Reference: Eating, Mode Of
The Hebrews anciently sat at their meals, Ge 43:33; 1Sa 9:22; 20:25; Ps 128:3; but afterwards adopted the practice of reclining on table-beds or divans, like the Persians, Chaldeans, Romans, etc., Am 6:4. The accompanying engraving of a Roman triclinium, three beds, will illustrate several points obscure to the modern reader of the Bible. It will be seen that three low tables are so placed as to form three sides of a hollow square accessible to the waiters. Around these tables are placed, not seats, but couches, or beds, on to each table, formed of mattresses stuffed, and often highly ornamented, Es 1:6; 7:1,8. The guests reclined with their heads to the table, each one leaning on his left elbow, and therefore using principally his right hand in taking food. Observe also that the feet of the person reclining being towards the external edge of the bed, they were much more readily reached by any one passing than any other part of the person than any other part of the person so reclining, Lu 7:36-50; Joh 12:3.
This mode of reclining at table rendered it easy for our Lord to wash the feet of his disciples at the last supper, Joh 13:5-12, and "wiped them with the towel wherewith he was girded." It also explains the position of John at the same supper; for if he reclined next in front of the Savior, he lay as it were in his bosom, Joh 13:23,25, and might readily lean back his head upon the Savior's breast.
It is unknown, however, how far or how long this custom displaced the primitive eastern mode still prevalent in Palestine and vicinity. The ordinary table was no more than a circular skin or carpet spread upon the floor, or on rugs or cushions. Sometimes there was a small table in the center, raising the principal dish a little above the floor.
The meals of the Jews were generally two, loosely distinguished as dinner and supper, Lu 14:12; Joh 21:12. The first meal was usually light, consisting of milk, cheese, bread, or fruits, and eaten at various hours from early morning to the middle of the forenoon. In the early history of the Hebrews, the principal meal, corresponding with our dinner, was eaten about noon, Ge 43:25; 1Ki 20:16. At a later period, at least on festive occasions, it was taken after the heat of the day was over. This was the "supper." The Jews were wont to wash their hands before eating, a custom rendered necessary by their mode of eating, but made by the Pharisees a test of piety, Mr 7:2-3; Lu 11:38. Devout Jews, not only in their sacred feasts, but in their daily enjoyments at the family meal, recognized the Giver of all good, and implored his blessing on their food, 1Sa 9:13; Mt 14:19; 15:36; 26:26; Lu 9:16; Joh 6:11; 1Ti 4:3. Some families repeated the twenty-third Psalm as they seated themselves at meals. The food consisted of flesh, fish, or fowls, butter, honey, bread, and fruits. See FOOD. Animal food was often cut into small pieces, or stewed, and served up in one large dish with melted butter, vegetables, etc. Knives, forks, and spoons were unknown as table-furniture; and the food was conveyed to the mouth by the right hand, Pr 19:24. Each person took a portion from the dish either with his thumb and fingers, or with the help of a small piece of thin bread. Several hands were occasionally plunged into the same dish at once, Joh 13:26. The head of the family was wont to send a double portion of food to a stranger, as an honor, and to furnish him a greater variety, Ge 43:31; 1Sa 1:4; 9:22-24; and often would select the choicest morsels and present them to his guest with his own fingers. Compare Ru 2:14, and Joh 13:26. This is still customary in the East. After eating, the hands were again cleansed by pouring water upon them, 2Ki 3:11. See FEAST, WASHING.
The following description of a dinner at Hebron is from Dr. Robinson. "They were dining in the true oriental style. A very large circular tray of tinned copper, placed upon a coarse wooden stool about a foot high, served as the table. In the center of this stood a large dish with a mountain of pillaw, composed of rice boiled and buttered, with small pieces of meat strewed through and upon it. This was the chief dish, although there were also other smaller dishes, both of meat and vegetables. Around this table ten persons, including the three governors-of Gaza, Hebron, and Jerusalem-were seated, or rather, squatted on their feet. Each had before him a plate of tinned copper and a wooden spoon. Some used the spoon without the plate; but the most preferred to eat with the fingers of the left hand, without either spoon or plate. When any one had finished, he immediately rose, and went and washed his hands by having water poured over them in an adjoining room. The vacant place at table was immediately filled by a new comer."