A UNIQUE EXAMINATION OF FOODS, PLANTS, AND ANIMALS IN THE BIBLE
NOT SO COOL
Following the instigation of Egyptians who had accompanied them into the wilderness, the Israelites waxed nostalgic over six items (Numbers 21:4-6), “And the mixed multitude that was among them developed a lust; and the children of Israel also cried, and said: 'Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt freely; and the chate melon (kishuim), and the watermelons (avatichim), and the leeks (chatzir), and the onions (betzalim), and the garlic (shummim). But now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all, except this manna before our eyes'.” Every need of the Israelites was met, yet they still complained. The six foods for which they yearned so intensely -- fish and five common vegetables -- provide the key to understanding the tragic flaw of the generation of the wilderness and why their fate was to die there.
Most of these plants, all members of two families, are still as popular today as they were at the time of the Exodus and are, therefore, easy to identify. The first vegetable in the list, however, proves rather more problematic to ascertain. Long before the Israelites found themselves entrapped in Egypt, the residents were eating brined cucumbers (what we call pickles), a method of preserving them for up to two years, at most meals. The Biblical kishuim, however, were not what most Westerners perceive as cucumbers.
Melons, gourds, and cucumbers all belong to the Cucurbitaceae family, which grow on trailing tendril-bearing vines. There exists, however, much confusion over the names and identity of melons and cucumbers throughout history. What we call a cucumber today, the Cucumis sativus, was not the vegetable (kishuim) mentioned in the Bible among the Egyptian foods the Israelites waxed nostalgic over in the wilderness. Seeds found in Egyptian tombs as well as ancient illustrations point to chate melons as the biblical kishuim. Less likely, but possibly, it could be a close relative, the snake melon. Or kishuim could encompass both of these unsweet cultivars of Cucumis melo ssp. agretis, botanically melons and sometimes subsumed as “cucumber melons,” probably indigenous to northern Africa, but possibly to Middle Asia.
Chate melon (from the Arabic qatta) -- also variously called chate cucumber, hairy melon, cucumber melon, adjur and qatta in Arabic, adzhur in Turkish, and carosello and meloncella in Italian -- was probably the first cultivated melon in Africa, already in the Bronze Age, among if not the earliest cultivated fruit-vegetable. When the fruit is about a week old, it is 4 to 6 inches, squat (round-oval), pale green, and covered with downy hairs, akin to a heavy peach fuzz. The young chate melon has white, firm, succulent, unsweet flesh with a somewhat cucumber-like taste and can, after removing the hairs, be eaten raw or cooked. Already 4,000 years ago, residents of Egypt and Mesopotamia preserved them in salt, not unlike the modern pickle. Unlike cucumbers, however, the chate melon has no bitterness or burps. As it ripens, the chate begins to lose its hair and develop ribbing and a mild melon flavor. The chate, like the snake melon, is unpalatable when fully mature.
The snake melon -- also variously called vegetable melon, Armenian cucumber, faqus in Arabic, schlangenmelone in German, and tortarelli in Italian -- is an elongated fruit that grows up to three feet in length, heavily ribbed lengthwise, and reaching one to three inches thick. The young snake melon has light green-colored, thin skin covered with scattered short hairs. Grown on the ground, it typically coils like a snake, while those on a trellis tend to be straight. When young and unripe, from five to seven days old and generally six to twelve inches long, snake melons can be eaten raw, cooked, or pickled, the crisp, mild, white flesh having somewhat of a cucumber-like taste. In Lebanon and Afghanistan today, pickled young snake melons are sold bottled under the name “pickled wild cucumbers.” They can also stand up to sautéing. However, as a snake melon reaches maturity, the skin turns yellow and the flesh pink, sour, and fibrous and hollow toward the center, then it quickly begins to rot. Snake melon seeds, resembling those of muskmelons but smaller, were also once used for their oil.
Cucurbits are very easy to crossbreed and, therefore, contain an ever-increasing number of members, presently 119 genera and more than 825 species. The cultivar frequently confused with the chate, variously called mango melon, orange melon, peach melon, pomegranate melon, and Queen Anne’s pocket melon, is actually the Cucumis dudaim. Other cultivars of the agretis subspecies include the better-known sweet types: Cantalupensis (melons with a rough, warty skin, notably the European cantaloupe), reticulatus (netted melons, including muskmelon, Persian melon, Israeli Galia and Ogen, and North American ‘cantaloupe’), and inodorus (such as honeydew, canary, casaba, and crenshaw). Snake melon and chate melon can cross with muskmelons and other melons, but not Indian cucumbers.
