Goats, and, to a lesser extent, sheep, provided milk for part of the year, and milk and dairy products were a significant source of food. Dairy products are mentioned in the Bible (for example, Genesis 18:8, Judges 4:19, and 2 Samuel 17:29, and a repeated description of the Land of Israel in the Bible is “a land flowing with milk and honey” (for example, Exodus 3:8, Exodus 33:3, and Joel 4:18)).
Fresh milk could not be stored for long without spoiling. Typically, thick sour milk called laban was drunk because the Israelites stored the milk in skin containers, in which it curdled quickly.
Milk had to be processed to preserve it. This was done by first churning it, using a goatskin or clay container to separate the butterfatfrom the whey. The butterfat was processed by boiling and then cooling it to make clarified butter, which could then be stored for a long time. Clarified butter was used principally for cooking and frying. Butter churns have been excavated at Beersheba, dating from the 4th century BC, and other ancient Israelite sites.
Goat milk and sheep’s milk cheeses were the most prevalent types of cheese. Soft cheese was made using cloth bags filled with soured milk. The thin liquid was drained through the cloth until a soft cheese remained in the bag. A hard cheese was made from fermented soured milk: milk was poured into special moulds in which it curdled and was then hardened by drying in the sun or by heating numerous, small, cheese molds with holes for draining the whey. Cheese is not mentioned often in the Bible, but in one case, David is sent to take a gift of cheese to the commander of the army (1 Samuel 17:18). The Mishna and Talmud mention using the sap of fruit trees, such as figs, to harden cheese (a method still used by nomadic herders of the region until modern times). Using fig sap instead of animal enzymes to make cheese also conformed to the prohibition on mixing meat and milk.