Spoiled goat milk, overcooked fruit and fried locusts were just some of the food choices in “the land of milk and honey.”
One of the first things Jewish children learn about ancient Israel is that it is referred to as “the land of milk and honey.” Beyond that evocative phrase, though, how much do we really know about what the Israelites ate, and what, if any, of their food traditions live on today?
Ancient Israel was a fertile land — a land of dates, pomegranates, figs, olives, grapes, barley and wheat. This was a land that could sustain flocks of sheep and goats. While not a cookbook, the Torah was a guide to what the Israelites were and were not permitted to eat. These ancient rules persist to this day, shaping our present diet.
While they found abundance in The Land of Israel, the Israelites were respectful of their resources — and there was no waste. All food that was not consumed fresh was preserved somehow. The yearly cycle was centered on providing for the future, so that there would be food during all the seasons of the year. While the land was blessed, they always needed to anticipate the rhythm of the seasons, and the potential for natural disaster to create shortages.
They entered a Mediterranean territory with hills, shrubs and sparse amounts of fresh water. Goats and sheep could thrive in this environment — they were nimble enough to navigate the terrain and were willing to eat plants that larger livestock would reject, such as woody shrubs, vines and weeds. Goats and sheep also require less water than other livestock. The Torah describes the flocks that were kept in Genesis 29:9, when Rachel and Jacob meet as she brings her sheep to the well, and in Exodus 2:19, when Joseph rescues Zipporah and her sisters as they give water to their father’s sheep.
Goat and sheep’s milk was a staple for Ancient Israelites. The first yogurt-like cheeses were accidentally made by shepherds around 8000 BCE, when sheep and goats were first domesticated. They kept the milk in sacks made out of goat stomachs in the warm climate. The rennet naturally found in the stomachs curdled the milk, transforming it into a yogurt-like cheese. The shepherds were not in a position to waste any food, and decided to eat the “spoiled” milk anyway. They discovered that they liked its tart flavor. This was the first labaneh.
This became an important way of preserving milk. The milk was poured into a sack made of goat leather and then hung from a wooden peg, where it was rocked back and forth so that, after about 90 minutes, the fat had separated from the other liquids. Salt was added, and the cheese was drained. Some of this cheese was eaten fresh; the rest was left in the sun until it became dry and hard. This type of cheese was called afiq, and has a strong, salty flavor. It could be stored indefinitely in this state, and was reconstituted with boiling water and then eaten. What about the water left behind in the process of cheese-making? In a culture where nothing could afford to be squandered, it became a refreshing sour drink called qom. Afiq and qom are still prepared in some traditional Bedouin households to this day.
Goats and sheep are ritually clean, since they have cloven hooves and chew their cud (Leviticus 11:3-8 and Deuteronomy 14:4-8). Their milk is therefore permitted — but the Israelites needed to find a different method to preserve milk. The laws of kashrut forbade them from mixing milk with meat (Exodus 23:19), so in order to comply with the laws of kashrut, shepherds did not keep their milk in goat skin bags, but in clay jars instead. Cheese was made by heating the milk over a fire and stirring it with a fig tree branch. The sap of the fig tree curdled the milk. This produced a cheese very similar to ricotta, made even more delicious with a drizzle of honey.
Ironically, the first inhabitants of the land of milk and honey may not have had much of the latter available in biblical times. The “honey” referred to in God’s description of the Land to Moses has traditionally been interpreted to be not honey from bees, but rather fruit honey. Fruit honey was made by slowly cooking dates, carobs, figs or grapes with water until a syrup was obtained. Date honey was the most commonly available fruit syrup in those times. It was one of the methods used for preserving fruit for year-round use.
However, the Torah specifically mentions honey from a honeycomb when describing how Samson ate honey from the carcass of a lion (Judges 14:8-9). This inspired his riddle, “Out of the eater came forth food, and out of the strong came forth sweetness” (Judges 14:14).
An archaeological excavation at Tel Rehov in Israel is challenging the notion that “honey” was not honey from bees. One hundred beehives from the First Temple period were discovered during a 2007 dig. The cylindrical hives, made from unbaked clay and stacked one on top of the other, form the only apiary in the Near East that has been unearthed from this period.
Why was bee’s honey permitted? After all, bees are unkosher insects. Honey is made from the nectar of flowers, which is processed by the bees. But the end result is not part of the bee’s body, and since it does not originate from the bees, it is kosher. Bees were valuable not just for the honey they produced, but also for pollinating many edible plants.
Not all insects in biblical Israel had such a benevolent effect on the environment, as even the land of abundance was not immune to natural disasters. One of the worst catastrophes to befall people of the ancient world was the arrival of locusts. Desert locusts would travel from Africa to the Near East, arriving in Israel by way of Egypt. There were millions of locusts in one swarm, eating every plant in their path.
Locusts are the only insects that are kosher, according to Leviticus (11:20-23): “Every flying insect that uses four legs for walking shall be avoided by you. The only flying insects with four walking legs you may eat are those with knees extending above their feet, [using these longer legs] to hop on the ground. Among these you may only eat members of the red locust family, the yellow locust family, the spotted gray locust family and the white locust family. All other flying insects with four feet [for walking] must be avoided by you.” This was probably an act of compassion for pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life.
At the first sign of locusts, a shofar was sounded to alert the community. People dropped everything in order to deal with this threat to their survival, capturing as many locusts as they could with nets. The locusts were blanched in boiling water, after which their heads, wings and legs were detached before being peeled “like the scales off a fish.” Then they were preserved with sea salt or vinegar in wooden barrels. These preserved locusts carried the people through the famine that inevitably followed the destruction inflicted by the swarm.
Yemenite Jews have retained the knowledge of identifying, preparing, and eating kosher locusts. During Israel’s last locust infestation in 2013, Israeli Yemenite men traveled to the southern border with Egypt. They captured the desert locusts with nets and brought them home alive. There, they were prepared in the traditional Yemenite way: blanched, then slow-roasted in the oven overnight. The next day, they were consumed like potato chips as a crunchy snack.
God gave the ancient Israelites a good land, which nourished them. Goats and sheep supplied milk, and dates yielded fruit honey. By being respectful of the laws of kashrut, not wasting, and providing for the future, the people of Israel persevered and survived disasters such as plagues of locusts. We celebrate God’s gifts of abundance and give thanks to this day.
Ronit Treatman, the creator of Hands-On Jewish Holidays, lives in Philadelphia. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.