The Strong Drinkers of Israel

Biblical Archaeology Review has an informative article about beer in the Bible. (The author identifies beer as “shekhar”, usually translated into English as “strong drink”.)

I was shocked that the comments were so negative, and at the way they flailed. I had no idea people were so weird on this topic.

BTW, the oldest word for beer we know (from Sumerian) is “shikaram”, the Hebrew word translated as “strong drink” is “shekhar”; the Greek in the Septuagint is “sikera”, and the Vulgate Latin is “sicera”, both probably loanwords from Hebrew. It’s possible that usage shifts in Latin may have affected Jerome’s understanding of the Old Testament, and hence of our own.

Greek’s more usual words for beer are things like “brytos” for Thracian and Phrygian brews; “zythos”, supposedly an Egyptian word, “courmi”, and “pinon” (probably related to the later Slavic “pivo” for beer. The known varieties of beer in Latin are “cervisia”, “camum”, and “celia”, in various spellings.

You don’t have to drink beer and wine yourself, but it’s pretty silly to claim the Israelites as teetotallers. Nazirites were the teetotallers; everybody else drank kosher alcohol, just like Jews still do. Passover and sabbath blessings = ceremonial use of wine. (And of course, on the night they celebrate Esther’s victory, Jews are officially ordered to get drunk.)

If it makes anybody feel better, it turns out that Ethiopian (Nubian) beer had antibiotic properties (besides the alcohol). Think of it as medicine. Take a little wine for your stomach’s sake. 🙂

Ninkasi Beer, or what happens when you put together Sumerian drinking songs of the “John Barleycorn” variety with a master brewer from Anchor Beer. (Not to be confused with the brewery up north that’s named Ninkasi.)


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4 responses to “The Strong Drinkers of Israel

  1. Chase

    Hey, I’m pretty sure the Slavic ‘pivo’ comes from the word ‘to drink,’ which is pit’ in Russian, pít in Czech, etc. I’d imagine the Old Slavonic is something like piti, root pi + ti verb ending, with a short i sound. That probably gives us neuter noun formation pi+o, and a little u offglide shoved in there, *piuo, then pivo.

    I think Greek for ‘to drink’ is similar: pínô, so pinon is a neuter noun formed off that verb it seems. Though no doubt about it there’s some linguistic family resemblance, cross-breeding or inbreeding going on. I think this is one of those Greek verbs that has an n infixed in there somewhere (do you know about Latin n infixes?)

    Interestingly, my Russian teacher used to refer to pit’ as one of the ‘domestic violence verbs’ because there’s a class of ancient irregular slavic verbs that flow that pattern, including pit’, bit’ to beat, and shit’ to sew. zhit’ is to live, so doesn’t quite fit in there.

    By the way, how do you know all this stuff? Did you study linguistics or something? You obviously know Latin about as well as Fr. Z … 🙂

    • Actually, I’m not very good at Latin, which is why I’m always making mistakes and having to correct them. But I’m good at looking things up, and finding stuff in search engines. (And I really like doing translation, because otherwise my potential reading materials are restricted to only one language.)

  2. (must not make the pun … must not make the pun … must not make the pun … yes I must!)

    So, would an ancient Israelite beer be a He-brew?

    (ducks and runs!)

  3. Chase

    There is a kosher beer on the market by that very name .. Hebrew. Apparently you can make a black and tan by mixing it with Guiness and it’s called “Sammy Davis, Jr.”

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