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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Washing of Hands

By Alfred Edersheim (1825–1889)

From ‘The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah’

THE EXTERNALISM of all these practices [ceremonial practices of the Hebrews] will best appear from the following account which the Talmud gives of “a feast.” As the guests enter, they sit down on chairs, and water is brought to them, with which they wash one hand. Into this the cup is taken, when each speaks the blessing over the wine partaken of before dinner. Presently they all lie down at table. Water is again brought them, with which they now wash both hands, preparatory to the meal, when the blessing is spoken over the bread, and then over the cup, by the chief person at the feast, or else by one selected by way of distinction. The company respond by Amen, always supposing the benediction to have been spoken by an Israelite, not a heathen, slave, nor law-breaker. Nor was it lawful to say it with an unlettered man, although it might be said with a Cuthæan (heretic, or Samaritan,) who was learned. After dinner the crumbs, if any, are carefully gathered—hands are again washed, and he who first had done so leads in the prayer of thanksgiving. The formula in which he is to call on the rest to join him by repeating the prayers after him is prescribed, and differs according to the number of those present. The blessing and the thanksgiving are allowed to be said not only in Hebrew, but in any other language.

In regard to the position of the guests, we know that the uppermost seats were occupied by the Rabbis. The Talmud formulates it in this manner: That the worthiest lies down first, on his left side, with his feet hanging down. If there are two “cushions” (divans), the next worthiest lies at his feet; if there are three cushions, the third worthiest lies above the first (at his left), so that the chief person is in the middle. The water before eating is first handed to the worthiest, and so in regard to the washing after meat. But if a very large number are present, you begin after dinner with the least worthy till you come to the last five, when the worthiest in the company washes his hands, and the other four after him. The guests being thus arranged, the head of the house, or the chief person at table, speaks the blessing and then cuts the bread. By some it was not deemed etiquette to begin till after he who had said the prayer had done so, but this does not seem to have been the rule among the Palestinian Jews. Then, generally, the bread was dipped into salt or something salted, etiquette demanding that where there were two they should wait one for the other, but not where there were three or more.

This is not the place to furnish what may be termed a list of menus at Jewish tables. In earlier times the meal was no doubt very simple. It became otherwise when intercourse with Rome, Greece, and the East made the people familiar with foreign luxury, while commerce supplied its requirements. Indeed, it would scarcely be possible to enumerate the various articles which seem to have been imported from different, and even distant, countries.

To begin with: The wine was mixed with water, and indeed, some thought that the benediction should not be pronounced till the water had been added to the wine. According to one statement two parts, according to another three parts, of water were to be added to the wine. Various vintages are mentioned: among them a red wine of Saron, and a black wine. Spiced wine was made with honey and pepper. Another mixture, chiefly used for invalids, consisted of old wine, water, and balsam; yet another was “wine of myrrh”; we also read of a wine in which capers had been soaked. To these we should add wine spiced either with pepper or with absinthe, and what is described as vinegar, a cooling drink made either of grapes that had not ripened, or of the lees. Besides these, palm wine was also in use. Of foreign drinks, we read of wine from Ammon and from the province Asia, the latter a kind of “must” boiled down. Wine in ice came from Lebanon; a certain kind of vinegar from Idumæa; beer from Media and Babylon; barley wine (zythos) from Egypt. Finally, we ought to mention Palestinian apple cider, and the juice of other fruits. If we adopt the rendering of some, even liqueurs were known and used.

Long as this catalogue is, that of the various articles of food, whether native or imported, would occupy a much larger space. Suffice it that as regarded the various kinds of grain, meat, fish, and fruits, either in their natural state or preserved, it embraced almost everything known to the ancient world. At feasts there was an introductory course, consisting of appetizing salted meat, or of some light dish. This was followed by the dinner itself, which finished with dessert (aphikomon or terugima), consisting of pickled olives, radishes and lettuce, and fruits, among which even preserved ginger from India is mentioned. The most diverse and even strange statements are made as to the healthiness, or the reverse, of certain articles of diet, especially vegetables. Fish was a favorite dish, and never wanting at a Sabbath meal. It was a saying that both salt and water should be taken at every meal, if health was to be preserved. Condiments, such as mustard or pepper, were to be sparingly used. Very different were the meals of the poor. Locusts—fried in flour or honey, or preserved—required, according to the Talmud, no blessing; since the animal was really among the curses of the land. Eggs were a common article of food, and sold in the shops. Then there was a milk dish, into which people dipped their bread. Others who were better off had a soup made of vegetables, especially onions, and meat; while the very poor would satisfy the cravings of hunger with bread and cheese, or bread and fruit, or some vegetables, such as cucumbers, lentils, beans, peas, or onions.

