Jul 292018

Today is one of the possible dates (in the Gregorian calendar) of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE by the neo-Babylonian army under the command of Nebuchadnezzar II. The date is set in the Jewish calendar as Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av) https://www.bookofdaystales.com/tisha-bav/ but we have to be a little careful about ascribing this date (in the Gregorian calendar) as the actual historical date of the event. As with all dates in the Jewish calendar, the day begins and ends at sundown, and it moves about the Gregorian calendar. Whether today is the actual anniversary of the destruction of the Temple depends on the answers to two key questions: (1) Did the destruction actually take place on Tisha B’Av? (2) Did the destruction happen in 587 BCE? There is no dispute among historians that the destruction occurred, and was followed by a mass deportation of the residents of Judah to Babylon, known as the Exile or the Babylonian Captivity. The precise details are what are under dispute. The year could have been 587 or 586; scholars disagree on this point. Knowing the exact year is important for placing Tisha B’Av on the right date in the Gregorian calendar because it changes from year to year. They also disagree on whether the destruction occurred on Tisha B’Av or whether this has become a fixed tradition not rooted in fact. Let’s leave those disagreements aside for now, and claim today as the anniversary. I want to talk about the Exile anyway. Spoiler alert: If your faith leads you to believe in a literal interpretation of history in the Hebrew Bible, you are not going to like what I have to say.

How you determine the timing and significance of the destruction of the Temple depends on what sources you want to believe. The oldest Biblical sources that we have concerning the history of Judah are the books of Samuel and Kings, compiled by what are generally known as the Deuteronomists: historians writing at the time of king Josiah of Judah (c. 649–609 BCE). Like all historians they had their own axes to grind. As I have said numerous times, history is not about documenting facts, it is about ascribing meaning to facts. Mere recording of historical facts is chronicling or archiving, not history. History is something deeper, and there is good reason to argue that the Deuteronomists were the world’s first true historians. The Deuteronomists were intent on “purifying” the religion of Judah (that is, getting rid of supposedly “foreign” influences), as their first step in setting up Judah as a fully independent nation, free from the imperial demands of Egypt, Assyrian, and Babylon. They chose Josiah as their model king based on their interpretation of historical records. He was supposed to be a direct descendant of David, the archetypical king, chosen by God, to govern his chosen people, and Solomon, his son, had built the first temple in Jerusalem. Josiah (by the Deuteronomists’ estimation) was destined to return Judah to the glory days of David and Solomon, when the combined tribes of Israel were pre-eminent (and Jerusalem was the center of the universe). Since those days, Israel and Judah had suffered numerous defeats from neighbor states, and the Deuteronomists argued that this was because they had fallen away from the true worship of Yahweh, their national god (sometimes mistakenly translated as Jehovah). In many circles, Josiah was considered to be the foretold Messiah (anointed warrior/king), the second coming of David who would vanquish all before him because Yahweh was on his side. Josiah in Hebrew – Yoshiyahu (יֹאשִׁיָהוּ) – means “healed by Yahweh” or “supported by Yahweh.” This plan went belly up when Josiah was defeated and killed by Egyptian forces at the battle of Megiddo (Armageddon in Hebrew) in 609 BCE. Judah became a vassal state of Egypt, then of Babylon when Babylon vied for supremacy in the Levant with Egypt.  Things get a bit complicated at this point, but the essentials are fairly straightforward. Judah rebelled against Babylon’s vassalage on three occasions: 597 BCE, 587/586 BCE, and 582/581 BCE. Each time, Judah was defeated and some of Jerusalem’s elite were exiled to Babylon, with the middle defeat in 587 (or 586) being the worst and most significant historically.