The cucumbers common today -- the intensely succulent, dark green-skinned cylindrical fruit-vegetables -- are descendants of an annual native to northwestern India near the Himalayas, where their ancestor was cultivated more than 3,000 years ago. The Indian cucumber at the earliest only reached the Levant in the late imperial Roman period, but possibly not until the early medieval period. Hence the cucumis and sikyos hemeros mentioned by Pliny and other Roman writers were most certainly the snake melon, which accurately fits the ancient descriptions of a long, coiled, hirsute vegetable, and not what the modern world knows as a cucumber. (The Hebrew kishu or kishut led, with an interchange of consonants, to the Greek word for chate melon and later cucumber, sikyos.) Likewise, the kishuim mentioned in the Talmud were probably snake melons. Melons appear to have been cultivated in Israel during the First Temple period, as Isaiah mentions a miksha (field of kishuim). The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 11a and Berachot 57b) explained that Rabbi Judah Hanasi and Antonius (a Roman emperor, possibly Marcus Aurelius), “from whose tables were never lacking lettuce, kishuim, and (black) radishes, either in the dry or rainy seasons.” Interestingly, Pliny recorded that Emperor Tiberius more than a century before Rabbi Judah had snake melons on his table throughout the year, a result of Roman greenhouse production. The Talmud continued, “Kishuim make the intestines expand (ergo they are good for the digestion). But was it not taught in the school of Rabbi Ishmael that they are called kishuim (kishu or kishut singular, from the root “to be hard” or “difficult”) because they are as hard and injurious to the body as a sword? There is no contradiction. That (difficult) was said of large ones, but our reference (to expanding the intestines and being healthy) is to small ones.”
Elsewhere, the Mishnah (Ma'aserot 1:5) noted that the stage of preparation when one may not eat kishuim and d'luim (gourds), even for a chance meal, until the tithe is separated is “when their fringe (thin hair) is removed and thus count as food.” Since only cultivated produce engendered the need for tithing, kishuim were a crop grown for food during at least the late Second Temple period as well. The Mishnah also employs the word play “keeshut shel kishut (down of the melon).” All of the clues point to the snake melon being the kishuim of the Talmud.
It appears that the Persian khiar, Arabic khiyar, and Turkish hiyar, terms that appeared during the early medieval period, denote the Indian cucumber, while the earlier Arabic term qatta or qitha (a cognate of the Hebrew kishuim) is associated with the African melons. To further complicate matters, kishuim in modern Hebrew refers to a pale green summer squash, called cousa by Egyptian Jews, which is descended from a native American Cucurbit. Meanwhile, the modern Hebrew word for cucumber, melafefon, a contraction of the Greek words melo (apple) and pepon (watermelon), referred in the Talmud (Kilayim 1:2) to a rudimentary muskmelon, which was considered by the rabbis of the Talmud to be a homogeneous species with kishuim.
The original Indian cucumber that arrived in western Asia was small, curved, prickly, and bitter. Nevertheless, the Arabs developed a fondness for it and spread the vegetable westward, the Moors probably introducing the cucumber to Europe by way of Spain during the early Middle Ages. The cucumber only reached England in the fourteenth century, certainly demonstrative of its relatively late travel from India. In Europe, because the same compounds that caused cucumbers to be bitter also made them hard to digest, resulting in burps and indigestion in many people, they were considered an unhealthy food. The British initially used the vegetables for animal feed, calling them cowcucumbers. Over the centuries, however, gardeners bred much of the bitterness and “burps” out of them and, today, the acerbity is located primarily in the skin and particularly the tips. With the spread of the hardy, non-hirsute Indian cucumber and its gradual improvement, the cucumber growing well in all parts of Europe, the popularity of the snake melon and chate melon, requiring a rather warm climate, quickly declined, while later generations confused the cucumber for references to those melons in ancient texts. Today, “cucumber melons” remain only as a relic crop in southern Italy, Turkey, and parts of central Asia and as a novelty item in some European gardens.
