Let Them Eat Fish: Food for the Poor in Early Rabbinic Judaism

What foods and foodways do early rabbinic texts prescribe for the poor? Answering this question will help us understand the role of food in the formative era of Judaism and Christianity as well as the early rabbinic movement’s conceptualization of charity (tsedaqah), which remains a central focus of Judaism to this day. In this paper, I examine the earliest rabbinic discussions of charity (Tosefta Peah; 2nd–3rd century), which I read in light of their literary and historical contexts. I find that the rabbis envision a two-tiered system of almsgiving. The poor should be given bread, olive oil, and legumes on weekdays – foods that fill one’s belly but also carry negative semiotic values and reinforce the stigma of poverty. For the Sabbath, the poor receive three meals, which include fish and a vegetable, to ensure that they observe the Sabbath in a way that is idiosyncratically rabbinic. Food, therefore, serves as a means to control the poor’s religious observance, contributing to our understanding of how charity was used to assert religious authority in late antiquity.