Poverty, Charity, and the Economics of Sabbath Meals in Early Judaism

As locations of social interaction, meals are attractive targets for self-proclaimed religious experts who seek to define, structure, and influence human behavior. These include the ancient rabbis who authored and edited the foundational works of Jewish law – including the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Tannaitic Midrashim, which took shape in Roman Palestine in the third century C.E. In these texts, the Tannaim prescribe a number of laws related to food and eating. Because meals are materially-defined, early rabbinic legal prescriptions on food and eating are necessarily shaped by economic constraints. What one eats, as well as how one eats, when one eats, and with whom one eats may be influenced or dictated by a scarcity of resources. This scarcity is a function of one’s geographic location (e.g. certain foods may be more prevalent than others), social location (one’s personal ability to acquire certain foods), and other factors that are beyond rabbinic control. This paper will explore the economics of rabbinic discussions of meals by undertaking a close examination of the rabbinic law to eat three meals during the Sabbath. I will examine the background of this obligation in the Second Temple period, and then trace its development and concretization in early rabbinic literature. Prescribing an additional, third meal (over the two normally consumed during the week) adds an element of indulgence and joy to the Sabbath – but may also entail an additional outlay of economic resources. We then see the Tannaim construct laws of charity in ways that enable the poor to fulfill certain materially-contingent religious laws, including the obligation to eat three meals on the sabbath. This happens, though, in ways that may not have been anticipated. Perhaps sensitive to over-extending the community’s benevolence, the Tannaim structure charity laws so that the obligation to eat three meals can be fulfilled by restructuring time instead of requiring an additional economic outlay. The flexibility of time saves money and releases a tension between religious laws on meals and economics.