the Torah or observed the rules of the Torah.”
We believe that these assertions are not supported by the evidence and that the media portrayal of this study as “a scoop” is unwarranted.
Bad Judeans, indeed!
The fact that there is evidence that many Jews in ancient Israel consumed non-kosher fish should come as a surprise to no one – certainly not anyone familiar with the Bible. We know from the Bible’s own testimony that although intermarriage is proscribed by the Torah, intermarriage was rampant during the period of Ezra and Nehemiah. And although the Torah proscribes idol worship, the prophets censure Israel for doing just this, and indeed we find many dozens of figurines in Israelite sites during that time, including locations near where some of these non-kosher fishbones were found. Not dozens, but hundreds of chapters of the Bible chronicle Israel’s failure to observe the words of the covenant with God. “Bad Judeans” – the title of the Times of Israel coverage – could well substitute as a title for the Bible itself. The Israelite cultures that brought us the destruction of the First Temple, it now turns out, also were not fully observant of the laws of kashrut. There is nothing surprising about this.
‘Bad Judeans’ – the title of the Times of Israel coverage – could well substitute as a title for the Bible itself.
Fishbones: Interpreting the evidence
The truth is that archeologists have long known that non-kosher fish remains are widely found in ancient Israel. What Adler and Lernau maintain, however, goes much further. They claim that during the first temple period, “all the fish assemblages from Judah available for analysis contained significant numbers of scaleless fish remains, especially catfish.” This, however, is not true, as brought out by the very evidence they adduce.
We need here to examine only the data for a single site: the so-called rock-cut pool at the heart of the City of David that dates from the ninth to eighth century, BCE, the middle of the First Temple period. This is one of seventeen sites they survey for this period, but with 5,385 fishbones, it contains far more bones than all other sites from this period combined, and triple the number of bones of all other Jerusalem sites combined, and is thus of great significance. Remarkably, 96% of the fish remains here are from kosher fish. Other sites in the City of David have a much higher percentage of non-kosher fishbones. Remarkably, again, these other sites date from the period just prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, broadly a period in which the residents of Judah come in for particularly harsh censure by the prophets of Israel.
The Dietary Laws: What did Israelites know and when did they know it?
The authors’ claim that outside of the Torah there is no direct reference to these prohibitions until the first century BCE is unwarranted. In the final chapter of the book of Isaiah, the prophet castigates a particular cult within the Judean community for consuming (Isa 66:17) “the swine’s flesh, the abominable things (sheketz) and the mouse.” Close scrutiny of the whole verse reveals that its seven lexical features are carefully lifted from the dietary laws of Leviticus 11. And in that chapter, the word sheketz is used five times to describe finless and scaleless fish. It is true that Leviticus 11 uses that term to refer to a number of other creatures as well. But it is clear that the author of Isaiah 66 composes this verse with the text of Leviticus 11 in mind. It takes special pleading to say that when the prophet chides those who consume the category of sheketz that he means everything else with that designation in Leviticus 11 other than scaleless and finless fish.
This passage from Isaiah likewise undermines Adler’s claim that “We do not have any evidence that the Judean masses prior to the middle of the second century BCE had any knowledge of the Torah or observed the rules of the Torah.” The author of this verse in Isaiah describes a reality whereby part of the community is abiding by the dietary standards of Leviticus 11 and part of it is not. Jews in his day may not have recognized his deliberate references to the Torah text of the dietary laws, just as many Jews today – observant or not – are familiar with these laws yet while unfamiliar with the actual words of the verse. But the account of the prophet’s censure in Isaiah 66 has coherence only if there are a group of Jews observing these laws and another group violating them. The prophetic books offer us a vivid window into the social reality of ancient Israel, and it would, here too, require special pleading to maintain that the social reality portrayed in Isaiah 66 is fiction through and through.
In short, faunal finds of fishbones – kosher and non-kosher – in ancient Israel reveal a checkered observance of the Torah’s dietary laws that broadly hews to what the Bible itself tells us about Israel’s oscillations between observance and defiance of the divine covenant.
Joshua Berman is a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and is the author most recently of Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid).
Ari Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar Ilan University. Also trained as a rabbi and shochet, he has a masters degree in Jewish history and is a tour guide in the City of David.
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