For many, Passover is all about the food – ditching challah and rainbow bagels for eight days and dealing with the bloat that accompanies the matzah overdose and a diet heavy in eggs and cinnamon balls. Most will use the excuse of Passover to give the kitchen a good spring clean, while some may feel the need to take out a second mortgage to buy kosher for Passover bottled water, toothpaste, dog food and washing up liquid.
But what sort of food did the ancient Israelites eat and how much did their diet change during Passover? First, it’s worth pointing out that Passover did not exist until the book of Exodus (obvs!), but that comes pretty early on in the Torah (after Genesis), although naturally there is debate about when it happened: 480 years before the construction of Solomon’s Temple, according to The Book of Kings; never according to the archaeologists.
Our main sources of information regarding the diet of the Israelites and the Egyptians are the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls and archaeological and anthropological records. Religious belief – the law of kashrut – shaped much of their diet: Vayikra – Leviticus – Chapter 11 tells us what the Israelites did not eat: “Any animal that has a cloven hoof that is completely split into double hooves, and which brings up its cud that one you may eat. But these you shall not eat among those that bring up the cud and those that have a cloven hoof… camel, hyrax, hare, pig…”
“Any creature that does not have fins and scales in the water is an abomination for you, and the eagle, the kite, the osprey, the kestrel…” “Any flying insect that walks on fours”, “The weasel, the mouse, and the toad…” and so on.
We are told about what the privileged ate in The Book of Kings, which lists the food brought to King Solomon’s table: “Thirty measures of fine flour, and threescore measures of meal; ten fat oxen, and twenty oxen out of the pastures, and a hundred sheep, beside harts, and gazelles, and roebucks, and fatted fowl.”
Numbers, Chapter 11 tells us about the food the Israelites longed for after they left Egypt: “We member the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for nought; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic.”
The staples of the Israelites’ diet were bread, wine and olive oil as mentioned in Deuteronomy, Chapter 7: “He will also bless the fruit of thy body and the fruit of thy land, thy corn and thy wine and thine oil” but also included the Seven Species: “wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey” as mentioned in Deuteronomy, Chapter 8.
Matzah, or unleavened bread, first made an appearance during Exodus, when the Jews had to leave Egypt in a hurry and did not have time to let their bread rise. Also from Exodus come the other Passover observances, which shaped how the Israelites ate and are still in place today: the removal of chametz from the home, which includes anything made from the five major grains – wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes of coming into contact with water. Ashkenazi Jews also consider rice, corn, peanuts and legumes as chametz.
There were unsurprisingly similarities between the diets of the ancient Israelites and the neighbouring ancient Egyptians, although the Israelites relied on rainfall to irrigate their crops, whereas the Egyptians relied very much on the cycle of the River Nile and there would be periods of great famine when the Nile failed to flood sufficiently to allow the crops to prosper. Most years, however, saw a plentiful harvest of cereals such as barley and wheat, vegetables like beans, lentils, onions, garlic, leeks, lettuces and cucumbers, and fruits, including grapes, figs and dates. The wealthy Egyptians would also dine off sheep, goats, pigs and geese, while the poor were left with a basic diet of bread, fish, beans, onions, garlic and beer.
Archaeological remains discovered in Israel help us understand more about what the ancient Israelites ate and how they stored and prepared their food. Wine and olive presses, stone and metal implements used in the preparation of food, containers and jars along with animal bones, fossilised plants and carbonised seeds have all been unearthed. As yet, there has been no evidence of falafels, but all in good time.