Ancient Romans Influenced Jewish Ritual Slaughter, Says Archaeologist

Jerusalem was a hub of pilgrimages when close cultural ties between the Romans and Jews were a fact of life.

Roman Triumphal arch panel copy from Beth Hatefutsoth, showing spoils of Jerusalem temple.
Wikicommons

Many peoples passing through the region have influenced the Jews. The evidence is amply found in art, for example, such as synagogue mosaics featuring foreign motifs, even the Greek god Helios. Now an archaeologist says that some Jews in ancient times adopted the butchering method similar to that used by the Roman legions 2,000 years ago.

“The Roman world influenced the Jews in the area of culture, but its penetration into religious and holy matters is something we have not seen before,” says Dr. Ram Buchnik, an archeologist in the department of Land of Israel studies at Kinneret College.

These influences were limited, he qualified. Jews did not resort to butchering and eating pigs or horses. “They did not decapitate, and preserved the characteristics of Jewish slaughter,” he clarified.

Buchnik's conclusions are based on a number of archaeological sites from the late Second Temple Period, around the beginning of the Common Era. At a site near the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem he identified widespread use of hatchets and cleavers, which were classical Roman tools for slaughtering animals — and over the next few hundred years, became used regularly for preparing meat in Jewish kitchens.

This method was very different than those used at other Jewish sites he studied from the same period, Buchnik says.

Alex Levac

At the ancient village of Yodfat in the Lower Galilee, for instance,, butchers skinned the animals in a unique way that made minimal use of a knife. The meat was taken off in one piece, which provided maximum hygiene — and the meat could keep for a week without refrigeration. “They would hang up the animal and cut it in a delicate, anatomical manner, bordering on surgical,” he said.

At the site of a rubbish dump in Jerusalem, where most of city’s garbage was collected during that period, Buchnik found similar signs. He learned from the site that butchers worked very carefully and gently with their knives and left almost no signs of cutting on the animal bones.

Not far away, at the edge of the City of David, the picture changes. When the Romans wanted to prepare food, they did not work in an neat and organized fashion, says Buchnik. The butcher would cut off the head and then cut through the bones of the animal. The food did not have to be kept long because the Roman soldiers ate it all — and the Jews began to copy them.

Buchnik rules out the notion that Roman butchers prepared the animals for the Jews. It is more likely that Jews learned from the Romans and adapted their methods in their own communities, similarly to mosaic artists.

The closeness between the Romans and Jews could explain this influence. Jerusalem was a large city and a center of pilgrimages. “There was an entire segment of the population that was idle. The entire stratum of priests lived on gifts. They were rich, and easier to influence. They did not work in the fields and had leisure time, enough time to meet the Romans coming to the city,” says Buchnik, describing the close relations between the Jewish and Roman elites over the years, such as in the case of Herod, or Rabbi Judah the Prince.

Buchnik’s research attempts to understand the changes in slaughter, butchering and meat consumption in Jewish history. While the Book of Deuteronomy provides only general guidelines on eating meat, the rules become long and complicated in later Jewish law. The Bible simply tells the Jews to ritually slaughter their animals “as I have commanded thee.” Someone would have had to teach them how — and this is what Buchnik wanted to examine. He will be presenting his research next week at the Galilee Research Conference at Tel-Hai College.