Dairy on Shavuot "on one foot":
Shavuot is the holiday celebrating when the Jews encountered G-d at Mt. Sinai. Traditionally we eat dairy on Shavuot. This source sheet looks at some of the reasons for that custom.
A Jewish Joke:
When the Israelites were all gathered around the mountain, Moses arranged for a photographer to take a revolving film of the large population, and when it was time to begin shooting the film, what did he call out? --"Cheese."
- "Jungle Boy," commenter on Haaretz.com
Reason 1: Land of Milk and Honey
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Exodus, in the Burning Bush scene. G-d is telling Moses what Moses should say to the Israelites, that G-d has seen their afflictions and will rescue them. Incidentally, scholars think that “milk and honey” refers to goat milk and date honey, but dairy is dairy.
Reason 2: The New Law
Context: The Mishnah Berurah was written by the Chofetz Chayim in the late 1800s. He wrote it as a commentary that updated the Shulchan Aruch from the 1500s. Each phrase of the Shulchan Aruch got a comment on it. Here, he’s giving his own preferred explanation before going into the Shulchan Aruch’s explanation of why we eat dairy on Shavuot. This explanation is basically, “When the Ten Commandments were given the Israelites didn’t yet have the rules for keeping kosher, so they decided to play it safe and eat dairy.” Alternatively, the explanation could be “When the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai the Israelites were overwhelmed by all the rules for kosher meat, so they decided to just eat dairy until they figured out the rules for meat.”
Reason 3: You’re All I Need
Context: This is from the Biblical Song of Songs. Song of Songs is an X-rated book that almost didn’t make it into the Bible until the rabbis argued that it was actually a metaphor for the relationship between the Jewish people and G-d.
Context: Rashi is a French Biblical commentator from the 1000s. He wrote commentary on most verses in the Bible. Rashi normally tried to explain the simple “p’shat” meaning of the text, but he expended large amounts of ink trying to draw out how the Song of Songs is not just an X-rated book, but rather worthy of being in the Bible.
Context: The “Kol Bo” is a collection of Jewish laws from the late 1400s. Nobody knows who wrote it. This text comes from a section that deals with laws and customs of Jewish holidays.
Context: The “Peninei Halakha” is a series of 21st century books that aim to organize the rules of how to live a Jewish life. It’s the latest link in a tradition that also encompasses the Mishnah, Talmud, Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch, and Mishneh Berurah - all reorganizing the traditions. This text is from the 2018 volume on Festivals, from a chapter on Shavuot. It also explains about the prevalence of cheesecake as a specific Shavuot food.
Reason 4: The Magic Number
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Numbers, from the section that lays out the sacrifices for each holiday. Somebody noticed that the first letter in each words “new (grain) to G-d on Shavuot” spells “chalav”, which means “milk.”
Rav Menachem Mendel of Ropshitz
The gematria (numerical value) of the Hebrew word for milk, chalav, is 40 (2+30+8 = חלב) . We eat dairy foods on Shavuot to commemorate the 40 days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving instruction in the entire Torah. Moses spent an additional 40 days on Sinai, praying for forgiveness following the Golden Calf, and then a third set of 40 days before returning with a new set of stone tablets. The numerical value of chalav, 40, has further significance in that there were 40 generations from Moses who recorded the Written Torah, till the generation of Ravina and Rav Ashi who wrote the final version of the Oral Torah, the Talmud.
Context: Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Ropshitz was a Chassidic rabbi in the 1700s who founded the Ropshitz dynasty. He used gematria, the alpha-numeric code whereby aleph = 1, bet = 2, gimel = 3, etc. to seek explanation for a custom that was already established.
Reason 5: The Mountain is Made of Cheese
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Psalms. Psalm 68 is about how G-d will destroy G-d’s enemies. The Midrash in Tanchuma is uncomfortable with G-d having more than one mountain (besides Mt. Sinai), so it reinterprets “the Mountain of Bashan” to refer to Mt. Sinai. It does this by saying that Mt. Sinai is where G-d “ba sham” (came there). Furthermore, according to the verse, “a mountain of peaks” (Har Gavnunim) has to be the same as “Mountain of Bashan”, and “Mountain of Bashan” has to be the same as “mountain of G-d”, so Midrash Tanchuma works to make “mountain of peaks” the same as “Mountain of G-d” (i.e. Mt. Sinai). It does this by noticing that the word for “peaks” is similar to the word for “hunchback”, and since hunchbacks are disqualified from being priests, therefore Mt. Sinai is “the mountain of disqualification”.
