As Shavuot approaches next week, we at JewishBoston once again find ourselves asking a question about a holiday we should already know the answer to. This time, one of us (hint: not the one with the Judaic studies master’s degree) knew what Shavuot actually is: the anniversary of when the Israelites received the Torah on Mount Sinai. Yet a question still lingered: Whether custom or commandment, eating dairy is one way to observe the holiday. Why?
Adding to the list of things that a Jewish organization should know, we present to you our coworkers’ and friends’ best guesses about why we eat dairy on Shavuot.
“I have no idea.”
“Something about the land and the cows. Maybe the cows were about to die and we had to take their milk. And it was getting hot. Like, something that has to do with land, weather and cows…it got hot, the cows were all gonna die. We turned the land.”
“I think the reason we eat dairy on Shavuot is that until we received the 10 Commandments, we didn’t know how to make meat kosher, so we ate dairy instead. At least that’s what I remember from being taught in Hebrew school (on the few days I paid attention).”
“Jews eat dairy on Shavuot because they control the dairy industry.”
“Oh gosh, I don’t…I don’t know…I really have no idea.”
“It’s because we didn’t have kashrut laws until we actually got the Torah. So how would we have done anything? And also because of the milk and honey. And also because it’s tasty.”
“To counterbalance all of the matzah and meat we ate over Passover? To bring us closer to our animal friends?”
“I haven’t really celebrated it, though I think it’s a harvest holiday or something. Do Jews eat dairy then because dairy is like ‘giving’ from the cow to humans, as is the harvest?”
“Because cheese is delicious!!!”
“I have no idea. But I remember my mom telling me very recently so she’s going to be super disappointed in me.”
“Is this as opposed to eating only meat? And wait—do vegan Jews eat dairy on Shavuot? #inquiringmindswanttoknow! Clearly I have no idea either.”
“I literally have no clue.”
“Because while we were waiting to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, we didn’t yet know how to kasher meat, so we ate dairy to be safe. I’m not sure how they knew that there were going to be new rules around eating meat, but that’s what I was taught. If it means I get to eat cheesecake, I don’t care too much about the logic.”
“That’s a good question. I don’t know. I know people eat fish on Shavuot but I don’t know why.”
“There must be something in Leviticus about it. In fact, it was probably in my Torah portion at my bar mitzvah. I can’t remember at all. So sad!”
“Something about cows.”
“Hmm, I have no idea! But I did have my bat mitzvah during Shavuot and I believe during that time you start the Torah over again, or something like that. But I have no idea about the dairy stuff.”
“In honor of their dairy-producing animals. Also, because it’s delicious.”
“The truth is, I have no idea! My grandmother died on Shavuot. My aunts said she died on that holiday so she wouldn’t have to have a funeral, as it’s not allowed!”
“This is the holiday we eat ice cream, right? I don’t know why we do it, but I’m not complaining about it.”
“Do they not eat it the rest of the time?”
“Since Shavuot is after Memorial Day, you can finally wear—and eat—white. Jews have been waiting all year for this, so milk, cheese, ice cream, white pants—it’s on.”
Although seven of the 21 people (33 percent) who responded to our query literally “have no idea,” we took our best guess based on what we were told, factual or otherwise:
“To keep Lactaid in business?”
“If I were to make an educated guess, I would say that we were commanded to eat dairy because Adonai loves cheese and cheese is awesome, especially pepper-jack cheese. I can see it now: Adonai says to the people Israel, ‘Behold my greatest creation, CHEESE!'”
“I need to recuse myself because of the research I did for additional Shavuot content, but I will say cows are very cute.”
According to Rabbi Cameron, there are a variety of reasons. In gematria, the Hebrew word for milk—chalav—has a value of 40, which corresponds with the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai. The occasion represents the end of wandering to the promised land, i.e., the “land of milk and honey.” Eating dairy on Shavuot, however, become a custom as the years progressed; it’s not a commandment.
“Given that we are celebrating revelation and receiving Torah, there is something beautiful about observing a tradition like eating dairy,” Rabbi Sherman told us. “Because on Shavuot we didn’t yet have the Torah, so we would not have had the rules of kashrut.”
And there you have it.