Search the Site


Beer in Ancient Israel

While the evidence for production and drinking of beer in the Hebrew Bible is ambiguous, beer must have been a common beverage in ancient Israel.

Spouted beer jug and strainer. Source: Abigail Klein Leichman, “Israelis Brew Beer from Yeast in 3,000-Year-Old Jug,” Israel21c, 22 May 2019, Photograph by Abigail Klein Leichman.

Almost all known societies have figured out ways to turn common foodstuffs into alcoholic beverages. Alcohol helps preserve food when there is a lack of refrigeration, it has antibacterial qualities, and there are pleasant consequences for those who imbibe it. The Hebrew Bible warns against the dangers of drunkenness (see, e.g., Gen 9), but it also clearly associates alcoholic beverages with happiness (Judg 9:13, Ps 104:15).  

What alcoholic beverages existed in ancient Israel?

In ancient Israel, wine dominated. This is evident from the number of times it is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (141 times) and archeological evidence that has been found regarding its production. The dominance of wine was based on several factors. While beer was produced for immediate consumption, wine could improve with age and thus could be traded. Further, making beer required ample water resources, and Israel had few perennial rivers and no rain for half the year. Grapes can make wine without tapping into as much of the precious water supplies. On the other hand, beer was the paramount beverage among Israel’s neighbors, Egypt and Mesopotamia, which were home to river valleys and plentiful water.

At the same time, barley (the essential ingredient in beer) played an important role in the Israelite diet as a staple crop and one of the seven characteristic “fruits” of the land of Israel (Deut 8:8). It was less expensive than wheat, which had more gluten and thus was more suitable for baked goods that needed to rise. Barley also has greater tolerance for difficult terrain like that found in mountainous Israel. Some researchers have even suggested that brewing beer was the main motivation for domesticating barley.

Making beer is a multistage process. The grains are soaked in water, spread out to dry, ground, and formed into loaves. These loaves are baked, after which they are soaked in water. Yeast from the air or added yeast then causes fermentation. The resulting fermented liquid was sweeter than modern beer and could be flavored with fruit, honey, and spices. The Hebrew Bible repeatedly associates women and bread-making; thus one can reasonably infer that they were also the primary producers of beer.

What role did beer play in the Israelite diet?

One obstacle to assessing the role of beer in the Israelite diet is that the Hebrew word that designates beer (shekar) can be used in the Hebrew Bible for intoxicating drinks in general, including wine. In Mesopotamia, however, the term was used specifically for beer. There are also instances in the Hebrew Bible where shekar is clearly distinct from wine. For instance, in Lev 10:9, the torah prohibits priests from serving in the tabernacle while under the influence of wine and shekar. When Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, insists on her sobriety in 1 Sam 1:15, she protests that she drank neither wine nor shekar. In these two instances, the term shekar likely refers to beer.

While archeological evidence for beer-drinking is a not as clear cut as for wine production, various artifacts from Israelite sites (such as jugs with strainers on their spouts) point to the consumption of beer. It is possible that beer was neglected in the Hebrew Bible because it lacked prestige: it was associated with barley, which was also consumed by animals as fodder. It was also made by women and did not excite the literary imagination as much as wine. Whatever the reason for the neglect, there is evidence for the consumption of beer in ancient Israel, and it may have even been a common staple.

  • Elaine Goodfriend teaches in the Department of Religious Studies and the Program in Jewish Studies at California State University, Northridge. She enjoys writing about the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Law.