Around the middle of the sixteenth century, about a century after the cucumber arrived in northeastern Europe, nomadic Tartars and Turks brought the Chinese method of lacto-fermentation to eastern Europe, more advanced than earlier European pickling techniques, leading to the advent of pickled cucumbers. Soon the cucumber emerged as the predominant European pickled vegetable, in English even assuming the very name pickle. As a result, cucumbers became among the few vegetables -– along with cabbage, carrots, beets, turnips, and later potatoes -- eaten by northeastern Ashkenazim, always in pickled or marinated form, never raw.
According to Targum Onkelos, the question of which type of cucumber existed in ancient Egypt is a moot point, since he translated kishuim as bozinayah, Aramaic for "a young gourd," another member of the Cucurbitaceous family. Although bozinayah is sometimes mistranslated as "pumpkin," that vegetable as well as the various squashes are indigenous to South America and would not reach the Old World until the sixteenth century. However, in Biblical and Talmudic times, gourds (d'luim in Hebrew), probably native to North Africa, were commonplace throughout most of Asia, Africa, and southern Europe. They grew in the hanging gardens of Babylon and the Roman writer Apicius included a few recipes for cooking them. Of particular note in Egypt and Israel was the calabash gourd (Lagenaria vulgaris), which was cooked as a vegetable when young (Shevvi'it 2:10), sometimes stuffed or added to stews for extra flavor and texture, and, when mature and quite large, provided practical storage and serving containers (Kilayim 7:1). The vast majority of gourds, however, are inedible. With the arrival of the eminently more utile squashes, the usage of gourds as food quickly declined and today these ancient fruits are primarily used for ornamental purposes.
There exists no disagreement as to the identity of the second plant, avatiach (watermelon), from the root "to swell" or "to be thick." There were two basic groups of melons in the ancient world: Watermelons (Citrullus vulgaris) and muskmelons (Cucumbis melo). The latter (melafefon in Talmudic Hebrew), a close relative of the chate cucumber (Kilayim 1:2), has a thin sandy colored rind, usually with a web netting, and a flesh ranging from pale to bright orange. Depictions of small, round watermelons appeared on wall paintings of and their seeds were deposited in the most ancient Egyptian tombs, dating back at least 5,000 years. Archeological evidence that muskmelons were already being cultivated in Sumeria at that time, reflects a very early date of domestication for both types of melon. Watermelons, which probably originated in central Africa, have a dark green skin, thick rind, and a pink to deep red flesh, and range in flavor from insipid to sweet, although ancient melons were much less sweet than most modern varieties. While ripe watermelons provided a refreshing treat, immature ones were cooked as a vegetable, both fresh and dried (Ma'aserot 1:5). Mature watermelons, relatively drought resistant, proved invaluable in Africa not so much as a food, though even the rinds and seeds were utilized, but rather as an important source of water -- they are 90 per cent water. As with other members of the Cucurbitaceae family, the melon's numerous seeds gave rise to it becoming a symbol of fertility.
The second important plant family recalled by the Israelites was the Lilaceae (lily). By at least 3000 BCE, farmers in Mesopotamia were raising leeks, onions, and garlic, which became the basic and essential components of the local cooking. The use of these three liliaceous plants was mentioned frequently in the Talmud. During the Spanish Inquisition, a sign of Jewish gastronomy was cooking meat dishes with onions and garlic in olive oil. From the onset, onions and garlic served as the primary flavorings of Eastern European Jewry. Today, these bulbs remain integral parts of Jewish cookery.
Leeks (Allium porrum), which look like large scallions, have oblong white bulbs and long, flatish, dark green leaves. It is the mildest members of the family, with a sweeter flavor than onions. Leeks vary in size from less than ½-inch to more than 2-inches in diameter. There is no difference in flavor or texture between large and small bulbs. The leek's subtle flavor -- a combination, of shallots, scallions, and garlic -- is essential for various dishes, adding a special touch to various soups, sauces, salads, and casseroles. Cooked leeks have a silky texture. Leeks have long been a part of Jewish cookery, remaining prominent among Ashkenazim through the medieval period, while Sephardim still maintain a special fondness for it, using leeks as traditional Passover and Rosh Hashanah fare.
