Jewish dietary laws that prohibit the eating of fish that don’t have fins and scales didn’t stop the ancient residents of Judea from frequently dining on non-kosher fish, a new study finds.
Clues to these ancient meals surfaced in thousands of tiny fish bones that were excavated from dozens of sites in what is now Israel and Sinai. New analysis of these bones shows that people in Judea (now southern Israel and part of Palestine’s West Bank) regularly ate non-kosher fish such as catfish and sharks.
Many of these bones date to after the time when the prohibitions against such non-kosher, or “treif,” foods were codified in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Torah. For instance, fish bones appeared in locations all the way up to the Hellenistic period (332 to 63 B.C.).
But by the Roman period, around the first century A.D., few non-kosher fish bones show up in Judean archaeological sites. Over time, as knowledge of the prohibition became more widespread among “rank and file” Judeans, they likely started avoiding fish that were previously a staple of their diet, scientists reported in a new study.
Warnings about eating certain types of fish appear in two of the Torah’s five books: Leviticus and Deuteronomy, according to the study. In Leviticus 11: 9–12, the text declares that “of their flesh you shall not eat … everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable for you.” The passage in Deuteronomy reiterates “whatever does not have fins and scales you shall not eat,” labeling such fish “unclean.” (Deuteronomy 14: 9–10)