At meals the rules of etiquette were strictly observed, especially as regarded the sages. Indeed, there are added to the Talmud two tractates, one describing the general etiquette, the other that of “sages,” of which the title may be translated as ‘The Way of the World’ (Derech Erez), being a sort of code of good manners. According to some, it was not good breeding to speak while eating. The learned and most honored occupied not only the chief places, but were sometimes distinguished by a double portion. According to Jewish etiquette, a guest should conform in everything to his host, even though it were unpleasant. Although hospitality was the greatest and most prized social virtue, which, to use a rabbinic expression, might make every home a sanctuary and every table an altar, an unbidden guest, or a guest who brought another guest, was proverbially an unwelcome apparition. Sometimes, by way of self-righteousness, the poor were brought in, and the best part of the meal ostentatiously given to them. At ordinary entertainments, people were to help themselves. It was not considered good manners to drink as soon as you were asked, but you ought to hold the cup for a little in your hand. But it would be the height of rudeness either to wipe the plates, to scrape together the bread, as though you had not had enough to eat, or to drop it, to the inconvenience of your neighbor. If a piece were taken out of a dish, it must of course not be put back; still less must you offer from your cup or plate to your neighbor. From the almost religious value attaching to bread, we scarcely wonder that these rules were laid down: not to steady a cup or plate upon bread, nor to throw away bread, and that after dinner the bread was to be carefully swept together. Otherwise, it was thought, demons would sit upon it. ‘The Way of the World’ for sages lays down these as the marks of a rabbi: that he does not eat standing; that he does not lick his fingers; that he sits down only beside his equals—in fact, many regarded it as wrong to eat with the unlearned; that he begins cutting the bread where it is best baked, nor ever breaks off a bit with his hand; and that when drinking, he turns away his face from the company. Another saying was, that the sage was known by four things: at his cups, in money matters, when angry, and in his jokes. After dinner, the formalities concerning hand-washing and prayer, already described, were gone through, and then frequently aromatic spices burnt, over which a special benediction was pronounced. We have only to add that on Sabbaths it was deemed a religious duty to have three meals, and to procure the best that money could obtain, even though one were to save and fast for it all the week. Lastly, it was regarded as a special obligation and honor to entertain sages.

We have no difficulty now in understanding what passed at the table of the Pharisee. When the water for purification was presented to him, Jesus would either refuse it, or if, as seems more likely at a morning meal, each guest repaired by himself for the prescribed purification, he would omit to do so, and sit down to meat without this formality. No one who knows the stress which Pharisaism laid on this rite would argue that Jesus might have conformed to the practice. Indeed, the controversy was long and bitter between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel, on such a point as whether the hands were to be washed before the cup was filled with wine, or after that, and where the towel was to be deposited. With such things the most serious ritual inferences were connected on both sides. A religion which spent its energy on such trivialities must have lowered the moral tone. All the more that Jesus insisted so earnestly, as the substance of his teaching, on that corruption of our nature which Judaism ignored and on that spiritual purification which was needful for the reception of his doctrine,—would he publicly and openly set aside ordinances of man which diverted thoughts of purity into questions of the most childish character. On the other hand, we can also understand what bitter thoughts must have filled the mind of the Pharisee whose guest Jesus was, when he observed his neglect of the cherished rite. It was an insult to himself, a defiance of Jewish law, a revolt against the most cherished traditions of the synagogue. Remembering that a Pharisee ought not to sit down to a meal with such, he might feel that he should not have asked Jesus to his table.