The Isaiah Diet

Foods of Ancient Israel

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Recently I have been wondering about Isaiah’s family diet; wondering what the Prophetess might prepare for Isaiah and their two sons at mealtimes. Hayes and Miller in A History of Ancient Israel and Judah explained that the diet in a Jewish household in Isaiah’s day revolved around oil, bread, and wine. With just these three foods, nearly every family sustained life. Below are a few possibilities that your family could try at your next home evening or family reunion.

Key Parts of Every Jewish Diet in Ancient Israel

When times were good, grapes, olives, and grain were central to the Jewish diet and religious tradition for more than a thousand years. However, as they moved into the “land flowing with milk and honey,” as the Lord described Isreal (see Exodus 3:8), this may not have just referred to the abundance of the land, but its capacity to sustain life with basic foodstuffs.

According to Menachem Posner, “The Midrash explains that milk symbolizes superior quality, richness of taste, and nourishment. Honey represents sweetness. The goodness of Israel is both nourishing and pleasant.”1

In the Old Testament, Hosea [2:22–23] lists corn, wine, and oil as the Lord‘s response to mankind’s needs and how heaven and earth will supply the needed rains to produce them. Even today Jewish feasts and Sabbath blessings feature these foods.

The Isaiah DIet
Bread, Oil, and Wine were part of the daily diet in Ancient Israel

Though you may not consider them much of a meal, you should try this sometime. Pour some extra virgin olive oil into a dish with minced garlic or fresh ground pepper. Then take a slice or two of very dense sourdough bread, break it into pieces, dipping it into the oil. Eat this with a glass of organic grape juice, and you’ll have had a meal that Isaiah might have enjoyed.

Isaiah 7:22 “And it shall come to pass, for the abundance of milk that they shall give he shall eat butter: for butter and honeya  shall every one eat that is left in the land.”

Along with honey, these foods are mentioned in 2 Kings 18:32. Isaiah in Chapter 7:22 explained that after Israel would be laid waste by Assyria, that butter and honey would be their food.

Goat curd - a common part of a jewish diet
Goat Curd (If you want to learn more about making goat curd, click here)

None of these foods are what it sounds like to the modern reader. For example, the footnote from the verse above, says that a better translation of butter in Hebrew would be curd (probably something along the lines of cottage cheese). So the “butter and honey likely referred to the curdled yogurt that would come from goats or sheep and any wild honey that could be found.”2

Date Syrup - a Key part of a Jewish Diet
Honey was made by boiling down dates into a dark, thick molasses-like syrup that was not as sweet as honey but “has its own rich flavor”2 If you want to learn more about making date honey, click here)

Wild honey may have been available, but more likely this reference is to “date honey,” which was made by boiling the fruit down into thick, sweet syrup, knows as dvash.

Grain porridge and gruel were probably the quickest things to make in those days. Since wheat was just coming into use in Isaiah’s day, this probably was more often a barley porridge, that on a good day, was sweetened with date-honey.

However, making these foods were each time-consuming in and of themselves. Time for food preparation was at a premium when it came to daily bread making.

The “Seven Species” in the Ancient Jewish Diet

Israel's 7 Spices of the Jewish Diet
The Seven Species are all agricultural products; two grains and five fruits that the Hebrew Bible identifies as being unique to the Land of Israel.

Happily, the Jews in Isaiah’s time were no longer just subsisting off the land using the nomad staples of goat curd and date-honey. Under the leadership of David and Solomon a united monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel was established. With it cultivation became extensive.

Large granaries and food storage facilities were established for barley and wheat. Other common cultivars included figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates, and dates.

These foods were known as the Seven Species (HEB: שבעת המינים‎, Shiv’at HaMinim) and are referenced in Deuteronomy 8:8:

“A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil olive, and honey;”

The Isaiah Diet
A diet of olive oil, grapes, milk curd, whole grain bread, date-honey, and dried fruits pomegranate, figs, and dates) were all likely foods at mealtimes in Isaiah’s day

During this time the ordinary folk had a diet mostly made up of bread and oil, wine and cooked grain or legumes, which included chickpeas, green peas, lentils and fava beans as plant-based protein sources. Grapes and figs were the most common fruits at meals; however other fruits and nuts found their way to the table. Grains and grapes were fermented and used as beverages; in springtime, they drank sheep and goats milk. Both kinds of milk were used to make cheese and butter. Olives were most often used for oil and not for eating as we might these days.

