Book Announcement: Delicious Prose: Reading the Tale of Tobit with Food and Drink

Many thanks to Jan Heilman and Susan Marks for inviting me to write a guest post about my recent volume, Delicious Prose: Telling the Tale of Tobit with Food and DrinkA Commentary (Brill, 2018, Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism, Volume: 188).

Delicious Prose argues that food and drink in Tobit are essential both to telling the story (plot, characters, structure, mood, symbolism) and promoting acts of righteousness, even to the point of cultural resistance against a hostile dominant culture. Jews who adhere to their traditions, especially endogamy and almsgiving, the story argues, will prosper in the end even if they must at first suffer profoundly.

Delicious Prose identifies and analyzes the nearly three-dozen references to food and drink which occur throughout the ancient Jewish fairy tale. They include: (1) the distribution of food as tithes, in feeding the hungry, and in placing consumables on graves, (2) food preparation, (3)  the consumption of food and drink and their associated dining customs, and (4) instances in which food is avoided or its consumption is delayed. A notable case of the latter is when Tobit leaps from his tempting Shavuot meal without tasting it in order to attend to a corpse (Tob 2:4).

Delicious Prose delineates how each food-linked reference functions within its immediate context, and within the work as a whole. It locates the reference both within writings sacred to Jews and Christians through late antiquity and from the wider world, including Egypt, the Ancient Near East, Ugarit, Greece, Rome and from contemporary cultures. In doing so, Delicious Prose brings to light extensive data about ancient foodways and the use of food as medicine.

For instance, following Mary Douglas, the study discusses the story’s five major meals both in relation to each other and to the overall structure they create:  (1) Tobit’s Shavuot dinner (Tob. 2:7),  (2) Tobiah’s meal of fish by the Tigris (Tob  6:6), (3) a welcoming meal at Ecbatana (Tob 7:9-14) and (4) and (5) wedding celebrations at Ecbatana and Nineveh (Tob 8:19-20; 9:6 and Tob 12:1). For example, meals in Tobit demarcate scenes in a similar way to New Comedy and young Tobiah’s scenes with his father-in-law fit within the themes of such plays, which were composed in a time roughly contemporary to Tobit.

Other examples of how Delicious Prose compares food and drink with the Greco-Roman world include: 1) travel rations, 2) washing before meals, 3) attitudes towards and consumption levels of fish and meat, 4) the use of food as materia medica and magica, 5) whether divine beings consume when on earth, and 6) with the use of folklore studies, whether the meals in Tobit allude directly to the meals of the Odyssey. In an excerpt below from Chapter Two of the study, I show how the Greek translation of Semitic food-related terminology in Tobit’s Shavuot meal enhances the level of Hellenistic culture already present in the Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts of Tobit.

Delicious Prose also considers matters of text-criticism, translation, source-criticism. and intertextuality, redaction-criticism, and issues of class and gender. It engages with anthropology, sociology, class and gender studies, post-colonial theory, folklore studies as noted above, and literary theory, including the technique of the “close reading,” Tobit’s rich intertexuality with writings sacred to Jews and to the non-Jewish Ahiqar story often include parallels to food-related scenes such as Gen 18 and 24.

Chapter One analyzes the consumption of tithes, food given to the hungry, and dietary regulations. Chapter Two describes the Shavuot meal and a proposed meal of a young goat. Chapter Three discusses consumables placed on graves and the avoidance of drunkenness. Chapter Four describes Tobiah’s eat-or-be-eaten struggle with a large fish and the harvesting of its medicinal organs. 

Chapter Five analyzes the meals and celebrations at Ecbatana and Nineveh, especially when Tobiah refuses to eat the meal set before him until his father-in-law allows him to marry his daughter Sarah. Chapter Six analyzes the two instances of fasting not found in the NRSV but supported by other Greek and Old Latin evidence, the angel Raphael’s praise of Tobit’s meal abandonment (first discussed in Chapter Two), and how his own consumption was a mere illusion.

Delicious Prose draws upon a wide range of secondary sources dating back to the nineteenth century and in German, French, Dutch, Modern Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, and Catalan. It not only also address important debates concerning Tobit’s composition, but also serves as a model for a comprehensive analysis of food and drink-related aspects within other sacred Jewish and Christian writings. 

Here is a sample passage from Chapter Two, pages 63-66 of Delicious Prose:

 Key Terms 

Comparing S with 4Q196 illustrates how the text of Tobit can create different cultural expectations as it is transmitted from language to language. To review, this study is agnostic as to whether the story was first written in Hebrew or Aramaic and whether the various Greek versions were based on a Hebrew or Aramaic Vorlage.

