News flash: Ancient Jews didn’t keep kosher!

·2 min read
an archaeological dig in Israel
an archaeological dig in Israel

It is a common misconception about Jews that we all keep kosher. We do not. In fact, new research out of Israel’s Ariel University shows that we never did, even in ancient times. (We are also all not Israeli.)

This discovery began, Smithsonian reports, when Yonatan Adler, an archaeologist, learned that his colleague Omri Lernau, a fish expert, had discovered the remains of catfish, skate, and shark in ancient Judean settlements in what is now southern Israel. That piqued Adler’s curiosity because catfish, skate, and shark aren’t kosher fish and the period that the fish came from was more than a thousand years after the Torah, and the laws of kashrut, were revealed at Mount Sinai, at least according to rabbinic tradition. So why were these people eating treyf? (In some parts of the world, it’s harder than in others to tease history from myth and tradition.)

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Lernau, as it happened, had an enormous collection of fish remains that he’d gleaned from ancient garbage dumps. He and Adler pored over them together. They realized that during the Persian period, 539 to 332 BCE, people were eating lots of non-kosher fish, but that by the Roman period, 63 BCE to 324 CE, they had stopped. What changed? Was the whole story of Moses and Mount Sinai just a ruse? Were kosher laws invented during the Hasmonean period, 140 to 37 BCE, just because and then retroactively blamed on God? Were the people in those settlements not Jews?

Adler doesn’t think the laws were invented later, and it seems to be assumed that the Judeans were Jewish. Instead, he thinks that people just didn’t know about them. The average Judean, he argues, was an illiterate farmer who didn’t know much about what the literate intellectuals were up to, and that included keeping kosher.

That would also explain why other researchers have found pig bones in ancient garbage heaps, both in Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel.

Adler and Lernau hope that this discovery will inspire more scholars from different disciplines to work together—and also to keep an eye out for more fish remains.

“I am interested in social history, in what, the actual regular people were doing but they didn’t leave any texts because they were illiterate and left no writing,” Adler told Smithsonian. “If we want to know what the regular people were doing or not doing, archaeology is a wonderful tool to answer this question.”

The whole article is worth a read.