[Interestingly, after working so hard to make “mountain of peaks” = “Mt. Sinai” in Psalms 68:16, the very next verse is the origin in Bereishit Rabba for the midrash that G-d chose Mt. Sinai instead of all of the other mountains because they were too proud, and that whole claim rests on the idea that “mountain of peaks” is NOT “Mt. Sinai”.]
But what does this have to do with dairy on Shavuot? The word for “peaks” (gavnunim) is similar to the word for “cheese” (g’vina).
Rabbi Dovid Meisels
Further, the gematria of gevina (cheese) is 70, corresponding to the "70 faces of Torah."
Context: Rabbi Dovid Meisels is probably best known for being a biographer of the last Chabad rebbe, but he also wrote a series of books bringing to light the secrets of each of the Torah’s holidays. This text is from his 2006 book, “Shavuos Secrets.” The text alludes to the idea that there are 70 faces of the Torah, so each person sees the text in their own way.
Reason 6: The Future’s Bright, the Future’s... Vegetarian
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Isaiah. Chapter 11 is his vision of a messianic era, which is the source of the Jewish insistence that any messiah be able to bring about world peace (the first time they come). These two verses have often been confused to create the phrase “the lion will lie down with the lamb”.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays
Just as Passover evokes the future universal redemption, so Shavuot evokes the future universal covenant. The prophet predicts that even carnivorous animals will turn vegetarian [...] hence follows the anticipatory dairy meal of Shavuot.
Context: Rabbi Yitz Greenberg is a Modern Orthodox rabbi. This text is from his 1993 book The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, which is about the Jewish cycle of the year.
Reason 7: The Double Show-Bread on Shavuot
Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Leviticus, where it describes the offerings brought on Shavuot. An ephah is ten omers (Ex. 16:36), so about 1 bushel. One omer is equal to about 4 lbs, or 43 eggs (depending on whether you are measuring weight or volume). This is right after the verses about counting the Omer. This verse addresses the question that if you are supposed to bring your “first fruits” (bikkurim) of your harvest to the priests, but your harvest is grain, that doesn’t help the priests much to just have some plain grain. Therefore, you should bake it into 2 loaves of bread.
Context: This is from the Shulchan Aruch, the “Code of Jewish Law” written by Rabbi Joseph Caro in 1563, in the section about Shavuot. Specifically, this is from “the Rema”, which is Rabbi Moses Isserles’ gloss pointing out the Ashkenazic practices when they differed from the Sephardic ones that Rabbi Caro wrote about. It seems that eating dairy on Shavuot was an Ashkenazic practice, and the Rema was giving his best explanation for it. His explanation basically is, “On Passover we have the shankbone and roasted egg on the Seder plate to remind us of the regular Festival sacrifice plus the special Passover one. We know that on holidays we eat meat, but on Shavuot we also have a custom to eat dairy. Therefore, these must be 2 separate meals, requiring two separate challahs just like there were 2 “show-bread” loaves brought to the Temple on Shavuot.”
The Sefer Machatzis Hashekel says that eating both a dairy and a meat meal 'forces' a person to prepare two loaves of bread as one cannot use the same bread that has been at a milchig table on a fleshig table and vice versa.
Context: The “Machatzis HaShekel” was a book written by Rabbi Shmuel Kellin (also known as “the Machatzis Hashekel” thanks to his book) in the 1700s. It is a “sub-commentary”, commenting on the “Magen Avraham”, which is a commentary on the Orach Chayim section of the Shulchan Aruch (about prayer and holidays). "Fleishig" is Yiddish for "meat" (from "flesh"), and "milchig" is Yiddish for "dairy" (from "milk")
Reason 8: Ethics Lesson
The Yalkut Shemoni says that milk should only be put in an earthenware vessel because if it is put in a gold vessel it will spoil quickly. So too, eating milk on Shavuos reminds us that one who is boastful will not succeed in their Torah learning. Only someone who is humble, like an earthenware vessel, will succeed and grow in Torah.
