Fruitful Genosar: A Talmudic Polemic?

 At our Weekly Talmud class on tractate Berachot we delved into a discussion at 44a on the most abundant and delicious fruits ever.  These fruits came from a place northwest of the Kinneret called “Genosar”. The discussion began:

…Rav Ashi said -  with regard to those who are eating the fruits of Genosar…

אמר רב אשי  - באוכלי פירות גנוסר שנו

Genosar is a place name that is more than three thousand years ago.  It was first called Kinneret.  This city was of such prominence that it lent its name to the nearby lake which today is called the Sea of Galilee or Lake Kinneret.  Kinneret is cited in the Book of Joshua at 19:35 where it is allotted to the Tribe of Naftali.  Kinneret is also mentioned in the Book of Numbers (34:11) and in the Book of Deuteronomy (3:17).

When Kinneret came under the influence of the Greeks, some twenty-three hundred years ago, its name was Hellenized to Gennesaret.  Then, about two thousand years ago, during the first century CE, Gennesaret was Romanized to Genosar. 

When I think of Genosar, I conjure up a connection to Christianity. Anyone who travels around Lake Kinneret has to be aware of that body of water's association with Jesus and his ministry two thousand years ago.  This being the case I began to wonder if the Sages in the Talmud had some sort of agenda when they went on an on in their enthusiastic portrayal of the quality and abundance of Genosar's produce.

This curiosity was further whetted when I searched through the Gospel of Matthew.  The Gospel of Matthew was originally written, maybe around 100 CE, in a literally dialect called "Synagogue Greek”.  Matthew was a Jew who was deciding whether to go this way or that way.  Before the crucifixion he writes about us as being the Children of Israel, but after the crucifixion we become the Jews.  It is an early example of being defined by someone from the outside.

In Matthew there is a connection between Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and Genosar.  Part of a tale takes place when Jesus comes ashore (14:36) at Genosar, Gennasaret, Γεννησαρέτ in the text.  This is where a crowd of people are brought to him. This crowd wants Jesus to heal their sick from various maladies, and Jesus has a reputation for doing just that.  He does this by letting the sick touch the fringes of his cloak.  Yes, Jesus wore tzitzes…who would have guessed.

In a similar fashion and perhaps connected to the later Genosar tale, (14:13-21), Jesus comes ashore and a large crowd of people are there to meet him. He heals their sick.  His disciples ask him to dismiss the crowd so that they can buy some food because it is late in the day.  When he tells them to feed the crowd, the disciples demur because there is hardly any food except five loaves of bread and two fishes. Then through a miracle, enough food is produced to feed a crowd of 5000 men, not including women and children. 

Let’s turn our attention back to the discussion in Berachot 44a.  What we read are bizarre tales that are over the top, which are told of these Genosar fruits. One such tale describes a well-known, highly respected Sage who ate a thousand of the fruits without becoming full because of their sweetness.  There is another that speaks of a Sage eating them until his hair fell out. Another tells of a Sage who would eat them and become so confused that he could not walk under his own power and had to be carried.  It’s peculiar to see the Chazal presented in such a preposterous light.

Following this description of the Sages is a story about the Hasmonean King, Jannai.  He fed his workers who were picking figs with 600,000 bowls of salted sardines in a single week. This was necessary to counter balance the sweet taste of these amazing figs.  The discussion doesn’t stop there, goes on, but you get the idea.

There is also more than meets the eye by citing a tale in which King Jannai play a pivotal role.  Jannai was a Sadducee, an enemy of the Pharisees.  In a moment of pique, Jannai had 800 Pharisees crucified.  The Pharisees are viewed as an enemy of Jesus…the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

So what is going on here?  Is there a connection between the Christian Jesus’ miraculous feeding of a multitude with a few loaves and fishes, and the farcical tales of Jewish leadership engaging in over eating along with a tale of one of their kings feeding his workers?

I think what we are seeing is a polemic, one that is hidden in the Talmud, against the Christian Church.  Consider the geo-politics of the time: Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE.  Rav Ashi cited in this Talmudic discussion was extant during the period 375-425 CE.  It would be worth your life for a Jew to openly go up against the Christian Church.

But by making fun of themselves and using the Sadducee king, Jannai as a proxy the Talmud safely ridicules the Gospel of Matthew and in effect blasphemes Jesus and the Christian Church. 

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