Meat, which is central to many modern diets, if eaten, was a rare treat usually reserved for festival meals, celebrations, and sacrificial feasts. When they could catch game, fish, and fowl, these might be eaten too, but very rarely.

Bread Was Central to Their Diet

Quern used for grinding wheat by hand for the Jewish Diet
The smaller stone was used to grind grain on the lower quern stone with a back and forth motion (see Numbers 11:8)

Bread was a staple in the Jews everyday diet. This task fell to the women, but making bread meant first grinding grain.

This was usually done on a stone mortar and pestle known as a quern.  The process could take up to 3 hours to grind enough flour for an average family.

I have been making bread through natural fermentation for about a month, as part of the research for this post. This has not been a simple task. Every day the start was fed (if you are starting from scratch, it takes about 10 days to capture local yeast; it may have been a bit quicker in ancient times since they used rye and barley more than wheat). Then each day, once the start was active, it took 8–12 hours to make, form, proof and bake a loaf of bread.

Once there was enough flour (probably 8–12 cups) it was mixed with water and starter. The starter, known as “seor,” was made from a mix of flour and water that absorbed yeast in the air for a week or more. Each time bread was prepared, a lump of the dough was set aside for the next day’s batch preserving the natural yeast and bacteria. Together these gave the dough a “sourdough flavor,” and was made through a very natural fermentation process. The whole effort took minimal mixing, but hours of proofing to get the bubbles in the dough for a lighter bread.O

Initially, bread was baked on stone, but by the time of Isaiah, it was usually baked either in or on a jar oven or in a pit-oven. A jar oven produces a kind of bread bowl, baking the bread on the outside of the preheated jar filled with hot coals.

In the pit oven, women baked boulles like the one pictured to the right. Ready, proofed dough was placed in a clay-lined pit that was preheated with hot coals, which were pulled aside for baking. As the Iron Age advanced, metal domes were placed over the top of the pit creating actual ovens.

Now you make an ancient Jewish meal and tell us what you think!

If you want a recipe for a meal Isaiah may have eaten go HERE


1Menachem Posner, “Why is Israel called the land of ‘Milk and Honey,'” Chabad.org
2“Chapter 11: 2 Nephi 17–24,” Book of Mormon Student Manual( 2009), 81–91

 

About Darryl Alder

I am a retiree from Scouting. There I blogged for VoiceOfScouting.org, a site with more than 250,000 readers. During 42 years in the workplace, I've had many years senior level management with the BSA, professional associations, and high tech user groups. My background includes capital fundraising; outdoor adventure program development; property and construction management; event/conference planning; risk management and safety; lobbying federal, state and local government agencies; public relations; strategic planning; member advocacy and staff/volunteer training. Along the way, I have also taught Gospel Doctrine Classes and been both the ward and stake Sunday School President. In these settings, I have seen teachers and class members minimize Isaiah, a book Christ has commanded us to "search diligently." (3 Ne 23:1) With that in mind, I will do my best to explore and post my discoveries about the book of Isaiah. I am not a Bible scholar; like you, I read Isaiah in the Old Testament cycle of study in LDS Gospel Doctrine Classes and again in the Book of Mormon Cycle, so this is a whole new scripture adventure for me.

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I am a retiree from Scouting. There I blogged for VoiceOfScouting.org, a site with more than 250,000 readers. During 42 years in the workplace, I've had many years senior level management with the BSA, professional associations, and high tech user groups. My background includes capital fundraising; outdoor adventure program development; property and construction management; event/conference planning; risk management and safety; lobbying federal, state and local government agencies; public relations; strategic planning; member advocacy and staff/volunteer training. Along the way, I have also taught Gospel Doctrine Classes and been both the ward and stake Sunday School President. In these settings, I have seen teachers and class members minimize Isaiah, a book Christ has commanded us to "search diligently." (3 Ne 23:1) With that in mind, I will do my best to explore and post my discoveries about the book of Isaiah. I am not a Bible scholar; like you, I read Isaiah in the Old Testament cycle of study in LDS Gospel Doctrine Classes and again in the Book of Mormon Cycle, so this is a whole new scripture adventure for me.

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