Monday, August 23, 2010

Feeding the dead in ancient Israel

Among ancient Canaanites there seems to have been a basic belief that the dead required food.
The Canaanites buried their dead communally in caves outside their settlements, supplying them with pottery vessels containing food and drink, and with other necessities such as furniture, weapons and jewelry.
Scholars have also identified a practice called kipsu, in which families went to the grave at regular intervals to deliver food and water. In Ugarit and Bet Shemesh, tubes have been found that archeologists believe were used to conduct food and water to the dead body. Their discovery in Bet Shemesh strongly suggests that Israelites also fed their dead. Additional evidence is found in this week's parsha (KiTavo), where the practice is mentioned, without prejudice, as part of the liturgy the Torah establishes for offering tithes.
I have not eaten [from the food] while I was in mourning, nor have I removed any of it while I was unclean, nor have I deposited any of it with the dead. (ולא נתתי ממנו למת)  I have obeyed the LORD my God; I have done everything you commanded me.
Later biblical interpreters, including the authors of the Sifrei and the Mishna, were likely unaware of kipsu, and took the verse differently. Instead of reading ולא נתתי ממנו למת to mean "I have not given any of [the food] to the dead"  they interpreted it as "I have not given any [of the sale proceeds] of the food to a dead person [to use for coffins or shrouds.]" Rashi, following both Sifrei and the Mishna takes it that way.

Update: 6:26 p.m.  The first paragraph is found here; the second is from here

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