World of the Sages: Cucumber delicacies

The beauty of aggada is the timeless relevance that can be found encapsulated in the stories, parables, aphorisms and tales.

The beauty of aggada - the non-legal portions of our rabbinic tradition - is the timeless relevance that can be found encapsulated in the stories, parables, aphorisms and tales. This, of course is also the challenge of aggada: plumbing the depths of difficult passages to find the lessons contained therein. Yet aggada may be read with another agenda: Not only is it a commentary on our existence, journeys and challenges, it is also a reflection of the times of the authors. A careful reading of aggadic passages can yield clues as to the reality in which our sages lived. From the words of our sages we can glean - to cite but one example - which products were available in their times, as we shall presently see. The Talmud lists 10 items that return a sick person to his sickness and the resulting illness is more severe than it previously was (B. Brachot 57b): One who eats the meat of an ox, fatty meats, roasted meat, poultry, a roasted egg, cress, milk or cheese, or one who has a shave or one who bathes. The source continues suggesting two further items that may be added to this category: There are those who say that nuts have the same effect, and there are those who say that kishuim - a plant apparently from the Cucurbitaceae plant family such as zucchini, squash or cucumber - also falls into this category. To prove the properties of the last item, the Talmud explains the etymology of the word: Why are they called kishuim? Because they are as kashim (severe) for the body as swords. The Hebrew word for the vegetable indicates its harmful properties. The Talmud, however, is unconvinced and cites a tradition that describes two proud people - Antoninus and Rebbi. Neither radish nor horseradish nor kishuim were ever missing from their tables, not in the summer nor in the winter. How then - asks the Talmud - could kishuim be so damaging? The Talmud explains that there is difference between large kishuim which can be harmful and small kishuim which can be helpful and were therefore always to be found at the table of Rebbi and of Antoninus. Who were these two people and what was so special about the food that was always to be found on their table? Rebbi is the well-known sage Rabbi Judah the Prince (135-220 CE), who served as leader of the Jewish community in Judea during the Roman occupation toward the end of the second century CE. Rebbi, as he is simply known, is most famous as the redactor of the Mishna. The identity of Antoninus is somewhat less clear. Some have identified him as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus who reigned 161-180 CE (Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Halevy, 19th century, Europe). Alternatively, Antoninus was a local Roman official who befriended Rebbi, studied Torah with him and was sympathetic to Jewish causes. Indeed elsewhere in the Talmud we are told of the close relationship between Antoninus and Rebbi (see B. Avoda Zara 19b). Commentators discuss why the Talmud points out that radish, horseradish and kishuim were always on the table of Antoninus and Rebbi. According to one explanation, the status of these two privileged individuals dictated that they often hosted guests. At the lavish feasts in their homes the vegetables were necessary to assist in digesting the plentiful food served. The constant presence of the vegetables was an indicator of the elaborate meals, and as such an indication of the wealth of Rebbi and of Antoninus (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). An alternative approach focuses on the fact that the Talmud notes the presence of the vegetables at their tables regardless of the season of the year: Only the wealthy could afford to ensure that seasonal vegetables would be available at their tables all year round (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). According to this approach we have a glimpse of the table of our sages: For most people, vegetables were seasonal and would not be served the year round. The wealthy, however, could afford to have such vegetables that were either grown under particular conditions or brought from afar. Moreover, the presence of seasonal vegetables when they were out of season was a sign of wealth or privileged status. This analysis is supported by a different passage that relates to the wealth of Solomon (Tanhuma Yitro 7). Commenting on the verse He made everything beautiful in its time (Ecclesiastes 3:11), our sages note that had anyone but King Solomon said this verse about the Almighty we would laugh, saying, "How do you know what is beautiful in its time and what is not beautiful?" King Solomon, however, could make such a definitive statement since he never had anything missing from his table. The passage continues, describing the wealth of King Solomon, as reflected by what was served at his table: Even ice - or perhaps some early form of ice cream - during the hot summer month of Tamuz could be found at the table of King Solomon; even melaspamon at the end of winter in the month of Nisan was served. We don't know what a melaspamon is, but other versions of the passage use the word melafefon - the modern word for cucumber, but according to one authority a cross between an apple and a melon (Rabbi Shimon of Frankfort, 13th century). Be the condiment what it may, the items mentioned all share a common feature: They are seasonal, and only the wealthy could obtain such foods when they were out of season. It is not hard to imagine how difficult it would be to procure ice cream or sorbet during the scorching summer months, without modern methods of refrigeration. Of course the conclusions about the meals of our sages can be corroborated by contemporaneous sources. Nevertheless, it is nice to hear the sages telling us about their world. Perhaps more importantly, glimpses at the world of our sages remind us that they were not merely mythical figures; our sages lived in reality, just as we do today. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.