Amoraim / Babylonian Talmud / Beer / Late Antiquity / Wine

“The contrast between wine culture of Palestine and beer culture of Babylonia is well documented in the Talmud…”

One of the important distinctions between the diet of Graeco-Roman Palestine and Babylonia was the use of wine or beer as a common beverage. It is abundantly clear that in the Graeco-Roman world, wine was the more usual beverage, rather than beer. In Babylonia, there was a tradition of cultivated wine being imported from the North, attested in Mari in Syria in the second millennium BCE, as well as being used at the Assyrian royal court in the seventh century BCE, but Lucio Milano concludes that wine was used primarily for ceremonial purposes and for banqueting in the royal court, nor did wine ever replace beer as a common beverage in Babylonia. As for beer in Babylonia, M. Stol has concisely but comprehensively summarised the various types of beer, including that made from both barley and dates, as well as the evidence for beer and beer-brewing in the Babylonian Talmud. The contrast between wine culture of Palestine and beer culture of Babylonia is well documented in the Talmud, as can be seen from the following selected examples:

R. Hanina said: Why are there no sufferers from R’TN(-skin disease) in Babylonia? Because they eat beets and drink beer of HYZMY. R. Johanan said: Why are there no lepers in Babylon? Because they eat beets, drink beer, and bathe in the waters of the Euphrates. (No. 7 b. Ket. 77b)

Both of these Palestinian authorities ascribe the lack of certain types of sickness in Babylonia to the difference in diet, including drinking beer, although the observations are no doubt false on all counts. Nevertheless, the fact that beer is mentioned here further indicates that it was drunk in Babylonia, but not in Palestine.

R. Hiyya taught: Storehouses of beer in Babylonia were made like storehouses of wine in Palestine, where one supplies oneself. (No. 8 b. Pes. 8a)

Rabbah b. Beruna said: There are two mounds in the west (Palestine) and a water spring goes out from between them. The first cup acts as a laxative, the next one loosens (the bowels), and as for the next one: just as it enters it goes out. ‘Ulla said: “I myself drink Babylonian beer and it is better (for the digestion) than this (water)” – if it was the case that one had not made a habit (of drinking) it for forty days. (No. 9 b. Shab. 110a)

The preference for beer here is clearly stated from a Babylonian perspective.

Furthermore, it also appears that wine was much more expensive in Babylonia than beer in the Talmudic period:

R. Hisda said: When someone can eat barley bread but eats wheat bread, he violates (the injunction) “thou shalt not destroy” (Deut. 20:19). R. Papa said: When someone can drink beer but drinks wine, he violates (the injunction), thou shalt not destroy (Deut. 20:19). (No. ll b. Shab. l40b)

The point here is that just as it is wasteful to eat wheat bread rather than the more common (and cheaper) barley bread, it is equally wasteful to drink wine in Babylonia rather than beer.

Markham J. Geller, “Diet and Regimen in the Babylonian Talmud”, in Food and Identity in the Ancient World, eds. Cristiano Grotanelli and Lucio Milano (Padua, Italy: S.A.R.G.O.N. Editrice e Libreria, 2004), 237-239.