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What’s Cookin’?

Shabbat 38

What did our ancestors’ kitchens look like? What are all these terms thrown around in Shabbat and in Menachot: tanur תנור, kirah כירה, kupach כופח, furni פורני? Are they at all parallel to the baking and cooling appliances we use today? To answer that question I looked at three sources: Zeev and Shmuel Safrai’s Mishnat Eretz Yisrael, Shmuel Avitzur’s encyclopedia of traditional tools אדם ועמלו , and Dr. Rafi Frankel’s comprehensive article on baking in Talmudic time (Catedra 2011, link at bottom of the post).

Safrai tells us that unless you were very wealthy, no one in ancient times had a kitchen as we think of it. Not only was most of the preparing, baking and cooking done outside in the communal courtyard (everyone knows what is or isn’t in your pots!) but there rarely were surfaces to work on. The women would squat or sit on the floor and the baking and cooking “appliances” were on the floor too.

Safrai gives a short description of a tanur, kirah and kupach. A kirah is basically two standing stones, placed about 20-30 centimeters apart, with fire in between. On top was a slab with holes in it for the pots. Often it was a box with an opening in the front for tending the fire and openings on top for the pots. A classic one was discovered in Masada:

Masada by Yigael Yadin

A tanur was made of clay, often with a cone like shape, wider at the top than the bottom. The fire was at the bottom and sometimes there was a special compartment for baking at the top, sometimes not. There were tall and short ones. The important thing about the tanur was that it got much hotter than a kirah and could retain heat for much longer.

A kupach was a smaller version of a kirah, used for only one pot, although it was also sometimes used for baking as well. Unlike the tanur and the kirah which were usually fixed in the courtyard, the kupach was portable and could also be used for heating.

Frankel goes into much greater details discussing the types of ovens used in the ancient world. He points out that a tanur, both its basic shape and function, and its name, have existed over millennia virtually unchanged. We find them in archaeological excavations going back three thousand years and more, in pictures from ancient Egypt, and in the traditional ovens still used in some places today. Even the Indian tandoor comes from the same word and we find the word tanur in ancient Sumerian and Akkadian texts.

 Byzantine tanur,

In the most basic tanur you would light a fire on the bottom, let the fire burn down so that there was heat inside and then stick dough to the walls for it to bake. The fire was tended from the hole in the bottom, the dough was put in from the top. Arabs in Eretz Yisrael as well as olim from many Arab countries brought these traditional methods with them. There are still a few places in Jerusalem where you can see bakeries that make an eshtanur (esh is bread in Arabic, tanur is the oven) in the old way, by putting the dough on the walls of the oven.

Wikimedia commons

Frankel goes through various other types of ovens like a תנור רעפים  mentioned in Menachot which is similar to a saj’, a metal plate placed on top of the fire and the dough baked on that or  יוריות ערביות similar to a tabun: a hole in the ground with the dough inside and the fire placed on top.

Another type of oven used more in Roman areas was the פורני, the furnace. This was siimilar to a tanur but instead of baking the dough on the walls, it was baked on the bottom of the oven where the fire is:

Avitzur adds that while a tanur was meant for baking, because it retains its heat it served an important function for Jews: keeping food hot on Shabbat, exactly the topic of our perek. He also adds that fuel was usually either wood – branches, leaves, twigs on the ground collected by women, not chopped trees like in the Old West – thorns, straw or cakes of dung.

So if your biggest problem in cooking for Pesach is finding enough eggs, be happy that you are not scavenging for twigs and cooking on the floor in your backyard.

The article by Dr. Frankel is excellent and includes many more pictures, you can see it here:

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the “Darkaynu” program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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