Stone Dishes in Jewish Homes: A Custom That Began in the Second Temple

It was known that Jews used stone cups and dishes, but now Mount Zion archaeologist Shimon Gibson sheds light on their actual use from King Herod’s time - and until the Bar Kochba debacle

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Herodian stone vessels.
Herodian stone vessels: Aristocratic fripperies or religious artifacts?Credit: Bukvoed
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

The origin of kashrut is obscure. Some of its customs go back thousands of years, such as the notion of prohibited foods, and have been hotly debated ever since. Some practices are relatively modern, such as having separate dishes for dairy and meat, let alone a third set for Passover.

And there is a kashrut practice that characterized Jews in the early Roman period in Palestine, and is now long gone: kitchenware made of stone rather than clay. Mugs, dishes, jars, platters – the works.

But how common was it, actually? Did all Jewish households in the early Roman period of Palestine use stone dishes, jars and trays? Only some? And why?

Writing in the recent issue of the Journal for the Study of Judaism, Prof. Shimon Gibson of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte analyzes the archaeological facts and sheds new light on this practice that arose over 2,000 years ago and lasted about 150 years.

Prof. Shimon Gibson: Stone vessels were associated with the Temple and Jerusalem, exclusively, for decadesCredit: Emil Salman

It began in the time of Herod the Great around 40 B.C.E. and vanished into the night following the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 C.E. Now for the nuances.

Keeping up with the Cohens

Leaving the deity out of it for a moment, why would anybody use stoneware (here meaning vessels made of stone, not high-fired ceramics)? They’re heavy, they’re cumbersome and don’t seem appealing to our modern sensibilities. The answers may range from piety to utilitarianism to status symbols.

Re utilitarianism: Gibson points out that stone dishes are less likely to break than pottery ones, and they were cheap to make, using local limestone.

Now enter the deity. The religious rationale is apparently because Leviticus explicitly specifies that cloth, wooden or leather vessels are rendered impure by contact with a contaminant but doesn’t even mention stone dishes.

So, unlike pottery, a stone bowl wouldn’t need to be purified or smashed if exposed to impurity – which means more than “pig.”

Stone vessels.Credit: Henry Pelgrift

“There were three sources of impurity Jews in the first century C.E. were afraid of: physical contact with the dead; contact with influx and semen; and contact with people with skin diseases (including leprosy) and physical infirmities,” Gibson explains.

He adds that Second Temple-period Jews also continued to use ceramic vessels, in fact in large quantities. But while they could easily become contaminated and would have to be hurled into the garbage, stone vessels would remain "pure".

Supporting his interpretation, Gibson points out that nobody else in Palestine used stone kitchenwar, not the Samaritans nor the pagans. In fact, stone mugs, vessels, jars and so on are now taken to be hallmarks of roughly-first-century Jewish occupation – a great convenience after the pig let us down.

Once, archaeologists had assumed that if no pig bones were found at a Roman-period site in Palestine, it indicated the population was Jewish (or earlier, in Old Testament times, Judahite or Israelite).The snag is that Canaanites didn’t dine on swine either, though the Philistines did, possibly even importing their adored boars to this region. Now, the absence of pig remains in a given settlement is no longer taken as presence of Jews.

That said, stone vessels are an indicator confined to roughly 40 B.C.E. to 135 C.E.

We shall ignore the fact that limestone is just as filth-absorbent as pottery. The question is where and when Jews adopted stone in lieu of clay, and how common the practice actually was.

An aerial view of Tel el-Ful.Credit: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photography

Gibson believes it all began when Herod brought large numbers of stonemasons to the city of Jerusalem for construction work. They also began making stone vessels for the city’s well-to-do, for prestige and not just because of their purification qualities, he says.

Pious and precious in Jerusalem

Gibson’s innovation is to analyze the chronology of its appearance in archaeological contexts of Roman Palestine, based on excavation of Mount Zion in Jerusalem – an ongoing project temporarily confounded by the coronavirus – and evidence at ancient quarries and stoneware manufacturing sites around Israel by a number of researchers.

