are at the present day "eaten from a round table little higher than a stool, guests sitting cross-legged on mats or small carpets in a circle, and dipping their fingers into one large dish heaped with a mixture of boiled rice and other grain and meat. But in the time of our Lord, and perhaps even from the days of Amos (Am 6:4,7), the foreign custom had been largely introduced of having broad couches, forming three sides of a small square, the guests reclining at ease on their elbows during meals, with their faces to the space within, up and down which servants passed offering various dishes, or in the absence of servants, helping themselves from dishes laid on a table set between the couches." Geikie's Life of Christ. (Comp. Lu 7:36-50.) (See Abraham's bosom; Banquet; Feast.)
Illustration: Roman Triclinium
The ariston, often translated "dinner," is rather breakfast or luncheon (Mt 22:4); Lu 14:12 "a dinner (breakfast or luncheon) or a supper" (deipnon, a late dinner). The principal Egyptian meal was at noon (Ge 43:16); but the Jews' chief meal at even (Ge 19:1-3, Lot; Ru 3:7, Boaz). Israel ate bread or manna in the morning, flesh in the evening (Ex 16:12); the Passover supper in the evening confirms this. The ancient Hebrew sat at meals (Ge 27:19; Jg 19:6), but not necessarily on a chair, which was reserved as a special dignity (2Ki 4:10). Reclining on couches was latterly the posture at meals (Am 6:4); Am 3:12 says, "dwell in the corner of a bed," i.e. the inner corner where the two sides of the divan meet, the place of dignity (Pusey), "and in Damascus (in) a couch"; not as Gesenius "on a damask couch," for Damascus was then famed for the raw material "white wool" (Eze 27:18), not yet for damask.
Derived from the Syrians, Babylonians, and Persians (Es 1:6; 7:8). For "tables," Mr 7:4, translated "couches"; and for "sitting at meat" in New Testament translated everywhere "reclining." As three were generally on one couch, one lay or "leaned" on another's bosom, as John did on Jesus' chest. Such a close position was chosen by friends, and gave the opportunity of confidential whispering, as when John asked who should betray Jesus (Joh 13:23-25). Ordinarily, three couches (the highest, the middle, and the lowest) formed three sides of a square, the fourth being open for the servants to bring the dishes. On each couch there was the highest, the middle and the lowest guest. "The uppermost room" desired by the Pharisees was the highest seat on the highest couch (Mt 23:6). Females were not as now in the East secluded from the males at meals, as the cases of Ruth among the reapers (Ru 2:14), Elkanah with his wives (1Sa 1:4), Job's sons and daughters (Job 1:4) show.
The women served the men (Lu 10:40; Joh 12:2). The blessing of the food by thanks to the Giver preceded the meal; the only Old Testament instance is 1Sa 9:13. Our Lord always did so (Mt 15:36; Joh 6:11); so Paul (Ac 27:35), confirming precept (1Ti 4:3-4) by practice. De 8:10 implies the duty of grace at the close of a meal. A bread sop held between the thumb and two fingers was dipped into the melted grease in a bowl, or into a dish of meat, and a piece taken out. To hand a friend a delicate morsel was esteemed a kindly act. So Jesus to Judas, treating him as a friend, which aggravates his treachery (Joh 13:18,26; Ps 41:9). Geier, in Poli Synopsis, translated Pr 19:24 "a slothful man hides his hand in the "dish" (tsaliachat) and will not so much as bring it to his mouth again"; KJV means the cavity in the bosom like a dish. Great feasts were held at the end of each third year (De 14:28) when the Levite, stranger, fatherless, and widow were invited (compare Lu 14:12-13; Ne 8:10-12).
After a previous invitation, on the day of the feast a second was issued to intimate all was ready (Es 5:8; 6:14; Mt 22:3-4). The guests were received with a kiss; water for the feet, ointment for the person, and robes were supplied (Lu 7:38-45). The washing of hands before meals was indispensable for cleanliness, as the ringers were their knives and forks, and all the guests dipped into the same dish (Mt 26:23). The Pharisees overlaid this with a minute and burdensome ritual (Mr 7:1-13). Wreaths were worn on the head: Isa 28:1, where the beauty of Samaria is the "fading flower on the head of the fat valleys." Its position on the brow of a hill made the comparison appropriate. Hebraism for "woe to the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim" (Horsley).
