You Say Yayn, I Say Yayin

Credit:, Istanbul Archaeology Museums

The Nazirite vow, as outlined in Numbers 6, is a voluntary commitment, marked by abstinence from wine, fermented drinks, grapes in any form, and refraining from cutting one’s hair or coming into contact with the dead. The prohibition against consuming wine or any grape-related products highlights the significance of wine in ancient Israelite culture, not merely as a staple of diet but also as having religious and ceremonial importance.

Wine’s prominence in ancient Israel is further evidenced by the Samaria Ostraca, a collection of inscriptions on pottery sherds discovered in Samaria, the ancient capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Dating back to the 8th century BCE, these ostraca served administrative purposes, recording shipments of agricultural products, including wine, olive oil, and possibly wheat, to the capital. The lists inscribed on these sherds provide valuable insights into the economic activities, administrative organization, and daily life of the Kingdom of Israel. More than just administrative receipts, the Samaria Ostraca are a window into the material culture of ancient Israel, demonstrating the importance of wine production and trade in sustaining the kingdom’s economy and religious rites.

Beyond their economic significance, the Samaria Ostraca hold linguistic value. They are key in the study of ancient Hebrew outside of the Bible, offering evidence of differences between the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. For instance, the word for “year” is represented differently in the northern dialect found in the ostraca (“Shayt”) and the southern dialect (“Shana”) in the Bible. Similarly, the word for “wine” shows variation between “Yayn” in the north and “Yayin” in the south. “Pure oil” is noted as “Shemen rachatz” in the north versus “Shemen zach” in the south.

The differences in language conform to the Bible’s presentation of a northern kingdom of Israel being distinct from the southern kingdom of Judah. These distinct nations could at times fight each other and as the archaeological record indicates, spoke differently from each other.

The image above is of a Samaria Ostracon, held at the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.