Context: The Yalkut Shemoni, done around 1100 CE, is a compilation of midrashim. This references a text from Ta'anit 7a. It is also possible that this is playing on a Talmudic story (Nedarim 50b) where the daughter of the Roman emperor asks Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya why he is so ugly. Shouldn’t Torah knowledge be kept in a nicer-looking head? He asks what her father keeps his wine in; she says that it is in earthenware vessels. Rabbi Yehoshua points out that everybody keeps their wine in clay jugs - shouldn’t the emperor keep his in silver and gold vessels? She moves it, and the wine spoils. She returns to the rabbi and he says that Torah is like that - it spoils if it is in a handsome head. She asks about people who are knowledgeable and handsome and the rabbi says that if they were ugly they would be even more learned.
A review of the explanations we've learned for eating dairy on Shavuot:
1. G-d said that we would be brought to "the land of milk and honey".
2. When the Israelites got the Ten Commandments they didn't have the rules for kosher meat, so they just ate dairy.
3. When the Israelites got the entire Torah at Mt. Sinai they were overwhelmed by the rules for kosher meat, so they decided to eat dairy for a while.
4. When the Israelites got the entire Torah at Mt. Sinai they realized that all their meat was now treif, so they ate dairy until they made kosher meat.
5. When the lover is saying "Milk and honey are under your tongue" in Song of Songs, he's really saying that the words of Torah are as sweet as milk and honey.
6. When the Torah says "bring new grain to G-d on Shavuot", there's an acrostic with the Hebrew word for "milk".
7. The Gematria (alpha-numeric value) of the Hebrew word for "milk" is equal to the number of days that Moses was on Mt. Sinai (40).
8. The Gematria of the Hebrew word for "cheese" is equal to the number of "faces of Torah" (70).
9. In the Psalms it describes Mt. Sinai as a mountain of peaks, and the word for "peaks" is similar to the word for "cheese".
10. In Isaiah it says that in time of the Messiah even the animals will be vegetarian.
11. During the time of the Temple people brought 2 loaves of bread on Shavuot, and in order to eat 2 challahs in one night on Shavuot you need to have a dairy meal before your meat one.
12. Milk spoils when kept in fancy vessels, so this reminds us to not be boastful about whatever Torah we know.
13. Bonus - Shavuot is in the late spring when animals have much milk - custom follows availability.
Which of these explanations resonates with you the most?
There are many special foods for Shavuot, in different Jewish cultures. Dairy is popular because, when the Israelites in the desert received the Torah, including the kosher laws, there was no kosher meat yet available. Torah is compared to honey, so many traditional Shavuot foods are sweet, as well. Persian Jews make “Polao mastin” a dish made of rice and milk, and “koltcha shiri,” a dairy cake, while in Greece there is a special dairy porridge made with cinnamon called “sutlag.” In Poland, cheesecake is the traditional Shavuot dessert. Libyan Jews make necklaces strung with cookies or pretzels in symbolic shapes for their children. Iraqi Jews make “sambusak,” a savory pastry filled with cheese. The exact details of the menu are fluid—any interpretation of a dairy meal and dessert would be appropriate. This is an excellent opportunity to try out a new recipe, symbolic of our renewed relationship with Torah, or to take the time for an old family favorite, to celebrate your roots.
Making Ice Cream in a Bag
1 tablespoon sugar
½ cup milk, cream, or half and half
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract (or other flavoring)
6 tablespoons salt (kosher salt is better, but table salt will work)
Enough ice to fill the gallon-sized bag halfway
2 gallon-sized Ziploc bag
2 pint-sized Ziploc bag (sandwich bag size)
1 large measuring container (at least 1 cup)
Double bag the gallon-sized ziploc bag
Fill the gallon-sized bag halfway with ice. Add the salt and mix with the ice.
