How Did Artichokes Become a Jewish Vegetable?

May 9, 2018 | Dan Rabinowitz
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According to a recent ruling by Israel’s chief rabbinate, a pious Jew who wishes to eat an artichoke must first remove the leaves and inspect them for insects; any other preparation is a violation of kashrut. Italian Jews, however, have been eating artichokes without such precautions for centuries, and deep-fried whole artichokes are so associated with the Roman Jewish community that they are known simply as carciofi alla giudia. Dan Rabinowitz comments on the earliest Jewish texts that mention the vegetable:

The history of how the fried artichoke became associated with Jews is somewhat murky but likely dates at least to the 16th century. But we have even earlier manuscript evidence that artichokes were eaten by Jews. Indeed, they were eaten at a time when Jews were especially punctilious regarding food: Passover. A number of medieval haggadahs contain illustrations of maror [the bitter herb consumed as part of the seder]; most include a leafy green of some type. Two haggadot, the Rylands and the Brother, composed in the mid-to-late-14th century, depict maror as an artichoke. . . .

Students of history will recall that this is not the first time the norms and traditions of the Italian Jews came into conflict with different prevailing norms among other groups of Jews. [The most notable such incident was] the controversy engendered by the publication of the pamphlet Divrei Shalom v’Emet [“Words of Peace and Truth”] by Naftali Herz Wessely in [1782], which called for educational reform among [Jews in the Hapsburg lands]. After his pamphlet was found objectionable and insulting by leading rabbis, Wessely wrote to rabbis in Italy, believing that many of the ideas he was advocating, like a graded curriculum, a non-exclusive emphasis on Talmud, and use of the [Gentile] vernacular, were well within the norms of their tradition. In fact, with [one] exception, all [of these Italian rabbis] agreed [with Wessely] and supported him.

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