Onions (Allium cepa), betzal in Hebrew from the root "to split" or "to branch off," is a native of the western Mediterranean area and one of the most important vegetables, serving as the base-flavor of many dishes. This pungent bulb was cultivated in Egypt very early in history, and not surprisingly illustrations of it appear in pyramids. Pliny noted that onions served as an object of worship to the Egyptians, its concentric layers representing the heavens. Sulfuric compounds in these bulbs not only bring a tear to the eye, but also give onions the ability to keep for an extended time, another reason for both its popularity and veneration. An onion's sweetness varies depending on soil and climatic conditions. Onions are incorporated into so many dishes not only because of their own flavor, but also because they act on the taste buds making other foods more flavorful. In Middle Eastern cooking, it is common for onions to be both sautéed in fat at the beginning of the dish to produce a sweet flavor and added near the end of cooking for pungency and texture.
Last, but certainly not least, among the enumerated foods is garlic (Allium sativum), shum in Hebrew, the pungent bulb of a two-foot high plant with long, grayish-green leaves. The English name is derived from the Old English gar (spear) and leac (leek), as the Anglo-Saxons considered it a leek with a spear growing out of it. It is planted in late fall and the harvest begins in April and lasts through September. Like its relative the onion, the bulb grows underground. Each bulb, also called a head, is composed of 8 to 20 cloves, depending on the variety. A papery sheath enwraps the bulb and a thin skin covers each clove, which impedes the drying process. The color of the sheath -- white, purple, and pink -- differs depending on the variety. The sizes of garlic cloves vary greatly and a rule of thumb is that smaller cloves are more pungent, while larger ones milder. The flavor of garlic depends on the variety and how it is prepared. Whole garlic is mild and sweet. However, garlic contains an amino acid called cysteine which, when the clove's cell membranes are penetrated, produces an enzymatic reaction creating a sulfur compound called allicin (diallyl disulfide). It is this compound that gives garlic its distinctive odor. Although other members of the lily family, such as leeks and chives, also produce disulfide compounds, none are as potent as that of garlic. Heat dissipates allicin, producing a tantalizing pungency in dishes.
This native of Central or Western Asia has been part of mankind's cooking from before recorded history. The Egyptians valued garlic so highly they buried it in the pyramids for use in the afterlife. Historically, garlic has been associated with medicine -- before the 20th century, there was a fine line between food and medicine, and garlic has always been considered a health food. Hippocrates recommended it as a cure for a variety of ailments. In 1858,
Louis Pasteur proved that garlic could kill bacteria in laboratory dishes. Today, research has begun to justify its status, including its ability to lower cholesterol and possibly as an antioxictant (stopping carcinogenic chemicals). Among garlic's principal assets are sulphur compounds that act as antibiotics and antifungals. The only side effect that garlic has is on the breath, which is remedied with lemon or fresh parsley.
Jewish tradition maintained an extremely positive view of garlic, referring to Jews as "garlic eaters" (Nedarim 3:10). One Talmudic passage (Shabbat 118b) noted, "Our Rabbis taught: Five things were said of garlic: It satiates, it warms the body, it brightens one's face, it increases semen, and it kills intestinal parasites. Some say that it fosters love and removes jealousy." On the other hand, Rabbi Judah Hanasi once sought to toss out a student from his academy because his breath reeked of garlic (Sanhedrin 11a). Rambam advised only infrequent consumption of garlic, and not during the summer. Nevertheless, it remained an integral and beloved component of most forms of Jewish cooking.
According to Pliny the Elder (Natural History) Egyptians invoked onions and garlic as gods when taking an oath.
