Meals, Meal-time

melz: Bread materials, bread-making and baking in the Orient are dealt with under BREAD (which see). For food-stuffs in use among the Hebrews in Bible times more specifically see FOOD. This article aims to be complementary, dealing especially with the methods of preparing and serving food and times of meals among the ancient Hebrews.

The Book of Judges gives a fair picture of the early formative period of the Hebrew people and their ways of living. It is a picture of semi-savagery--of the life and customs of free desert tribes. In 1 Samuel we note a distinct step forward, but the domestic and cultural life is still low and crude. When they are settled in Palestine and come in contact with the most cultured people of the day, the case is different. Most that raised these Semitic invaders above the dull, crude existence of fellahin, in point of civilization, was due to the people for whom the land was named (Macalister, Hist of Civilization in Pal). From that time on various foreign influences played their several parts in modification of Hebrew life and customs. A sharp contrast illustrative of the primitive beginnings and the growth of luxury in Israel in the preparation and use of foods may be seen by a comparison of 2Sa 17:28 f with 1Ki 4:22 f.

I. Methods of Preparing Food.

1. Cereals:

The most primitive way of using the cereals was to pluck the fresh ears (Le 23:14; 2Ki 4:42), remove the husk by rubbing (compare De 23:25 and Mt 12:1), and eat the grain raw. A practice common to all periods, observed by fellahin today, was to parch or roast the ears and eat them not ground. Later it became customary to grind the grain into flour, at first by the rudimentary method of pestle and mortar (Nu 11:8; compare Pr 27:22), later by the hand-mill (Ex 11:5; Job 31:10; compare Mt 24:41), still later in mills worked by the ass or other animal (Mt 18:6, literally, "a millstone turned by an ass"). The flour was then made into bread, with or without leaven.


Another simple way of preparing the grain was to soak it in water, or boil it slightly, and then, after drying and crushing it, to serve it as the dish called "groats" is served among western peoples.

The kneading of the dough preparatory to baking was done doubtless, as it is now in the East, by pressing it between the hands or by passing it from hand to hand; except that in Egypt, as the monuments show, it was put in "baskets" and trodden with the feet, as grapes in the wine press. (This is done in Paris bakeries to this day.)


2. Vegetables:

Lentils, several kinds of beans, and a profusion of vegetables, wild and cultivated, were prepared and eaten in various ways. The lentils were sometimes roasted, as they are today, and eaten like "parched corn." They were sometimes stewed like beans, and flavored with onions and other ingredients, no doubt, as we find done in Syria today (compare Ge 25:29,34), and sometimes ground and made into bread (Eze 4:9; compare Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palastina-Vereins,IX , Eze 4:1-17). The wandering Israelites in the wilderness looked back wistfully on the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic of Egypt (Nu 11:5), and later we find all of these used for food in Palestine How many other things were prepared and used for food by them may be gathered from the Mishna, our richest source of knowledge on the subject.

3. Meat:

The flesh of animals--permission to eat which it would seem was first given to Noah after the deluge (Ge 1:29 f; Ge 9:3 f)--was likewise prepared and used in various ways: (a) Roasting was much in vogue, indeed was probably the oldest of all methods of preparing such food. At first raw meat was laid upon hot stones from which the embers had been removed, as in the case of the "cake baken on the hot stones" (1Ki 19:6 the Revised Version margin; compare Ho 7:8, "a cake not turned"), and sometimes underneath with a covering of ashes. The fish that the disciples found prepared for them by the Sea of Galilee (Joh 21:9) was, in exception to this rule, cooked on the live coals themselves. A more advanced mode of roasting was by means of a spit of green wood or iron (for baking in ovens, see FOOD). (b) Boiling was also common (see Ge 25:29; Ex 12:9, etc., the American Standard Revised Version; English Versions of the Bible more frequently "seething," "sod," "sodden"), as it is in the more primitive parts of Syria today. The pots in which the boiling was done were of earthenware or bronze (Le 6:28). When the meat was boiled in more water than was required for the ordinary "stew" the result was the broth (Jg 6:19 f), and the meat and the broth might then be served separately. The usual way, however, was to cut the meat into pieces, larger or smaller as the case might demand (1Sa 2:13; Eze 24:3 ff; compare Micah's metaphor, Mic 3:3), and put these pieces into the cooking-pot with water sufficient only for a stew. Vegetables and rice were generally added, though crushed wheat sometimes took the place of the rice, as in the case of the "savory meat" which Rebekah prepared for her husband from the "two kids of the goats" (Ge 27:9). The seeds of certain leguminous plants were also often prepared by boiling (Ge 25:29; 2Ki 4:38). (c) The Hebrew housewives, we may be sure, were in such matters in no way behind their modern kinswomen of the desert, of whom Doughty tells: "The Arab housewives make savory messes of any grain, seething it and putting thereto only a little salt and samn (clarified butter)."