Pour the milk, then sugar and vanilla extract into a bowl or other container and mix.
Carefully pour the mixture into the double-bagged pint bag.
Close the bags, making sure they are completely sealed.
Put the pint bags into the gallon bags and seal completely. Wrap the bags in a towel and shake vigorously for 5 minutes.
Remove the pint bag, open it up, and grab a spoon.
Milk will provide a less rich, lower calorie ice cream, while using heavy cream will have the opposite effect.
This method will make a small amount of ice cream, about enough for two people to enjoy. Experimenting with other methods can allow you to make more. One version uses two coffee cans of differing sizes instead of plastic bags.
Flavor combinations are almost limitless. Chocolate syrup is a basic option, while various flavor extracts available in your grocery store's baking section can lead to more exotic variations. Try combining mint extract with chocolate, or adding small chocolate chips.
If making multiple batches, 6 tablespoons of salt goes very quickly. Have a lot of salt on hand.
With thanks to Joel Stanley (whose sheet “Milk & Honey are Under thy Tongue” provided the base for this source sheet), Rabbi David Winship, Loren Berman, J Conway, Rabbi Guido Cohen, and MyJewishLearning.
Appendix: The Prose Version
Ice Cream for Breakfast on Shavuot?!
When my daughter was four, she could tell you one thing about Shavuot: That’s when we have ice cream for breakfast. Why does my family have such a delicious tradition? It goes back to my own mother, who was tired of my siblings and I asking when we would get to eat ice cream on Shavuot. Yet why do we eat dairy on Shavuot at all?
Like most things in Judaism, there is the original reason why something started, and then there are the reasons ascribed to something that build up over time. Probably, this all began when Jews were looking for a treat for the holiday. Since Shavuot is in the spring, there is an abundance of animal milk, and so we went with that. However, there are many other reasons that have been developed over time.
The first one is that when the Jews were at Mt. Sinai, they didn’t have the rules for kosher meat yet, so they decided to play it safe and eat dairy instead. Variations on this one are that the Israelites were overwhelmed by the rules for kosher meat and so they decided to eat dairy while they figured them out, and that the Israelites realized that their meat was now treif (not-kosher), so they ate dairy until they could make kosher meat (Mishnah Berurah 494:12).
The second explanation comes from the Song of Songs, an X-rated book of the Bible that required a lot of work to be interpreted as an allegory of the love between G-d and the Jewish people. The text says “Sweetness drips from your lips, o bride, honey and milk are under your tongue.” (Song of Songs 4:11) The medieval commentator Rashi said that this meant “your lips are dripping with words of Torah”, and so Torah became connected with milk and honey (hence cheesecake) (Kol Bo 52:10). Additionally, at Mt. Sinai we were on our way to “the land of milk and honey” (Ex. 3:17).
A third set of explanations have to do with reading hidden connections in the text. For instance, when it says in the Torah to “bring new grain to G-d on Shavuot”, that makes an acrostic for the Hebrew word for “milk”, chalav (Num. 28:26). Using Gematria, an alphanumeric code, the numeric value of “milk” is 40, which is the number of days that Moses spent on Mt. Sinai, while the numeric value of “cheese” is 70, which is said to be the number of faces to the Torah. Moreover, according to Psalms 68:16, the “mountain of G-d” is said to be “a mountain of peaks”, and the Hebrew word for “peaks” is very similar to the Hebrew word for “cheese”.
And then there are the other explanations. Shavuot looks toward the messianic age, which is said to be a time when even the animals will be vegetarian (and presumably the people will be too) (Isaiah 11:6-7). Shavuot was when we brought an omer of new grain baked into 2 loaves of bread for the priests. Eating a dairy meal, when normally one might have meat on a festival, reminds us of these two distinct loaves of bread (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 494:3). Finally, milk spoils when it is put into fancy vessels, so this reminds us not to be boastful about whatever Torah knowledge we have acquired.
There are many reasons that have developed for the custom of eating dairy on Shavuot, and the great thing about Judaism is that you can go with whichever explanation works for you. Whatever your rationale, may we all have a sweet and delicious Shavuot!