Thus none of these foods is viewed in a negative light by itself and, on the contrary, are highly regarded. The key to understanding the commonality of these six enumerated foods and why the Israelites included only them in their lament is the term nafshaynu yvaysha ("our soul is dried away, there is nothing at all, except this manna before our eyes") in the ensuing verse (Numbers 11:6). The text immediately revealed that, when the manna was ground and cooked in pots, it "was as the taste of a bread baked with oil (Numbers 11:8)." The Israelites brought examples of food, then talk about their soul. It was not their bodies that lacked, but something much less tangible. Although the generation of the wilderness had all of their needs met, they still felt dissatisfied. The Israelite's complaint was not about hunger or proper nutrition. Indeed, none of the five vegetables are particularly nourishing per se or constitute the prime ingredient of a dish. None of them was a staple of the diet, such as grains and legumes, rather they were all considered secondary crops. And the complaint was not about the quality of the food, for the six enumerated items represented the basest and simplest of fare. Hence Rabbi Judah ben Ilai (Pesachim 114a) recommended, "Eat onion (betzal) and dwell in the shade (ba-tzel), and do not eat geese and fowl lest your heart pursue you; reduce your food and drink and increase (expenditure) on your house." (Spending too much on rich foods causes debt and diverts money from household expenses.) Considering that the Israelites had for centuries subsisted on a slave's diet, a regimen of fancy baked goods hardly seemed like such a miserable predicament. In contradistinction, all of the six items for which they yearned constituted basic and simple fare. And all of these foods have another quality in common -- they are generally cooked or pickled before being consumed, including watermelon, which was also eaten in the immature stage, both fresh and dried, as a vegetable (Ma'aserot 1:5). The five enumerated vegetables are all flavorings and flavor enhancers, rather than food itself. Their “soul is dried away” because of monotony, but not necessarily monotony from their diet.
According to the Midrash, the manna could obtain the taste of anything except for the five enumerated vegetables? Rashi (Numbers 11:5) explained, "Rav Shimon said: 'Why was the manna transformed into everything except these? Because they are harmful to nursing mothers. People say to a woman, 'Do not eat garlic or onions because of the infant.'" Any dairy farmer will tell you that cows love to eat green onions, but it sours the milk, which must then be dumped. Mother's milk changes according to her diet and any nursing mother quickly learns that if she eats certain foods the baby becomes gaseous or even ill. Hence the employment of the peculiar term “k'tam l'shad hashemen” to describe the taste of the manna, pure and nourishing as mother's milk, is a further condemnation of the complainers who yearned for items that sour breast milk. The use of breasts, however, symbolize not only mother's milk but also sex.
The Torah certainly employed food as a metaphor for sensuality (see Song of Songs) and sex. Indeed, before eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve "were not ashamed (Genesis 2:25)," the fruit denoting a knowledge of carnality. The serpent is certainly phallic. In Genesis (39:6) bread served as a euphemism for Potiphar's wife, "And he left all that he had in Joseph's hand, and with him he knew except the bread that he did eat." Those confined by the Western suppression of sensuality, typified by the use of metal flatware intruding between them and their food, all too often fail to realize just how sensual food and eating can be. The Eastern custom of eating with one's hands, on the other hand, puts a person into direct contact with their sense of touch, taste, and smell.
Here in Beha’alotecha, the enumerated foods reflected a sexual connotation. Indeed, leeks and snake melons (or even chate melons) have a phallic shape, the round watermelons and onions intimate female breasts, and a bulb of garlic suggests another part of the male anatomy. The het'ahvoo (lusting) of the mixed multitude was not simply for "flesh to eat" but a metaphor for a sexual lust for human flesh. After all, the Torah informed us that there was plenty of meat, "And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks and herds, even very much cattle (Exodus 12:38)." In some cultures, quails are considered an aphrodisiac and, perhaps the people, in asking for meat and having previously been served quail, were requesting them again as a component of their carnal desires. The complainers wanted stimulation, in flavor and other areas. Thus Targum Onkelos translated the term nafshaynu yvaysha as not "dried away" by "our soul is lusting." Ramban added that "because of their many desires their temperaments had become heated and dried up." Indeed, Rashi (Numbers 11:5) asks, "Then what is meant by 'freely?' Free of commandments." To be sure, the five enumerated plants grew wild in Egypt and anyone could gather them, while fish could be freely obtained from the Nile. Yet Rashi saw the specific and cumulative use of these types as not referring to a loss of free food, but to a loss of sexual freedom due to the Biblical restrictions. In this vein, Rashi cited the Sifri to interpret the verse, "And Moses heard the people weeping l'mishpchotav (in their family)," explaining, "And our rabbis explained l'mishpchotav: 'regarding family matters, regarding sexual relationships that were forbidden to them (Numbers 11:10).'" The Talmud (Yoma 75a) also inferred from the use of the term l’mishpechosav (“in their families” 11:10) as implying conjugal relations.
