Study of ancient fish bones shows Judeans ignored Torah’s non-kosher fish ban

ARIEL, Israel — Ancient Judeans often ate non-kosher fish around the time that such food was prohibited in the Bible, an Israeli study discovered. Researchers say the analysis of fish bones that are thousands of years old reveals the forbidden diet. These findings shed fresh light on the origin of dietary laws from the Torah that are still observed by many Jewish people today. 

The study reports an analysis of ancient fish bones from 30 archaeological sites in Israel and Sinai which date to the more than 2,000-year span from the Late Bronze Age until the end of the Byzantine period. Scientists say that their findings call for a rethink of assumptions that long-held traditions were the basis for the food laws outlined in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Torah.

“The ban on finless and scaleless fish deviated from long standing Judean dietary habits. The Biblical writers appear to have prohibited this food despite the fact that non-kosher fish were often found on the Judean menu,” says study co-author Doctor Yonatan Adler, a senior lecturer in archaeology at Ariel University, in a statement. “There is little reason to think that an old and widespread dietary taboo lay at the root of this ban.”

The Torah was written at different times, beginning in the centuries before the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC and into Hellenistic times. A set of passages repeated twice forbids the eating of certain types of fish. This includes any species of fish which lacks scales or fins.

The Book of Leviticus states: “Everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable to you.” Deuteronomy decrees that “…whatever does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you.” In both pages, the references immediately follow a ban on “unclean” pig as well. However, Dr. Adler notes that the origins and early history of the seafood ban have not been explored in detail until now.

The research team set out to discover when and how the ban on fish first arose, and if it was predated by an earlier taboo practiced before the editing of the Old Testament passages. They also sought to establish the extent to which the rule was obeyed. Study co-author Professor Omri Lernau, of Haifa University, analyzed thousands of fish remains from dozens of locations.

At many Judean sites dating to the Iron Age (1130 BC to 586 BC), including at the Judean capital city of Jerusalem, bones included “significant proportions” of non-kosher fish remains. Another key discovery was evidence of non-kosher fish consumption in Jerusalem during the Persian era (539 BC to 332 BC). However, non-kosher fish bones were mostly absent from Judean settlements dating to the Roman era and later.

The researchers note that sporadic non-kosher fish remains from the later time may indicate “some degree of non-observance among Judeans.” Now they intend to analyze more fish from around the same era to establish when Judeans began to avoid eating scaleless fish, and how strictly the prohibition was observed.

Findings are published in the journal Tel Aviv.

SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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