Fruit was an important source of food for the Israelites, particularly grapes, olives and figs. Grapes were grown mostly for wine, although some were eaten fresh at harvest time, or dried as raisins for storage while olives were grown exclusively for their oil, until the Roman period. Other fruits that were eaten were the date, pomegranate and sycamore fig.
The ancient Israelites built terraces of leveled areas in the hill country for planting a variety of crops, including grains, vegetables and fruit trees. All the trees, with the exception of the olive, produced fruit that could be eaten fresh or be made into fresh juice while in season. Fruit was also processed for later use in a variety of ways: Fruit with high sugar content was fermented to make alcoholic beverages; grapes were most commonly used for this. Fruit was also boiled down into thick, sweet syrup, referred to in the Bible as dvash (honey). Grapes, figs, dates and apricots were also dried and preserved individually or put on a string or pressed into cakes. Since dried fruit are an efficient source of energy, they were prepared as provisions for journeys and long marches.
Olives and olive oil
The olive is one of the biblical Seven Species and one of the three elements of the “Mediterranean triad” in Israelite cuisine. Olive oil was used for not only as food and for cooking, but also for lighting, sacrificial offerings, ointment, and anointment for priestly or royal office.
Olives were one of ancient Israel’s most important natural resources
The olive tree was well suited to the climate and soil of the Israelite highlands and a significant part of the hill country was allocated to the cultivation of olive trees, which were one of ancient Israel’s most important natural resources. Olive oil was more versatile and longer-lasting than the oil from other plants, such as sesame, and was also considered to be the best-tasting.
Although olives were used to produce oil from the Bronze Age, it was only by the Roman period that the techniques were introduced to cure olives in lye and then brine to remove their natural bitterness and make them edible as a food.
Olives were harvested in the late summer and were processed for oil by crushing the olives, pressing the mash and separating the oil from the flesh. In the early Iron Age period, this was done by treading the olives in basins cut into rock, or with a mortar or stone on a flat slab. In the later Iron Age period, the introduction of the beam press made large scale processing possible.
The discovery of many ancient olive presses in various locations indicates that olive oil production was highly developed in ancient Israel. The oil production center dating from the 7th century BCE discovered at Ekron, a Philistine city, has over one hundred large olive oil presses, and is the most complete olive oil production center from ancient times to be discovered. It indicates that ancient Israel was a major producer of olive oil for its residents as well as for other parts of the ancient Near East, such as Egypt and especially Mesopotamia. In addition to the large-scale olive oil production for commerce and export, presses have been found in ordinary houses, indicating that this was also a cottage industry.
Archaeological remains at Masada and other sites indicate that the most common olive cultivar was the indigenous Nabali, followed by the Souri. In Roman times, other olive cultivars were imported from Syria and Egypt.
There is also some written information about olive oil. The Bible describes its use in relation to certain sacrifices in which olive oil is used (for example, (Leviticus 6:13-14, Leviticus 7:9-12). However, these sacrificial “recipes” can be assumed to represent some of the everyday uses of oil and methods for cooking and frying. Olive oil was mixed with flour to make bread in the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:12-13) and is also noted as a valuable product for eating (Ezekiel 16:13,19). Olive oil is also mentioned on the Samaria and Arad ostraca.
The consumption of olive oil varied with social class – it was less available to the poor, but it may have become more available later in the Israelite period as the means of production improved and became more widespread. By early Roman times, the Mishna indicates that it was one of the four essential foods that a husband had to provide his wife, and it has been calculated that at a minimum, this represented about 11 percent of the overall calories supplied by the “food basket” described at that time.
Grapes are another of the biblical Seven Species and were used mainly for the production of wine, although they were also eaten fresh and dried. Grapes were dried in the sun to produce raisins, which could then be stored for a long time. Raisins were also pressed into clusters and dried as cakes, which kept the interior raisins softer.
Grapes were also used to produce a thick, honey-like liquid, called grape honey (dvash anavim) that was used as a sweetener. Grape honey was made by treading the grapes in vats, but instead of fermenting the liquid produced, it was boiled to evaporate the water content, leaving behind the thick grape-honey syrup.
Dried figs were a significant source of winter food
Figs were an important source of food. Figs were cultivated throughout the land of Israel and fresh or dried figs were part of the daily diet. A common way of preparing dried figs was to chop them and press them into a cake.
Figs are one of the biblical Seven Species and are frequently mentioned in the Bible (for example, 1 Samuel 25:18, 1 Samuel 30:12 and 1 Chronicles 12:41). The remains of dried figs have been discovered from as early as the Neolithic period in Gezer, Israel and Gilgal in the Jordan Valley.
The fig tree (ficus carica) grew well in the hill country and produced two crops a season. Early ripening figs were regarded as delicacy because of their sweetness and were eaten fresh. Figs ripening in the later harvest were often dried and strung into a chain, or pressed into hard round or square-shaped cakes called a develah, and stored as a major source of winter food. The blocks of dried fig were sliced and eaten like bread.
The Mishna mentions figs as one the components of the prescribed “wife’s food basket” and they are estimated to have constituted 16% of the overall calories of the basket.
Dates were eaten fresh or dried, but were used mostly boiled into thick, long-lasting syrup called “date honey” (dvash temarim) for use as a sweetener. This syrup was prepared by soaking the dates in water for some time until they disintegrated and then boiling the resulting liquid down into thick syrup. The honey in the Biblical reference of “a land flowing with milk and honey” is date honey.
Fresh, ripe dates were available from the mid- to late-summer. Some were sun-dried and pressed into blocks to dry completely, and then used throughout the year, especially as food for travelers. Dates were also fermented into one of the “strong drinks” referred to in the Bible as “shechar”.
The date palm required a hot and dry climate and mostly grew and produced fruit in the Jordan Rift Valley, from Jericho to the Sea of Galilee. In these arid areas, the date was sometimes the only plant food available, and was a primary component of the diet, but it was less important elsewhere.
Pomegranates were usually eaten fresh, although occasionally they were used to make juice or wine, or sun-dried for use when the fresh fruit was out of season. They probably played a minor part in Israelite cuisine, but were symbolically important, as adornments on the hem of the robe of the high priest and the Temple pillars, and embossed on coinage, and are also listed in the Bible as one of the Seven Species of the Land of Israel.
Other fruits and nuts
Almonds, walnuts and pistachios were eaten and are mentioned in the Bible. Almonds were widespread in the region from prehistoric times and the Bible mentions almonds (shaked) and pistachios (botnim) as among the “choice fruits of the land” sent by Jacob as a gift to the ruler of Egypt (Genesis 43:11). Almonds and pistachios were probably eaten primarily by the wealthy. The walnut reached Israel from Mesopotamia by at least 2000 BCE and is mentioned once in the Bible (Songs 6:11). Walnuts became common during the Second Temple period and so widespread that the word for walnut, egoz, became the generic Hebrew word for nut at that time.