On Cheesecake and Torah

Why do we eat dairy on Shavuot?

You have probably heard many reasons, ranging from "purification in order to receive the Torah," to "not knowing which animals are kosher and so eating dairy to avoid making a mistake." According to the Zohar, for example, milk is produced from blood, and thus in its new white form, it represents purity.

Would it surprise you to know that none of these is true? Let's walk through the sources together, and you can decide for yourself.

What is the source of the custom (minhag) to eat dairy on Shavuot?

The Rama (Rav Moshe Isserles, 1520-1572) explains in our first source below that on the holiday of Shavuot, a two-loaf bread offering was brought in the Temple, and that it appears to him that in order to commemorate this biblical commandment, we have a dairy meal followed by a meat meal, which will require two different loaves of bread.

From The Rama

(ג) ... ונוהגין בכמה מקומות לאכול מאכלי חלב ביום ראשון של שבועות. ונראה לי הטעם, שהוא כמו שני תבשילין שלוקחים בליל פסח, זכר לפסח וזכר לחגיגה, כן אוכלים מאכל חלב ואחר כך מאכל בשר, וצריכין להביא עמהם שני לחם על השלחן שהוא במקום המזבח, ויש בזה זכרון לשתי הלחם שהיו מקריבין ביום הבכורים.

And there is a custom in some places to eat dairy foods on the first day of Shavuot. And it seems to me that the reason (for this custom) is that it is like the two cooked foods we take on the seder night -- one representing the Paschal lamb and the other representing the Festival sacrifice. So, too (on Shavuot), we eat a dairy dish and, afterward, a meat dish, requiring two separate breads (one with each dish) to be put on the table, which represents the altar. This is a sort of remembrance of the two bread offerings of Shavuot.

In order to have a dairy meal and then a meat meal, back to back, one must follow some requirements as outlined in the Shulchan Aruch:

(ד) מי שאכל גבינה ורוצה לאכול בשר צריך לבער מעל השלחן שיורי פת שאכל עם הגבינה ואסור לאכול גבינה על מפה שאכלו בה בשר (וכן להפך אסור) (כן משמע בארוך) וכל שכן שאסור לחתוך גבינה אפילו צוננת בסכין שרגילין לחתוך בשר ולא עוד אלא אפילו הפת שאוכלים עם הגבינה אסור לחתוך בסכין שחותכין בה בשר: הגה: וכן להפך נמי אסור מיהו על ידי נעיצה בקרקע קשה שרי (ב"י בשם א"ח וכל בו) אבל כבר נהגו כל ישראל להיות להם שני סכינים ולרשום אחד מהם שיהא לו היכר ונהגו לרשום של חלב ואין לשנות מנהג ישראל:

Whoever eats cheese and wants to eat meat needs to (first) remove from the table all crumbs of the bread that he ate with the cheese; it is forbidden to eat cheese on the same tablecloth upon which one ate meat (and vice versa). It is also forbidden to cut cheese, even cold cheese, with a knife that is generally used to cut meat, and not only this, but also it is forbidden to use that knife to cut the bread that is to be eaten with the cheese. So too is the opposite true... Furthermore, there is now a practice among Israel that they have two knives, delineating one for meat and one for dairy...

The Rama suggests that one meal be dairy and the next be meat in order, perhaps, to emphasize the importance of each loaf, and of each meal. However, since most festive meals are meat meals, and one can have two loaves with a meat meal, this seems an unnecessary way to over-complicate matters.

Let's take a look at the actual source for these show breads on Shavuot:

(יז) מִמּוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם תָּבִיאּוּ לֶחֶם תְּנוּפָה שְׁתַּיִם שְׁנֵי עֶשְׂרֹנִים סֹלֶת תִּהְיֶינָה חָמֵץ תֵּאָפֶינָה בִּכּוּרִים לַה'

(17) Ye shall bring out of your dwellings two wave-loaves of two tenth parts of an ephah; they shall be of fine flour, they shall be baked with leaven, for first-fruits unto the LORD.

Although it is clear that we need two loaves of bread for our "first fruits," what isn't clear at all is why we need dairy with the breads. Couldn't we just eat a nice, festive meat meal and have our two loaves of bread with it, symbolizing the Shavuot sacrifice in our mikdash me'at, the "small sanctuary" that is our home?

The sources explain two things: 1) we need two loaves of bread and 2) how to separate between dairy and meat meals served at the same table.

They do not explain why dairy is a necessary element.

It seems as if the custom of eating dairy on Shavuot existed, and the Rama tried to explain it such that while on Shabbat we eat two loaves of challah over two days, it's on Shavuot that it needs to be at one meal. He suggests that having two meals in a row, one dairy and one meat, emphasizes the two special loaves of bread.

