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.
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.
None of these foods are what it sounds like to the modern reader. For example, the footnote a 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
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
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.
“A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil olive, and honey;”
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
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.
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