Its people were generally drunken revelers literally, and metaphorically like such were rushing on their own ruin (Isa 28:7-8; 5:11-22; Am 4:1; 6:1-6). The nation would perish as the drunkard's soon fading wreath. A "governor of the feast" (architriklinos, the Greek sumposiarchees, the Latin magister convivii) superintended, tasting the food and liquors, and settling the order and rules of the entertainment (Joh 2:8). The places were assigned according to the respective rank (Ge 43:33; 1Sa 9:22; Lu 14:8; Mr 12:39). Drinking revels were called mishteh (the komos of the Greeks, Latin comissatio), 1Sa 25:36. Condemned by the prophets (Isa 5:11; Am 6:6) and apostles (Ro 13:13; Ga 5:21; Eph 5:18; 1Pe 4:3).
In the art. Food attention was confined to the various articles of diet supplied by the vegetable and animal kingdoms. It now remains to study the methods by which these were prepared for the table, the times at which, and the manner in which, they were served.
1. Preparation of food.
Our information on the subject of meals is but scanty. The early Hebrews do not seem to have given special names to their several meals, for the terms rendered "dine" and "dinner" in the Authorized Version (
) are in reality general expressions, which might more correctly be rendered "eat" and "portion of food." In the New Testament "dinner" and "supper,"
Lu 14:12; Joh 21:12
are more properly "breakfast" and "dinner." There is some uncertainty as to the hours at which meals were taken; the Egyptians undoubtedly took their principal mean at noon,
laborers took a light meal at that time.
comp. ver. Ruth 2:17 The Jews rather followed the custom that prevails among the Bedouins, and made their principal meal after sunset, and a lighter meal at about 9 or 10 A.M. The old Hebrews were in the habit of sitting.
The table was in this case but slightly elevated above the ground, as is still the case in Egypt. As luxury increased, the practice of sitting was exchanged for that of reclining was the universal custom. As several guests reclined on the same couch, each overlapped his neighbor, as it were, and rested his head on or near the breast of the one who lay behind him; he was then said to "lean on the bosom" of his neighbor.
Joh 13:23; 21:20
The ordinary arrangement of the couches was in three sides of a square, the fourth being left open for the servants to bring up the dishes. Some doubt attends the question whether the females took their meals along with the males. Before commencing the meal the guests washed their hands. This custom was founded on natural decorum: not only was the hand the substitute for our knife and for, but the hands of all the guests were dipped into one and the same dish. Another preliminary step was the grace or blessing, of which we have but one instance in the Old Testament --
--and more than one pronounced by our Lord himself in the new Testament --Matt 15:36; Luke 9:16; John 6:11 The mode of taking the food differed in no material point from the modern usages of the East. Generally there was a single dish, into which each gue
Occasionally separate portions were served out to each.
A piece of bread was held between the thumb and two fingers of the right hand, and was dipped either into a bowl of melted grease (in which case it was termed "a sop,")
or into the dish of meat, whence a piece was conveyed to the mouth between the layers of bread. At the conclusion of the meal, grace was again said in conformity with
and the hands were again washed. On state occasions more ceremony was used, and the meal was enlivened in various ways. A sumptuous repast was prepared; the guests were previously invited,
and on the day of the feast a second invitation was issued to those that were bidden.
The visitors were received with a kiss,
water was furnished for them to wash their feet with,
the head, the beard, the feet, and sometimes the clothes, were perfumed with ointment,
Ps 23:5; Joh 12:3
on special occasions robes were provided,
and the head was decorated with wreaths.
The regulation of the feast was under the superintendence of a special officer,
(Authorized Version "governor of the feast"), whose business it was to taste the food and the liquors before they were placed on the table, and to settle about the toasts and amusements; he was generally one of the guests, Ecclus. 32:1,2, and might therefore take part in the conversation. The places of the guests were settled according to their respective rand,
portions of food were placed before each,
the most honored guests receiving either larger,
or more choice,
portions than the rest. The meal was enlivened with music, singing and dancing,
or with riddles,
and amid these entertainments the festival was prolonged for several days.