Yossi Feintuch

Egypt’s staple food was not meat but plant-based

That most Egyptians did not eat meat in Joseph’s time might be inferred from the two dreams that he had interpreted for the Pharaoh’s butler and baker, now Joseph’s fellow inmates in the royal prison; both dreams, one about grapes and the other about white-bread were plant-based edibles. The elevation of such plant-based food over the flesh of animals was embedded even in the Pharaoh’s dual dream which he later relayed to Joseph for interpretation after his own magicians would not provide a resolution.  This weekly Torah portion, Miketz, starts off with this narrative.

The first dream involved seven foul-looking meager-fleshed cows that ate up seven plump cows, yet remained as scrawny as they were before. This dream that prefigured the likelihood that Egypt would be running out of meat did not perturb the monarch. Evidently it was not a deep concern for the Pharaoh, which mirrored the fact that most Egyptians did not eat meat anyway. Hence, the worry-free and undisturbed Pharaoh went back to sleep despite the demise of the fair-looking and well-nourished cows.

But another dream woke him up ”a second time”, that of seven wilted and scrawny ears of grain that swallowed up another seven full and goodly ears. At this time the Pharaoh could not go back to sleep for he realized that this other dream might herald the cessation of grain in Egypt.  No wonder that the Pharaoh’s spirit was agitated for the ancient Egyptians had brought bread production to the level of art and were known by the Greeks as ”bread eaters”. And as the end of grain supply would be disastrous to his country, the Pharaoh looked for an interpretation for his dreams and a solution for what was befalling his kingdom.  Hence, he summoned “all the soothsayers of Egypt and all its wise men’’ to interpret for him the binary dream, even as none of them — unlike Joseph — would dare tell him that Egypt was to brace itself for a wreaking famine.

To judge by the Pharaoh’s reactions to his dreams it is evident that the Pharaoh effectively embraced God’s view from the very beginning of creation whereby land produce was the very staple food for mortals, even as God prohibited meat as food until after the big flood. Even after God permitted Noah (and all generations thereafter) to put meat on his plate, consuming animal’s flesh would remain gratuitous and a nonessential food that may be consumed upon one’s urge, if not craving, but never as a divine imperative.

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.