4. Oil:

Olive oil was extensively and variously used by the ancient Hebrews, as by most eastern peoples then, as it is now. (a) Oriental cooking diverges here more than at any other point from that of the northern and western peoples, oil serving many of the purposes of butter and lard among ourselves. (b) Oil was used in cooking vegetables as we use bacon and other animal fats, and in cooking fish and eggs, as sJso in the finer sorts of baking. See BREAD; FOOD; OIL. (c) They even mixed oil with the flour, shaped it into cakes and then baked it (Le 2:4). The "little oil" of the poor widow of Zerephath was clearly not intended for the lamps, but to bake her pitiful "handful of meal" (1Ki 17:12). (d) Again the cake of unmixed flour might be baked till almost done, then smeared with oil, sprinkled with anise seed, and brought by further baking to a glossy brown. A species of thin flat cakes of this kind are "the wafers anointed with oil" of Ex 29:2, etc. (e) Oil and honey constituted, as now in the East, a mixture used as we use butter and honey, and are found also mixed in the making of sweet cakes (Eze 16:13,19). The taste of the manna is said in Ex 16:31 to be like that of "wafers made with honey," and in Nu 11:8 to be like "the taste of cakes baked with oil" (Revised Version margin).

II. Meals, Meal-Time, etc.

(1) It was customary among the ancient Hebrews, as among their contemporaries in the East in classical lands, to have but two meals a day. The "morning morsel" or "early snack," as it is called in the Talmud, taken with some relish like olives, oil or melted butter, might be used by peasants, fishermen, or even artisans, to "break their fast" (see the one reference to it in the New Testament in Joh 21:12,15), but this was not a true meal. It was rather ariston proinon (Robinson, BRP, II, 18), though some think it the ariston, of the New Testament (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, II, 205, note 3; compare Plummer, International Critical Commentary, on Lu 11:37). To "eat a meal," i.e. a full meal, in the morning was a matter for grave reproach (Ec 10:16), as early drinking was unusual and a sign of degradation (of Ac 2:15).

(2) The first meal (of "meal-time," literally, "the time of eating," Ru 2:14; Ge 43:16), according to general usage, was taken at or about noon when the climate and immemorial custom demanded a rest from labor. Peter's intended meal at Joppa, interrupted by the messengers of Cornelius, was at "the sixth hour," i.e. 12 M. It corresponded somewhat to our modern "luncheon," but the hour varied according to rank and occupation (Shabbath 10a). The Bedawi take it about 9 or 10 o'clock (Burckhardt, Notes, I, 69). It is described somewhat fully by Lane in Modern Egyptians. To abstain from this meal was accounted "fasting" (Jg 20:26; 1Sa 14:24). Drummond (Tropical Africa) says his Negro bearers began the day's work without food.

(3) The second and main meal (New Testament, deipnon) was taken about the set of sun, or a little before or after, when the day's work was over and the laborers had "come in from the field" (Lu 17:7; 24:29 f). This is the "supper time," the "great supper" of Lu 14:16, the important meal of the day, when the whole family were together for the evening (Burckhardt, Notes, I, 69). It was the time of the feeding of the multitudes by Jesus (Mr 6:35; Mt 14:15; Lu 9:12), of the eating of the Passover, and of the partaking of the Lord's Supper. According to Jewish law, and for special reasons, the chief meal was at midday--"at the sixth hour," according to Josephus (Vita, 54; compare Ge 43:16-25; 2Sa 24:15 Septuagint). It was Yahweh's promise to Israel that they should have "bread" in the morning and "flesh" in the evening (Ex 16:12), incidental evidence of one way in which the evening meal differed from that at noon. At this family meal ordinarily there was but one common dish for all, into which all "dipped the sop" (see Mt 26:23; Mr 14:20), so that when the food, cooked in this common stew, was set before the household, the member of the household who had prepared it had no further work to do, a fact which helps to explain Jesus' words to Martha, `One dish alone is needful' (Lu 10:42; Hastings Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, under the word "Meals").

