Let Them Eat Fish: Food for the Poor in Early Rabbinic Judaism1

In: Journal for the Study of Judaism
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  • 1 Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious StudiesThe University of British Columbia, 1866 Main Mall, Buchanan C 216 Vancouver, B.C., V6T 1Z1,
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Recent scholarship has shown how investigations into food and poverty contribute to our understanding of late-antique Judaism and Christianity. These areas of inquiry overlap in the study of charity, as providing food was the preeminent way to support the poor. What foods and foodways do the earliest texts of rabbinic Judaism prescribe for the poor? This article examines Tannaitic discussions of the foods that should be given as charity, reading these texts within their literary and historical contexts. I find that they prescribe a two-tiered system whereby foods for the week aim to meet the poor’s biological needs, while those for the Sabbath fulfill religious requirements. These rabbinic instructions, however, also reinforce social separation and deepen the poor’s sense of exclusion. This article contributes to scholarship on poverty and charity in late antiquity, the use of food in the construction of rabbinic identity, and the tensions that arise from establishing material requirements for religious observances.

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