The destruction of the Temple, and the deportation of the priests, could have marked the end of the religion of Judah. But it didn’t. If anything, it strengthened and solidified it for a very important reason: the Temple had been destroyed and the people were separated from their Holy Land. If they clung on to the old religion it would die because it was inextricably linked to Jerusalem and the Temple (most notably a long tradition of animal sacrifices). To survive, they had to create a new religion to hold themselves together as a people. This is the subject of a book of mine which has been journeying around presses for many years. Consequently, I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, the general outline of my hypothesis is in line with the thinking of a number of Biblical scholars and archeologists – certainly not all, by any means. It will not sit well with orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians.

Empires have been able to subjugate peoples for generations by displacing them from their home territories. The Assyrians did it in antiquity and Stalin did it in the 20th century. If your cultural identity is rooted to a specific geography and specific buildings within that geography, then your culture can be destroyed if you are torn away from that geography. If your cultural identity is rooted in something portable, then you can survive being transported anywhere. Many ancient cultures had gods that were fixed in particular places, and at the time of the siege of Jerusalem by, Yahweh, god of Judah, had his home in the Temple in Jerusalem. The priests forced into exile in Babylon devised a new idea. God was not rooted anywhere geographic: he was located in THE WORD. God’s home was the sacred texts that embodied his words. They could be copied if need be, and they could be transported to wherever the Judean people found themselves. Thus, the people were freed from a specific temple in a specific place. Their cultural identity could be preserved. In other words, I am saying that Judaism was born in Babylon among the priests and people of the Exile. You may understand now why my book on the subject is not having an easy job finding a publisher. It will, but there are still hurdles to clear.

For today’s recipe I am breaking with historical chronology a little. One of the ways that Judeans during the Exile avoided assimilation with Babylonians was enforcing strict food laws that made it all but impossible to eat with Babylonians or use their ingredients. Three great commandments – not part of the 10 Commandments, of course – were 1. Don’t marry a foreigner. 2. Don’t dine with a foreigner. 3. Don’t eat foreign food. These commandments were laid down during the Exile, and have endured to this day. Judeans in Exile probably ate the dishes from home as much as they could. Their traditional meats were from locally herded cows, sheep, and goats. They did not herd pigs. But the Babylonians did. They relished them, in fact. So, they were supremely taboo. These days there is much more interchange of food ideas between Iraq, successor state to Babylon, and Israel. Laffat betinjan –  لفّة بيتنجان – a fried eggplant sandwich from Iraq is popular in Israel, where it is called sabich. Eggplant has been cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory, and it must be domesticated. There are no wild edible versions. Because there are no Greek or Latin names for the vegetable, and all the words in European languages are derived from Arabic, it is believed that eggplants were introduced into the Mediterranean region by Arabs in the Middle Ages. In other words, Judeans and Babylonians were not eating eggplants during the Exile. No matter. Iraqis and Israelis are enjoying fried eggplant sandwiches these days.

With this dish you have a lot of choices, so let me start with frying the eggplant, and then talk about possibilities. The main concern with frying eggplant is to do all you can to prevent the slices from absorbing too much oil.

Betinjan Maqli  بيتنجان مقلي Fried Eggplant


1 large eggplant (about 1½ lb)
flour for coating
oil for frying


Cut off the stem of the eggplant, and peel it lengthwise. Cut the eggplant into 2 parts crosswise, and then cut each part into ¼ in-thick slices lengthwise.

Place the eggplant pieces in salted warm water and place a plate or other flat heavy kitchen object to make sure they stay completely submerged. Let me soak for 30 minutes.

Drain the eggplant pieces, and coat them well with flour on all sides.

Heat ½ in of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium-high heat and fry the eggplant pieces in batches until golden brown on both sides. Turn once only.

Drain the eggplant pieces on a wire rack.

These fried eggplant pieces can be arranged on a platter with sliced tomatoes, grated garlic, and chopped parsley, and you can also provide cayenne pepper, lemon juice and Greek yoghurt. This will serve as a side dish on its own, or you can assemble sandwiches in pita bread, or other flatbread, according to your tastes. Iraqis often use khubuz. You don’t have to limit your ingredients for the sandwiches either. Israelis often add boiled egg slices, for example.