On the Jewish food scene: Shavuot Jeopardy

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Shavuot for $200: Because now that the Israelites had received the Torah, their meat dishes were not kosher.

Shavuot for $400: Because the land of Israel was described as the land of milk and honey.

Shavuot for $600: The numerical value of the Hebrew word for milk is 40, which is the number of days Moses was on Mount Sinai.

Shavuot for $800: The numerical value for the Hebrew word for cheese is 70, which equals the 70 faces of the Torah given at Sinai. 

Shavuot for $1,000: Because dairy products were plentiful in the spring, making them perfect for use in a feast. 

And the answer, or rather the correct question, is, “Why is dairy eaten on Shavuot?”

All of these answers have been given as reason for why we eat dairy on Shavuot. When there are so many possible answers, it usually means the real reason is lost to history (although the $1,000 one strikes me as a good anthropological explanation). There are no verses in the Torah requiring Jews to eat dairy products on Shavuot. That developed later, although we’ll probably never know exactly when.

Actually, the traditional foods we eat on most holidays are not based on biblical commandments, only customs that developed over time. There is no commandment saying we have to eat fried food on Hanukkah, although I’m grateful for that decision. (And the original food wouldn’t have been latkes because potatoes only arrived in Europe during the 16th century.) You’ll find no mention of hamantashen in the book of Esther (the first written reference of that cookie also occurred during the 16th century) and the biblical verses concerning Rosh Hashanah say nothing about eating pomegranates, fish heads or honey cake. The one exception is Passover, when we are actually commanded to eat matzah, although the original matzot (plural for matzah) were far thicker than the cracker we eat today. 

As for Shavuot, the dairy foods eaten have changed over the years. When I was growing up, we didn’t have ice cream buffets for the holiday, but it’s a wonderful idea that attracts folks of all ages. I still love blintzes, but I can’t recall the last time I’ve had a homemade one. For awhile cheesecake was all the rage, but I think ice cream has won out. Although there is nothing wrong with a bowl of ice cream and a side dish of cheesecake. Oh, I think I just decided what I am going to have for Shavuot dinner this year.