For weeks before Shavuot, Haaretz food editor Rotem Maimon tempts the news desk with cheesecake samples, and asks the editors to judge them. He then compiles a list of the best cheesecakes in Israel. But how and why did it become a custom to eat dairy in general, and cheesecake in particular, on Shavuot?
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The earliest source to mention dairy as a Shavuot tradition is Rabbi Isaac Tyrnau’s Sefer HaMinhagim (“Book of Customs”), a compendium of Jewish law written in the late 14th century, in either Austria or Romania. Rabbi Tyrnau does not explain the custom, though.
Apparently, the first rabbi to try was Rabbi Moses Isserles (a.k.a. “The Rema”). In his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch - Orach Chaim (1564), Isserles explains that the consumption of dairy commemorates the “Shtei HaLechem” (“Two Bread”) sacrifice given at the Temple on Shavuot.
His explanation is a bit abstruse, but it goes something like this: You eat a dairy meal, then mid-way through the Shavuot feast, the table is cleared to make way for a meat meal (under the laws of kashrut, dairy can be eaten before meat, but not meat before dairy). The meal switch requires a new loaf of bread to be put on the table.
Later rabbis commented that the meal switch would not in fact necessitate a new loaf of bread, and Rabbi Isserles' explanation did not catch on in any case. Over the centuries other rabbis offered other, more plausible explanations, or if not plausible, at least interesting.
The arrival of Torah
In his writings Omrey Noam (1878), Rabbi Meir Horowitz explained that on Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of the Torah. The Torah is likened to milk in the Songs of Solomon (at least if we buy into the prevailing view by religious authorities that the whole book is about the relationship between God and the Jewish people, and not a love poem): “Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon” (4:11).
Ergo, on Shavuot we should eat dairy products, explains Rabbi Horowitz, though he does not explain why we don’t eat honey.
The most cited explanation is probably that given by Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (also known as “Chofetz Chaim”), in his commentary on the Rema’s Orach Chaim - the Mishnah Berurah (published in six volumes between 1884 and 1907). Rabbi Kagan suggests that the tradition stems from Mount Sinai: when the Israelites received the Torah from Moses (which according to tradition happened on Shavuot), they were instantly subject to all its laws, including those regulating ritual slaughter. Since there was no time to prepare kosher meat before the feast, the Israelites ate a dairy meal.
Another explanation provided by Kagan's contemporary Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, in his commentary the Aruch HaShulchan (1883), points to a verse in the Book of Numbers discussing Shavuot: “Also in the day of the firstfruits, when ye bring a new meat offering unto the Lord, after your weeks be out, ye shall have an holy convocation; ye shall do no servile work” (Numbers 28:26). Confusingly, the paragraph does not mention milk. It says “new meat offering unto the Lord” – but that, if abbreviated in Hebrew, Rabbi Epstein points out, spells out the three letter acronym kh-l-b - Hebrew for milk!
Rabbi Moishe Sternbuch, the vice-president of Israel's Rabbinical Court, offers an altogether different explanation, in his commentary on the Jewish holidays Moadim Uzmanim (1958).
Citing the Talmud (Berachot 6b), Rabbi Sternbuch says that before the Torah was given, the Israelites were not allowed to eat dairy products, since these were considered “a part of a live animal”. But once the Torah was handed down, the passages containing the phrase “Land of Milk and Honey” (e.g., Exodus 3:8) made their consumption permissible.
Thus we eat dairy products to commemorate the fact that on Shavuot, God allowed us to eat these.
So what is the real explanation? It seems that we will never know for sure, but it might be rather more prosaic than those presented by the rabbis.
During the Middle Ages, it became a tradition among Eastern European Jews to induct children into the heder (Jewish school) on Shavuot with a small celebration. Perhaps thrifty Jewish mothers were trying to save money and served blintzes or other dairy dishes in these events, instead of more expensive meat dishes, creating a delicious tradition that has lasted to this very day.