(4) Sabbath banqueting became quite customary among the Jews (see examples cited by Lightfoot, Hor. Heb et Talmud on Lu 14:1; compare Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah,II , 52, 437; Farrar, Life of Christ,II , 119, note). Indeed it was carried to such an excess that it became proverbial for luxury. But the principle which lay at the root of the custom was the honor of the Sabbath (Lightfoot, op. cit., III, 149), which may explain Jesus countenance and use of the custom (compare Lu 7:36; 11:37; 14:7-14), and the fact that on the last Sabbath He spent on earth before His passion He was the chief guest at such a festive meal (Joh 12:2). It is certain that He made use of such occasions to teach lessons of charity and religion, in one case even when His host was inclined to indulge in discourteous criticism (Lu 7:39; 11:38,45 f; compare Joh 12:7 f). He seems to have withheld His formal disapproval of what might be wrong in tendency in such feasts because of the latent possibilities for good He saw in them, and so often used them wisely and well. It was on one of these occasions that a fellow-guest in his enthusiasm broke out in the exclamation, "Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the kingdom of God" (Lu 14:15), referring evidently to the popular Jewish idea that the Messianic kingdom was to be ushered in with a banquet, and that feasting was to be a chief part of its glories (compare Isa 25:6; Lu 13:29).


III. Customs at Meals.

In the earliest times the Hebrews took their meals sitting, or more probably squatting, on the ground like the Bedouin and fellahin of today (see Ge 37:25, etc.), with the legs gathered tailor-fashion (Palestine Exploration Fund Statement, 1905, 124). The use of seats naturally followed upon the change from nomadic to agricultural life, after the conquest of Canaan. Saul and his mess-mates sat upon "seats" (1Sa 20:25), as did Solomon and his court (1Ki 10:5; compare 1Ki 13:20, etc.). With the growth of wealth and luxury under the monarchy, the custom of reclining at meals gradually became the fashion. In Amos' day it was regarded as an aristocratic innovation (Am 3:12; 6:4), but two centuries later Ezekiel speaks of "a stately bed" or "couch" (compare Es 1:6 the Revised Version (British and American)) with "a table prepared before it" (Eze 23:41), as if it was no novelty. By the end of the 3rd century BC it was apparently universal, except among the very poor (Judith 12:15; Tobit 2:1). Accordingly, "sitting at meat" in the New Testament (English Versions of the Bible) is everywhere replaced by "reclining" (Revised Version margin), though women and children still sat. They leaned on the left elbow (Sirach 41:19), eating with the right hand (see LORD'S SUPPER). The various words used in the Gospels to denote the bodily attitude at meals, as well as the circumstances described, all imply that the Syrian custom of reclining on a couch, followed by Greeks and Romans, was in vogue (Edersheim, II, 207). Luke uses one word for it which occurs nowhere else in the New Testament (kataklithenai, 7:36; 14:8; 24:30; and kataklinein, 9:14,15), which Hobart says is the medical term for laying patients or causing them to lie in bed (Medical Language of Luke, 69). For costumes and customs at more elaborate feasts see BANQUET; DRESS. For details in the "minor morals" of the dinner table, see the classical passages (Sirach 31:12-18; 32:3-12), in which Jesus ben-Sira has expanded the counsel given in Pr 23:1 f; compare Kennedy in The 1-Volume Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, under the word "Meals."


Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah; O. Holtzmann, Eine Untersuchung zum Leben Jesu, English translation, 206; B. Weiss, The Life of Christ, II, 125, note 2; Plummer, International Critical Commentary, "Luke," 159 f; Farrar, Life of Christ; Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes), Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, the 1-volume Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible; Encyclopedia Biblica; Jewish Encyclopedia, etc.

George B. Eager

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