But there's a problem with this, in that the custom outlined by the Rama is to eat dairy on the first day, not to eat dairy first and then meat. And furthermore, if the table is to represent the altar in the Temple, then the two showbreads are meant to be eaten at the same time, at the same meal.

In order to get to the reason for dairy, we need to look at some text from the book of Devarim. The land of Israel is described as a land of wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, pomegranates, olives, and date honey. These "seven species" are often thought of as the natural produce of the land of Israel, and their harvest could be among the "first fruits." Shavuot, especially, marks the conclusion of the grain harvest (barley and wheat, two of the species), and therefore these would have been among the biblical offering -- along with the show breads:

(ו) וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת מִצְו‍ֹת ה' אֱלֹ הֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו וּלְיִרְאָה אֹתוֹ. (ז) כִּי ה' אֱלֹ הֶיךָ מְבִיאֲךָ אֶל אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה אֶרֶץ נַחֲלֵי מָיִם עֲיָנֹת וּתְהֹמֹת יֹצְאִים בַּבִּקְעָה וּבָהָר. (ח) אֶרֶץ חִטָּה וּשְׂעֹרָה וְגֶפֶן וּתְאֵנָה וְרִמּוֹן אֶרֶץ זֵית שֶׁמֶן וּדְבָשׁ.

(6) And thou shalt keep the commandments of the LORD thy God, to walk in His ways, and to fear Him. (7) For the LORD thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys and hills; (8) a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey;

What is the bikkurim ceremony?

In order to understand what happens when we bring our first fruits to God, it's important to look at the biblical text, which pulls together a number of different concepts:

1) Being grateful for coming into the land of Israel with the blessing of God;

2) Giving credit to God for the experience of bringing Am Yisrael out of slavery in Egypt and entering into a covenantal relationship at Sinai;

3) acceptance of the the commandments as given at Sinai

(א) וְהָיָה כִּי תָבוֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹ הֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ. (ב) וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹ הֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וְשַׂמְתָּ בַטֶּנֶא וְהָלַכְתָּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה' אֱלֹ הֶיךָ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם. (ג) וּבָאתָ אֶל הַכֹּהֵן אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם לַה' אֱלֹ הֶיךָ כִּי בָאתִי אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע ה' לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ. (ד) וְלָקַח הַכֹּהֵן הַטֶּנֶא מִיָּדֶךָ וְהִנִּיחוֹ לִפְנֵי מִזְבַּח ה' אֱלֹ הֶיךָ. (ה) וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹ הֶיךָ אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב. (ו) וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים וַיְעַנּוּנוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה. (ז) וַנִּצְעַק אֶל ה' אֱלֹ הֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה אֶת קֹלֵנוּ וַיַּרְא אֶת עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת לַחֲצֵנוּ. (ח) וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ ה' מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹפְתִים. (ט) וַיְבִאֵנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַיִּתֶּן לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. (י) וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לִּי ה' וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹ הֶיךָ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹ הֶיךָ. (יא) וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה' אֱלֹ הֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ אַתָּה וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ. (יב) כִּי תְכַלֶּה לַעְשֵׂר אֶת כָּל מַעְשַׂר תְּבוּאָתְךָ בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁלִישִׁת שְׁנַת הַמַּעֲשֵׂר וְנָתַתָּה לַלֵּוִי לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה וְאָכְלוּ בִשְׁעָרֶיךָ וְשָׂבֵעוּ. (יג) וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹ הֶיךָ בִּעַרְתִּי הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִן הַבַּיִת וְגַם נְתַתִּיו לַלֵּוִי וְלַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה כְּכָל מִצְוָתְךָ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָנִי לֹא עָבַרְתִּי מִמִּצְו‍ֹתֶיךָ וְלֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי. (יד) לֹא אָכַלְתִּי בְאֹנִי מִמֶּנּוּ וְלֹא בִעַרְתִּי מִמֶּנּוּ בְּטָמֵא וְלֹא נָתַתִּי מִמֶּנּוּ לְמֵת שָׁמַעְתִּי בְּקוֹל ה' אֱלֹ הָי עָשִׂיתִי כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָנִי. (טו) הַשְׁקִיפָה מִמְּעוֹן קָדְשְׁךָ מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבָרֵךְ אֶת עַמְּךָ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֵת הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לָנוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. (טז) הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה ה' אֱלֹ הֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאֶת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ. (יז) אֶת ה' הֶאֱמַרְתָּ הַיּוֹם לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹ הִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו וְלִשְׁמֹר חֻקָּיו וּמִצְו‍ֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְלִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ. (יח) וַה' הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָךְ וְלִשְׁמֹר כָּל מִצְו‍ֹתָיו. (יט) וּלְתִתְּךָ עֶלְיוֹן עַל כָּל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לִתְהִלָּה וּלְשֵׁם וּלְתִפְאָרֶת וְלִהְיֹתְךָ עַם קָדֹשׁ לַה' אֱלֹ הֶיךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר.