The Talmud (Yoma 75a) recorded a disagreement between Rav and Shumuel, "One said actual fish, one said illicit relations," then concluded that it was both. Fish are an ancient symbol of fertility. And this puts a special light on the Talmudic statement (Shabbat 118b) "Wherewith does one show delight in the Sabbath? Rav Judah the son of Samuel ben Shilath said in the name of Rav: 'With beets (the greens), a large fish, and garlic.'" All three of these items were considered to be aphrodisiacs, and Friday night was a traditional time of sexual relations (Ketubot 62b). The Misnah (Nedarim 8:6) also noted that Friday night "people customarily eat garlic." Thus the Talmud (Baba Kama 82a) included among the ten edicts attributed to Ezra the Scribe "that garlic be eaten on Friday nights," explaining "because of onah (sexual satisfaction)."
Throughout the literature and culture of the ancient Middle East, cucurbits (including melons and cucumbers), due to their seeds and shape, had symbolic associations with sexuality and fertility. Melons endure as an aphrodisiac in many areas. Indeed, cucurbits remain traditional Rosh Hashanah fare, the seeds a symbol of fertility, as do leeks. Even the very shape of cucumbers and leeks are phallic. The celibate priests of ancient Egypt were forbidden to eat onions because of their erogenous effects.
In addition, all six of the enumerated foods are purported to provide extra stamina. Hence the Roman historian Herodotus recorded, "On the Great Pyramid (of Cheops) it is declared in Egyptian writing how much was spent on radishes and onions and leeks for the workmen." Inscriptions from the time of Ramses III reveal that garlic was also distributed to the laborers. Stamina, of course, proves beneficial in more areas than work.
According to Ibn Ezra cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic are "the precious things of the yield of (ripened by) the moons (Deuteronomy 33:14)." The natural rhythm of the moon mirrors a woman's monthly cycle. Thus in astrology, the moon symbolizes the female. Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) is the woman's festival. In any case, there is a connection between the five enumerated vegetables and the menstrual cycle.
Interestingly, the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Efrayim Lunshitz) explained the strange terminology of the initial complaining, mitonenim (Numbers 11:1), as being derived from the word onen (a mourner between the death of a close relative and the burial), one of whose prohibitions is sexual relations. Thus the source of even the initial and unspecified complaint at the start of Numbers 11 lay in discontent with the sexual constraints. Indeed, the punishment for the first incident of remonstration was fire (Numbers 11:1), a prevalent symbol of libidinous lust.
The Israelite's request for such mundane foods, the inability to appreciate the finer things in life, reflects a deep-seated and incurable disorder. Why not imagine a feast of gourmet delights? Why not think of the possibilities and adventures that lay ahead? Instead, these ex-slaves could only yearn for baser fare, for Egypt. They had grown into adulthood in bondage and were unable to shake, despite the momentous events that had befallen them, their slave mentality. They yearned for foods easily scavenged from the fields and the laxity that came with a lack of responsibility. When in trouble or depressed, the initial instinct of these newly emancipated people remained "Let us make a leader and we will return to Egypt (Numbers 14:4)." They would always remain tied to Egypt and its mindset.
In direct contradistinction to the complaints of Beha’alotecha was another instance of protesting forty years later, one following the death of Miriam and the sudden absence of water (Numbers 20:4-5). The Israelites remonstrate, "Why did you bring the congregation of God into this wilderness to die there, us and our livestock? Why did you take us out of Egypt and bring us to this terrible place? It is not a place of seed, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink." Unlike the previous complaint, God's response does not result in any death, but rather he instructs Moses, "Take your rod and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and speak you to the rock before their eyes that it give forth its water." After 40 years in the wilderness, the new generation of Israelites has no desire to return to the land or the ways of Egypt. Instead, their complaint demonstrated a focus on the Promised Land. This time the enumerated foods reveal not a lust for the laxity of Egypt, but a hope to live a holy life in their new land. This was a generation with the mindset to cross the Jordan and claim their inheritance.
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