ἄριστον and שׁרו both refer to the meal. The Greek noun ἄριστον and the corresponding Latin term prandium designate a mid-day meal. In Hellenistic Greek ἄριστον is understood in relation to δεῖπνον, which either denotes the evening meal or functions as an unmarked term for a meal. The term ἄριστον appears rarely in the LXX/OG. As well as denoting time of day (already indicated by the fact the body is discovered before sunset), it communicates culture.

A modern example of how mealtime names are culturally significant may be found in what the evening meal is called in England. Among the working classes, ‘tea’ refers to the evening meal, in contrast to the chief meal at midday, known as ‘dinner.’ Working class persons would need to have the heaviest meal in the midday to keep them going at their physically demanding jobs. In contrast, the evening meal is called ‘dinner’ amongst the middle classes. Amongst the upper classes, however, the evening meal is known as ‘supper’, in contrast with the lighter midday meal of ‘luncheon’, and with ‘tea’, a 4pm meal (often with cake). This remains one of the major ways of distinguishing class.

In contrast to marked terms like ἄριστον and ‘tea’, שׁרו can be rendered as ‘meal. Otherwise unattested in the Scrolls, שׁרו is known in its emphatic form spelt defectively in an Imperial Aramaic papyrus and in several later dialects (שׁרותא). Throughout its long history, שׁרו has at times possessed more specialised nuances (for example, a ‘feast’ or a meal held at a specific time), especially in Syriac. On many occasions, however, שׁרו lacks such specificity. Related to the terms just discussed are the verbs in 2:1: ἀριστάω and √אכל. ἀριστάω can mean to eat one’s ἄριστον’, or to eat generally. Like ἄριστον, the verb is rare in the LXX/OG and evokes a Hellenic/Hellenistic cultural context. In contrast, meaning ‘to eat’ is not time-specific; cf. φαγεῖν (GI √אכל)

Both פת[ו]רא and τράπεζα refer to an ‘eating table,’ a table in general, or a banker’s table. The τράπεζα, in particular, connotes a Greek three-legged table used for eating (even though its etymology refers to four legs). The bringing in of the table in 4Q196 also suggests the use of something like a τράπεζα. The verb used to convey the table’s arrival is also of interest. In S the table ‘was set before’ (παρετέθη) Tobit. παρατίθημι is used in Homeric and Attic Greek specifically for serving meals. In 4Q196 the table arrives for Tobit with a third person39 plural active verb, “And they brought near the ta[b]le before me (קרב√ ”.)ואקרבו פת[ו]רא לקרדמי does not possess any known nuances relating to food.

The term ὀψάριον (2:2) is well known whilst נפתנא (plural, נפתניא) is otherwise unattested. ὄψον and its double diminutive ὀψάριον evoke a Greek world-view in which food is divided into two categories: (1) a staple grain product, σῖτος (e.g., bread), with (2) accompanying food or foods (ὄψον or ὀψάριον). These accompaniments, which as a category suggest pleasureful eating, are not supposed to take centre stage. (The primary use of rice in many Asian meals might be seen as a similar convention.) Accompaniments during the Classical period would include vegetables, cheese, eggs, fish (fresh, salted, or dried), and less frequently meat. In later periods and especially in Athens, both terms, particularly ὀψάριον, could denote fish, although not always. נפתנא could potentially have the same meaning as ὀψάριον, given that Tobit’s use of the table also reflects Hellenic practice

Overall, the Greek version employs more specific terminology in connection with meals, eating, the eating table, and the setting up of the meal. The effect of these details is to intensify the Hellenic colouring already present in the originally Semitic story as well as possibly add further attention to the food element.

Thank you for reading.

Feel free to contact me via email (author at harvalan dot com) if you have any questions about the book, Tobit, or food and drink in sacred Jewish and Christian writings.

Naomi S.S. Jacobs (Ph.D, Durham University, 2007) has written extensively on Tobit, including  “Biting Off More Than They Can Chew: Food, Eating and Cultural Integration in Tobit and Letter of Aristeas. Pages 157–179 in The Eucharist – Its Origins and Contexts Edited by Dieter Sänger and David Hellholm. WUNT. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017  and has served as the Tobit contributor for the forthcoming The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha, edited by Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills (Oxford: Oxford University Press.)


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