Thus, he concluded that stone vessels were first used in Jerusalem starting in the mid-first century B.C.E., and their use would remain confined to that city and to the Temple for the first 50 years or so.

Immense quantities of stone vessels from the early Roman period have been unearthed in the Old City of Jerusalem itself, by the walls on Temple Mount, and in the so-called City of David (downhill from Temple Mount to the south), Gibson sums up – adding that many were likely goods in stores, not necessarily items in household use.

That said, the discovery of stone vessels in different Jerusalemite contexts is spotty. Some places were crawling with them, while at other places hardly any were found. Why, we do not know.

Chalkstone cores, dating to the Roman period, uncovered at an excavation site in the Israeli village of Reina, near the northern city of Nazareth.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

And the practice did spread beyond Jerusalem to Jewish households in other cities and in rural areas, to the Galilee and as far as the Golan Heights and the eastern side of the Jordan River – but only in the first century C.E., Gibson argues. However, the archaeological evidence suggests that usage varied from village to village, with some never using them at all.

It is impossible to say 2,000 years after the event whether all observant Jewish households throughout Israel adopted stone in the stead of ceramic. There are actually no written rules about any such thing and, in Gibson’s opinion, later rabbinic mentions of such things are probably anachronistic.

In any case, archaeologists have identified quarries and manufacturing facilities for stone vessels around Israel, including in the Galilee and Jordan Valley, and the Golan Heights. Even mere villages had at least in some cases their own manufacturing facilities, using local stone – though some also “imported” some from elsewhere, an observation based on the type of stone.

But this relatively nationwide use of stone in the stead of pottery apparently only began in the second half of the first century C.E., a decade or two before the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt.

So, the use of stoneware may have begun in the Temple, and would remain in the context of Jerusalem for decades before permeating the land at large, city and country alike.

Tel el-Ful with the start of construction on a palace for King Hussein Credit: Tai Pinchevsky

One can only speculate why stone items remained mainly or exclusively a Jerusalem habit for so long. By the time this stone dishware habit arose, worship had long since become centered in the Temple and there would plausibly have been heightened concern among religious officials about ritual purity. And over time, Roman-period Jews making pilgrimages to Jerusalem may have observed the items in use and aspired to achieve solidarity.

Ancient Jerusalem itself was thronged with stone-working facilities, Gibson says, adding that some shops seem to have possessed their own workshops. One such was identified on the western slope of the Kidron Valley, just 50 meters (about 165 feet) from the Golden Gate of Jerusalem.

Gibson adds that the range of stone pieces used in rural contexts was narrower than in Jerusalem. Also, “rural” pieces were mostly crudely hand-carved, while the items found in Jerusalem tended to be more elaborate and styled.

Enter the Tenth Roman Legion

That Jerusalemites might have particularly fine things is not shocking when one considers the city’s hallowed status going back thousands of years, and also items that were unusual at the time such as a toilet in the palace – not that all archaeologists agree to the interpretation.

It bears noting that stone vessels by Jews were not a thing before the Roman period, and Gibson adds that research into the stone vessels of the early Roman period is ongoing: recent contributions on stone vessel use by site and at mikvehs have been made recently by scholars such as Yuval Gadot, Yonatan Adler, Stuart Miller and others, Gibson says: this is work in progress. Meanwhile, among the advances are insight into manufacturing beyond Jerusalem..

Dr Yonatan Adler, director of excavations at a site dating to the Roman period, showing chalkstone mugs and cores uncovered in the village of Reina, in 2017.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

On ex-Jerusalem manufacturing sites, among others Gibson tells about Shua’fat, which arose right by the earlier village of Tel el-Ful. He has an interesting theory about the survival of this village.

Shua’fat arose after the Romans trashed Jerusalem following the First Jewish Revolt in 70 C.E. as an extension of Tel el-Ful; it would become known as Gibeah of Saul, he explains. Possibly the good people of Gibeah, aka Shua’fat, weren’t involved in the Roman-Jewish clashes, which is why they survived after 70 C.E. Or maybe they were involved, but the fearsome Roman commander Titus parked the Roman Tenth Legion (Fretensis) in Gibeah so perhaps the overlords allowed the villagers to survive in order to grow food for the soldiers.

