The pasuk in Bereshit says (36:20) אֵ֤לֶּה בְנֵֽי־שֵׂעִיר֙ הַחֹרִ֔י יֹשְׁבֵ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ לוֹטָ֥ן וְשׁוֹבָ֖ל וְצִבְע֥וֹן וַעֲנָֽה׃ Chazal explain that they are called the dwellers of the earth because they would "taste the soil" to know what to plant. See Shabbat 85a. I would like to know if this is an aggadic statement or if it is meant to be taken literally. If it is the latter, was this a common ancient belief - that one could taste the soil and gain knowledge thereby.

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    Doctors used to also taste urine to diagnose maladies like diabetes. And it's not just an ancient belief - taste and smell are great ways to test chemical compositions (which is why dogs and bees are used today to detect everything from bombs and narcotics to cancer).
    – Loewian
    Nov 19, 2018 at 2:57
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    Note that Se'ir and his children were not descendants of Esav. They were his mechutanim.
    – Joel K
    Nov 19, 2018 at 11:09
  • There is an agadda about an Arab who could smell the desert sand to determine proximity to water. Nov 19, 2018 at 16:48
  • But you could also determine a lot about a soil from its taste and mouthfeel. Nov 19, 2018 at 16:49

1 Answer 1


It can very well be taken literally, as it possible to taste soil to test soil by tasting it. Even today, while not recommended (soil-borne pathogens can be a danger to human health), this method is still used.

As far as it being a common ancient belief, that was indeed the case(1, 2, 3), although being as it is uncomfortable to taste soil directly, they suggest mixing it with water and tasting the water, as the water will have taken on the taste from the soil.

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    Please note that just because it can and has been done does not mean the statement is not aggadic (the gemarah there compares them to the serpent). Furthermore the source you cite does not provide any documentation as to whether or not this was "a common ancient belief" Nov 19, 2018 at 16:03
  • @sam they weren't Jewish. Also they probably didn't swallow it.
    – Heshy
    Nov 19, 2018 at 17:59
  • Posted for the parenthesis
    – sam
    Nov 19, 2018 at 18:02

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