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Hummus in the Holy Scriptures: A Culinary Mystery

We all know (and surely love) hummus, that creamy chickpea-based spread that captivates palates around the world. What we do not know is that this nearly addictive dip might have a surprising connection to the ancient world. In the Book of Ruth, a revered writing that is part of the Ketuvim in the Hebrew Bible, a passage has sparked some intriguing speculation about the presence of hummus in biblical times.

In the passage, Boaz, a wealthy landowner, offers Ruth, a young widow, a simple but nutritious meal of bread and vinegar (Ruth 2:14). Or so it seems. While the word “vinegar” seems straightforward for most readers, some culinary historians and enthusiasts have proposed an intriguing alternative interpretation: that vinegar is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word “hometz,” which has a phonetic similarity to hummus and bears a striking resemblance to the Hebrew word for chickpeas, “himtza”. Could it be the case Boaz was offering Ruth some hummus instead?

This suggestion carries weight for several reasons. First, hummus is (at least nowadays) a staple food in the region where the Book of Ruth is set, and it would have been a culturally appropriate offering of hospitality. The question is whether hummus was already a thing. So far, historians seem to agree that the first recorded mention of hummus as a recipe dates from the 13th century CE –as part of a Syrian cookbook attributed to Ibn Al-Adim, a noted scholar and historian. However, the word “hometz” has other, more ancient meanings, including “ground grain” or “mashed grain.” Could this be a reference to the chickpeas used in hummus?

As is oftentimes the case with Scripture, not everyone is convinced by this theory. It is only natural: as in the old joke, two biblical scholars, three opinions. Talmudic scholars, authorities on Jewish law and tradition, may argue that the Hebrew word in Ruth 2:14 is “b’chometz,” which, as anyone who has attended a Passover Seder will tell you, is the word for “grain” or, more modernly, “leavened food.” Leavened food is forbidden during Passover so, to some, it seems unlikely that Boaz would offer Ruth a dish containing chametz ­–although they meet not during Passover, but during the barley harvest. Is the text then referring to barley? Barley malt vinegar is indeed made from grain, and fermented –that is, it is leavened.

This linguistic puzzle remains unresolved, leaving the question of whether or not hummus is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible open to interpretation. The possibility that this popular Middle Eastern dish has such ancient roots adds a layer of intrigue to the culinary history of the region, and to the story of Ruth and Boaz.

Whether hummus truly graced Boaz’s table or remained a culinary invention of later centuries, its enduring popularity and versatility speak volumes about its place in the culinary landscape. With its rich blend of flavors and unique texture, hummus remains a timeless symbol of hospitality and simple pleasures.

Way to Jerusalem

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