For several months now a braid of garlic bulbs has been proudly hanging on our kitchen wall. As it happens, this is not simply a matter of personal taste, but it links us to a venerable Jewish tradition.
The Mishnah, in discussing a point of religious law, states that the expression "garlic eaters," when it appears in the wording of a vow, is to be understood as a designation for Jews and Samaritans.
Indeed Rabbinic literature is full of praises for this common herb. "It satisfies hunger it warms the body, it illuminates one's face, it increases seed and it destroys intestinal parasites."
These benefits have been supplemented by contemporary enthusiasts of the herb, who claim that it can cure skin diseases, lower cholesterol counts and blood pressure, reduce hypertension and risks of heart attacks, and may even be able to overcome some forms of cancer and AIDS-related illnesses.
The Talmudic commentators offer a different explanation for the Jewish identificaiton as garlic-eaters: An ordinance ascribed to Ezra, back in the early days of the Second Commonwealth, requires Jews to eat garlic on Friday nights. The reason for this, as understood by the Talmud, is because garlic serves as an effective aid to ardor and fertility, and enhances the marital lovemaking that is an essential component of Jewish Sabbath observance.
The inclusion of the Samaritans alongside the Jews among the "garlic eaters" raises some intriguing questions.
The Samaritans, who inhabited the west bank of the Jordan (especially around Shechem and their sanctuary on Mount Gerizim) claim to be the remnants of the original Israelite tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim who escaped the exile of the northern kingdom, though Biblical tradition regards them as the descendants of foreign colonists who were transported to Samaria by the Assyrian conquerors.
The Samaritans possess the Torah, in a version slightly different from the accepted Jewish text. Though they observe its precepts meticulously, they do not accept the traditions of the Jewish Oral Torah. This leads to many significant differences between their religious laws and ours.
One such divergence is in the matter of conjugal relations on the Sabbath: Though encouraged by Jews, it is prohibited by the Samaritans. Under the circumstances, how are we to explain their reported enthusiasm for garlic?
One possibility that suggests itself is that the Samaritans had a very different objective in mind when partaking of garlic. Perhaps they felt that the scent of garlic on the breath would actually cool romantic urges.
As to the Jewish practice, we would expect that conservative Latin satirists like Juvenal and Martial, who were always so quick to ridicule the exotic and uncouth mannerisms of lower-class Roman Jews, would have seized upon this point somewhere in their works. So far, however, no such allusions have been found. At best, Martial does have some nasty things to say about effects of fasting upon the breath of Jews (like many Romans, he thought Shabbat was a fast day).
When you think about it, Italians are the least likely people to be upset by the smell of garlic.
Some scholars have sought to discern an reference to this phenomenon in a quote attributed to the emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who allegedly made an insulting reference to the breath of the Jews.
If the allusion were indeed to the garlic that enhanced the breath of contemporary Jews, then the anecdote could have some interesting implications.
Several historians have argued that Marcus Aurelius was the enigmatic "Antoninus," the Roman leader who often appears in Rabbinic literature in amicable conversation with Rabbi Judah the Prince on all manner of questions of faith, science and politics.
It is tempting, though hardly justified, to tie all these speculations together and conclude that the Roman emperor's insulting comment reflected his personal encounters with his Jewish comrade.
The picture becomes more intriguing when we note that Rabbi Judah himself is reported to have expelled a scholar from his academy on the grounds that his breath smelled of garlic. If we link this story to the previous one, then it might be seen as a response to the criticisms of "Antoninus."
Not all Jewish authorities were convinced of the medical benefits of garlic. Maimonides omitted from his code all favourable references to garlic eating, whether in connection with the Sabbath or vows. This policy seems to reflect his medical opinion. Speaking as a physician, he advises against anything more than minimal and infrequent consumption of garlic, and never during the Summer months.
With all due respect to Maimonides' medical expertise, I prefer to include myself in a long and honourable traditon of garlic eaters.
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