In any case, Gibeah had a stone-vessel manufacturing site that used locally quarried stone. Some of this was hand-carved and some created using the lathe. Around 800 stone dishes, from mugs to bowls to jars, were found in Shua’fat, compared with 59 at Tel el-Ful. Why? We do not know, but Gibson suggests an intriguing proposition: “Perhaps it reflects a greater concern inhabitants had with purity issues, especially owing to the proximity of living close to a highway that saw constant pagan (Roman) traffic after the destruction of their temple” – the Second Temple, that is.

And/or, Shua’fat may have been peopled by people who fled Jerusalem, given the fact that certain kraters were found only in Jerusalem and Shua’fat, Gibson explains.

By the way, some have proposed that stone dish manufacture was specifically the fief of the Pharisees, a notion Gibson dismisses: the dishes were too common, found in city and country, among rich and poor, to be confined to one sect. But they weren’t found among all rich and poor.

City jar, country jar

The implications of the presence or absence of stone vessels in Jewish households are complicated, Gibson says. Wealthy Jerusalemites possessed stone vessels, especially kraters, as status symbols, perhaps going back to their first use in aristocratic circles and in palaces at the time of Herod the Great. Their purpose was apparently utilitarian at first, and as they spread to rural areas they were linked to specific economic needs and practical religious daily activities. But they symbolized Jerusalem and the Temple (especially from the mid-first century C.E.).

Chalkstone cores, dating to the Roman period, uncovered at an excavation site in the Israeli village of Reina, near the northern city of Nazareth.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

Between the revolts against the Romans (70 to 132 C.E.), they may even have served as symbols of all that had been lost with the fall of the Temple, with the jar/chalice figuring on coinage as well, Gibson says.

“Clearly, I believe there was a religious imperative behind the manufacturing of stone vessels in the first century C.E., and it is not surprising that the largest-known numbers of stone vessels that have been found come from Jerusalem. And it is no coincidence that this was also the place of the Jewish Temple,” he says. “But the use of stone vessels was not the beginning and end of Jewish religious practices in town or countryside – hence the disparities in the numbers of vessels and their spatial distribution.”

Among the more common stone items were mugs that may have served for netilat yadayim – washing the hands. But possibly others thought mikveh immersion solved their purity issues, which could explain the spotty dispersion of these vessels. “The obvious lack of large quantities of lathe-turned vessels in villages such as at Meqatir, with a concentration on the stone tubs in the area around and inside the oil-press cave, is I think significant,” he says.

Of all the stoneware in Jerusalem, one, a mug, was found with a lengthy inscription – and it was a telling one. The mug was found in a destruction level from 70 C.E., Gibson says, and has 13 lines of script that include symbols matching ones in cryptic manuscripts from Qumran. “Three words seem to read: ‘...returning to the House of Yah…,’” Gibson says. Purely utilitarian, that mug was probably not.

The professor also notes a resurgence of the stoneware mania at the time of the abortive, faith-driven Bar Kochba revolt that began in 132 C.E. and would end four years later, in tears. It would be the last major Roman-Jewish war, and is what led to the extensive expulsion of the Judeans, and to the Diaspora in which most of the survivors’ descendants still live.

But they do not use dishes made of stone. After the Bar Kochba debacle, the practice vanished. “It was so sudden that it is a bit of a mystery, especially since the rabbinic writings (the Mishna) still mention the use of stone vessels in regard to purity,” Gibson observes.

Today, glass is the new stone. Like stone, glassware is not mentioned in the ancient religious texts, and like everything else on Planet Earth, its use as automatically-kosher dishware is controversial. Some argue that, like pottery, it’s based on earth (sand) and is therefore vulnerable to contamination. Others insist that it’s nonporous and nonabsorbent, so cannot be tainted by unclean foods, and that after befoulment, washing it in water does the trick.

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