(1) And it shall be, when thou art come in unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and dost possess it, and dwell therein; (2) that thou shalt take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which thou shalt bring in from thy land that the LORD thy God giveth thee; and thou shalt put it in a basket and shalt go unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there. (3) And thou shalt come unto the priest that shall be in those days, and say unto him: ‘I profess this day unto the LORD thy God, that I am come unto the land which the LORD swore unto our fathers to give us.’ (4) And the priest shall take the basket out of thy hand, and set it down before the altar of the LORD thy God. (5) And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. (6) And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. (7) And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. (8) And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. (9) And He hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (10) And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O LORD, hast given me.’ And thou shalt set it down before the LORD thy God, and worship before the LORD thy God. (11) And thou shalt rejoice in all the good which the LORD thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thy house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of thee. (12) When thou hast made an end of tithing all the tithe of thine increase in the third year, which is the year of tithing, and hast given it unto the Levite, to the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow, that they may eat within thy gates, and be satisfied, (13) then thou shalt say before the LORD thy God: ‘I have put away the hallowed things out of my house, and also have given them unto the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow, according to all Thy commandment which Thou hast commanded me; I have not transgressed any of Thy commandments, neither have I forgotten them. (14) I have not eaten thereof in my mourning, neither have I put away thereof, being unclean, nor given thereof for the dead; I have hearkened to the voice of the LORD my God, I have done according to all that Thou hast commanded me. (15) Look forth from Thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Thy people Israel, and the land which Thou hast given us, as Thou didst swear unto our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ (16) This day the LORD thy God commandeth thee to do these statutes and ordinances; thou shalt therefore observe and do them with all thy heart, and with all thy soul. (17) Thou hast avouched the LORD this day to be thy God, and that thou wouldest walk in His ways, and keep His statutes, and His commandments, and His ordinances, and hearken unto His voice. (18) And the LORD hath avouched thee this day to be His own treasure, as He hath promised thee, and that thou shouldest keep all His commandments; (19) and to make thee high above all nations that He hath made, in praise, and in name, and in glory; and that thou mayest be a holy people unto the LORD thy God, as He hath spoken.

Did you notice the text that appears in our Haggadah? My father was a wandering Aramean.

Did you notice that the Rama made a connection to Passover as well, comparing the show breads for Shauvuot to the seder plate at Passover?

In reading this text, the bikkurim ceremony as practiced at the agricultural holiday of Shavuot in the land of Israel, we notice a relationship. If we read the text carefully, we see that the holiday of Passover is intricately connected to the celebration of Shavuot, even more so than by the counting of 50 days of the Omer between the two festivals. It's not just that we count the grain (an omer is a measure of barley), it's that the grain itself is part of the transition from slavery to freedom.

The bread of slavery is matza (the lechem oni, bread of affliction), and over the fifty days that separate the festival of freedom and the festival of first fruits, we collect our harvest. We count our grain. And then we take the finest of the finest flour and create fluffy, fine show breads (challah) with them, using this to mark the festival of Shavuot.

If Matzah dipped in bitter herbs is meant to remind us of our time of affliction, prior to revelation at Sinai and freedom from slavery, then the show breads, together with the milk and honey that symbolize the land of Israel, are meant to remind us of the fulfillment of the Torah's gift, the settling of the land of Israel.

And what better way to dip challah in milk and honey than to make....


(ב) אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי... ואומר (שמות לב טז): "והלחת מעשה אלהים המה והמכתב מכתב אלהים הוא חרות על הלחת", אל תקרא חרות אלא חרות, שאין לך בן חורין אלא מי שעוסק בתלמוד תורה.

(2) Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: ...it says (Exodus 32:16): "And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets," do not read "graven" (harut) but rather "freedom" (herut), for there is no free man except one that involves himself in Torah learning...

Finally, we elevate our cheesecake to a much higher level when we combine the physical sweetness of our challah dipped in milk and honey with the sweetness of the words of Torah, which in our freedom (herut) from slavery, we obligate ourselves to follow.