Abba Shaul’s Bone Forensics Concerning Wine [Niddah 24b]

A rather curious text occurs featuring Abba Shaul discussing his experiences as someone who buried corpses (Niddah 24b):

תניא אבא שאול אומר קובר מתים הייתי והייתי מסתכל בעצמות של מתים
השותה יין חי עצמותיו שרופין
מזוג עצמותיו סכויין
כראוי עצמותיו משוחין
וכל מי ששתייתו מרובה מאכילתו עצמותיו שרופין
אכילתו מרובה משתייתו עצמותיו סכויין
כראוי עצמותיו משוחין

It was taught: Abba Shaul says: “I was a burier of corpses and I would observe the corpses’ bones:

One who drank undiluted wine – its bones were burnt,
one who drank mixed wine1 – its bones were dry,
one who drank wine appropriately – its bones were oiled.

And all whose drinking exceeded their eating – its bones were burnt,
all whose eating exceeded their drinking2 – its bones were dry,
all those whose eating and drinking were appropriate – its bones were oiled.”

This beraisa is the first of three arranged together beginning with Abba Shaul introducing his having been a burier of corpses and while the two subsequent beraisos discuss particular occurrences, this beraisa records his recounting some observations of bone health of corpses he buried with regards to wine-consumption. The two matters under consideration for Abba Shaul are how diluted their wine was with water and what their drinking-to-eating ratio was.

Etymologically, it would seem that Abba Shaul would have had an up-close and hands-on experience collecting this data. Moreover, when/how else would people during his time/place get to discover this data? Clearly, one who was engaged with the work of corpse-burial would have had key access to bodies, although what seems to have separated him would be three-fold:

  1. He knew the consumptive habits of the people before they died and could remember which corpses they were
  2. He collected this data and it occurred to him there was a pattern before him in this collection of data
  3. How many corpse-buriers get to be part of the recorded tannaitic discourse? This very much helps him stand out and bring this data to the discursive horizon of rabbinic literature

While Abba Shaul was clearly fascinated by these observations, why is he telling us this data he collected? Is it mere observational data that is helpful for people to know? Is it to influence drinking behaviors, such that the health of people’s bones (perhaps bone density, for example) would be best served by appropriately mixed wine in a balanced ratio with eating? Or maybe it’s wonderful to know this information, but people can choose to live their lives with their consumptive habits as they choose?

A further challenge: how did he know who drank what and in which proportions? Did he live in a small enough community that he knew everyone’s drinking habits? How big was his sample size for this data set?

While some aspects match up between the first half of the beraisa and the second half, what about the other six possibilities?

Also, while these are very neat and clean categories – such that one who drank properly mixed wine and drank an equilibrium of food and wine would have oiled bones, what about one who properly mixed their wine, but drank more wine than consumed food? I have created a matrix (on the right) that displays this challenge.

It’s not fully clear what to make of Abba Shaul’s collected observations of the healthiness of bones from his time as a corpse-burier, but it is, nevertheless, fascinating.


1. Perhaps overly-mixed wine (רש”י על נדה כד:, ד”ה מזוג)
2. Does this mean that eating and drinking need to be equal? Perhaps it simply means an excessive amount of eating (תוספות על נדה כד:, ד”ה אכילתו מרובה משתייתו), although this is very unclear

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