Thursday, November 27, 2008

Commensality as Idolatry in Tannaitic Literature

In honor of Thanksgiving Day, I thought it appropriate to share some thoughts from an SBL session last week on the theme of commensality.

On Friday Nov 21 immediately after I arrived for SBL, I hurried over to the Sheraton (after some confusion over which hotel the Fairfax room was actually in) and enjoyed the meeting of the Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins where my friend Jordan Rosenblum was a presenter. While all the presentations were interesting and the discussion following was lively, Rosenblum's talk was, naturally, the best (mainly because it was the most relevant to my interests). His topic was "Commensality as Idolatry in Tannaitic Literature."

He began with a passage from Tosefta Avodah Zarah 4:6 (ed. Zuckermandel 466):
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: "Jews [literally: Israelites] outside of the Land [of Israel] are idolaters." How so? A non-Jew makes a [wedding] banquet for his son and goes and invites all of the Jews who live in his town. Even if they eat and drink [only] their own [food and wine] and their own servant stands and serves them, they are idolaters, as it is said: "And he will invite you and you will eat from his sacrifice" [Exodus 34:15].
Rosenblum has a penchant for pushing his point with a cleverly constructed phrase. The problem in this passage is "commensal, not culinary." That is, it's not about what you eat but who you eat with. In contrast to the laws of kashrut, the rabbis here are "problematizing the diner, not just the dinner." Note the passage says that even if they eat their own food and wine and are served by their own servant, they are still idolaters. Why is that?

The answer seems to be that eating together = idolatry. But why? Where does the connection to idolatry come from? Apparently, it's guilt by association. The rabbinic logic is seen in Rosenblum's second example from Mekhilta d'Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai on Exodus 34:17 (ed. Epstein and Melamed 222).
Thus, if one eats of their sacrifices, he will marry from amongst their daughters, and they will lead him astray and he will worship idols.
Clearly, "sharing bread" will soon lead to "sharing a bed", so commensal relationships are governed by the proscription against intermarriage found in the Torah in Exodus 34:15-17 (NJPS):
15 You must not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for they will lust after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and invite you, and you will eat of their sacrifices. 16 And when you take wives from among their daughters for your sons, their daughters will lust after their gods and will cause your sons to lust after their gods. 17 You shall not make molten gods for yourselves.
Their "separation at table" indicated a broader "separation of social identity." Sharing a table was the first step toward sharing a bed - the beginning of the slippery slope to idolatry. Rosenblum emphasized that commensality with non-Jews was "problematized but not prohibited." The rabbis use persuasive rhetoric to build up "fences around the table" to convince their audience that sharing a meal with a non-Jew was a social situation best avoided.

Rosenblum strengthened his case with additional examples from Sifre Numbers 131 and Mishnah Avot 3:3, but I think it's convincing that while the rabbis didn't explicitly prohibit sharing meals with non-Jews, they used Scripture concerned with intermarriage and idolatry to persuade their Jewish community to keep separate at meals.

Rosenblum's presentation reminded me of a New Testament parallel. This tendency toward separation at meals appears to be a very early tradition, even preserved in this passage from Galatians about a dispute between Paul and Peter (Cephas) over the proper etiquette of sharing meals between Jews and Gentiles.

Galatians 2:11-14 (ESV)

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?"

Since this was a presentation at a seminar on Christian Origins, it is interesting that early Christianity took specific steps to move away from this separation at table as a marker of separate social identity. I wonder how long it took before Roman writers started noticing a distinction.


  1. Thanks for the plug Doug! The Galatians passage you mention is often cited in commensality discussions. However, it is anything but "mov[ing] away from this separation at [the] table as a marker of separate social identity." By arguing against these rules, some Christians were costuming relaxed regulations as a form of "open commensality" (in J. D. Crossan's terminology). However, an inclusion can also serve to mark social distinction and separation, since it still divides the world into two camps: those who eat with us and those who do not (rather than those with whom we eat and those with whom we don't). This is how this passage has been read by some, especially by recent foodies like myself.

  2. Jordan, I would agree. I think I was reading Galatians as an attempt to move away from a specifically Jewish identity marker, but I didn't word it very clearly. Thanks for clarifying.