DAILY LIFE IN ANCIENT ISRAEL
As it did everywhere else in the Ancient World, an Israeli woman’s life was centered in the home. For the majority this was a small wattle-and-daub or baked clay and straw brick house in a village constructed around a spring or well. There were walled towns but apart from Jerusalem these were not that much bigger. An outside staircase to a flat roof might add to the living space, for the climate was mild and much of life was lived in the outdoors. Larger houses were built around a central courtyard. With space at such a premium inside the walls of a town, even a small tree or bush would have been a rarity, but most of the women who lived in a village would probably have had some sort of garden as a source of food, flowers and pleasure.
Needless to say, the homes of the rich were more spacious and made of better material. A poor woman would have swept a beaten clay floor, while a rich woman would have had a servant sweep a tile floor. Only the richest would have been fortunate enough to live in a stone house despite the parable stressing the importance of stone for the foundation. The less wealthy would have had to do without a fireplace, but a simple brazier supplied all the heat that was necessary in such a pleasant climate; except for the supper rich all cooking was done in the outdoors.
The market was located just outside the walls of the town. Unless she were rich enough to have servants, every woman would have to pay regular visits to buy the necessities. Civic business was conducted there also, but unless the woman herself was involved she would have no reason to be present.
Having children was, of course, the ultimate aim of all the women in Israel. Everyone felt very sorry for any wife who failed to deliver at least a daughter if not several sons. Children of both genders were loved equally, but boys were preferred for the simple reason that girls left home when they got married; sons were permanent assets while daughters were temporary. Even mothers, then, would prefer to have a son who would remain part of her family forever than a daughter who would eventually have to leave and become part of another household. While there may have been greater rejoicing for a son, particularly a first-born, daughters were cherished just as much while they were growing up.
While having children was a woman’s most important achievement, the bulk of her day to day life was spent in raising them, keeping the house clean and cooking meals. The Jews were by and large light eaters, but they enjoyed their food and were happiest when guests were present. Bread was a part of every meal. Without modern preservatives, fresh loaves had to be baked every second day or so. Since flour did not come in a bag from the supermarket it had to be freshly ground between two stones every time new loaves were desired. Whether it was barley bread for a poor family or wheat bread for a well off one, it was the woman’s job to grind the grain and kneed the dough. The loaves were usually round and placed directly on the coals of an open fire. The best flour was mixed with oil, mint, cumin, cinnamon and even locusts to make a cake. A sort of honey doughnut was made by frying it in a pan.
Cow’s milk was known but it was not used very much. Sheep and goats were preferred and their milk could also be used to make butter or cheese. Honey was the most common sweetener, but juice from grapes or dates could also be used. A special treat was a meal of locusts. When boiled in salted water they tasted somewhat like shrimp. If dried in the sun they could be kept for use at some other time of the year, when they would be ground into a powder and mixed with wheat flour for biscuits or simply moistened with honey or vinegar.
Dinner was expected to include lots of vegetables, beans, lentils, cucumbers and onions being the most common. Middle-income families might supplement their bread and vegetables with some fish, kid or lamb. Chickens were rare but pigeons were plentiful. Only the very rich could afford “a fatted calf”. Food was strongly seasoned: pepper was expensive but they used mustard, capers, cumin, saffron, coriander, mint, dill and rosemary. There was almost always a local wine to wash it all down.