“Cheesecake” Parashat Naso 5774

Yom Tov is all about eating, and so my favourite Yom Tov is Shavuot. On Pesach you essentially eat matzo. You can grind it up, you can try to hide it behind eggs and oil, but it is still matzo. Sukkot food is gourmet but you have to eat it in the Sukkah. In Israel this means heat and bees. In North America this means cold and bees. But on Shavuot, we can eat whatever we want wherever we want. And on Shavuot we eat cheesecake.

It is a well-known custom to eat dairy products on Shavuot. The custom seems to have an Ashkenazic source and is brought as a gloss to the Shulchan Aruch [OC 494:3] by Rav Moshe Isserlis (known as the Rema). What is the source of this custom? It turns out that while there is no one universally accepted source, there is a whole slew of potential reasons that have been brought over the years. These reasons run the gamut from Halachic to Kabbalistic to everything in between:

  1. On Shavuot Am Yisrael received the Torah on Mount Sinai. The Torah subjected them to laws of Kashrut that immediately rendered all of their meat non-Kosher. Given the logistics, it was easier to eat milk than meat on that day. This is the most widely-known reason, and is brought in the Mishna Berura [OC 494:12].
  2. The Song of Songs [4:11] compares Torah to nourishing milk: “Milk and honey under your tongue”.
  3. The Torah begins the discussion of the Shavuot sacrifices with the words [Bemidbar 28:26] “On the Day of First Fruits when you offer a new meal-offering to Hashem on your Feast of Weeks…” The first letters of the words “new [meal-offering] to Hashem on your Feast of Weeks” – “CHadasha LHashem B’shavuotechem” – form the Hebrew word “Chalav” – milk.
  4. The numerical value (gematria) of the word chalav is forty, equal to the number of days that Moshe Rabbeinu spent on Mount Sinai before receiving the Torah.
  5. Mount Sinai is also called [Psalms 68:16] “Har Gavnunim” – “Mountain of Peaks”. The Hebrew word “Gevina” also means “cheese”.Moreover, the gematria of the word gevina is seventy, representing the “seventy interpretations of Torah”.
  6. Shavuot is the culmination of a spiritual process that begins on Pesach: Am Yisrael left Egypt in order to receive the Torah. The offerings of the two holidays represent the two stages of this process: At the Pesach Seder we have two cooked dishes (a shank-bone and an egg) to commemorate the two offerings brought on Pesach in the Beit HaMikdash. To connect the two holidays, we eat two cooked foods on Shavuot as well – one meat and one dairy.
  7. The Rema suggests that the reason has to do with the Shtei Ha’Lechem, two loaves of bread made from the first crop of wheat and offered on Shavuot. As a loaf of bread that has been eaten with a meat meal cannot be eaten together with a milk meal, eating both meat and dairy foods on Shavuot requires two loaves of bread, which will serve as a commemoration of the Shtei Ha’Lechem.

The source of the custom can be used to determine the extent of dairy food that one must eat on Shavuot. According to Reason 1 above, all of the meals on Shavuot should be dairy. According to Reasons 2 through 5, there should be no requirement to eat a dairy meal per se, only a dairy snack. And according to Reasons 6 and 7, one meal should be dairy while the other meal should be meat.

Whatever its source, the custom of eating dairy products on Shavuot is widely-accepted. We must be cognizant, though, that there are a fair number of halachic issues that need to be addressed in order for this custom to be executed properly. And it turns out that the different reasons for eating dairy on Shavuot give rise to different halachic ramifications. The first problem is eating a milk meal on Yom Tov. The Torah commands us [Devarim 16:14] to “rejoice” on Yom Tov. The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim [109a] rules that a person should rejoice by eating meat. While our Sages argue whether or not this ruling is pertinent only when the Beit HaMikdash is standing, the normative halacha rules that we must eat meat on Yom Tov even today. Obviously this makes eating exclusively dairy meals on Shavuot problematic[1].

One option is splitting up the days. On the first day of Yom Tov we eat dairy and on the second day of Yom Tov we eat meat. Unfortunately, this solution does not help those of us living in Israel. Another option is splitting up the meals: one meal dairy and one meal meat[2]. Again, the authorities are divided as to whether or not this solution is permissible according to what was discussed in the previous paragraph, and most of them recommend eating two meat meals[3]. Yet another option is splitting one meal into two parts, first eating dairy and then eating meat. This solution is tricky and is fraught with danger. Careful attention must be paid so that dairy crumbs do not get mixed up with meat crumbs. And while it is normally sufficient to rinse one’s mouth between eating milk and meat, certain cheeses require waiting six hours, the same as the waiting period between meat and milk. While most authorities rule that only cheeses that are older than six months require this waiting period, the OU rules that any cheese with a very strong flavor (think Emmental or Gruyere or Pecorino) also requires waiting six hours.

I would like to propose another reason why dairy products are eaten on Shavuot. This proposal takes into account every single point brought so far in this shiur and it begins with a joke: The Rabbi of a town retires and is replaced by a young Rabbi for whom this is his first pulpit. His first appearance in shul is on Shavuot. After Yom Tov is over he runs to the Old Age Home where the former Rabbi now lives. “What is the custom of the shul for the reading of the Ten Commandments[4]?” asked the new Rabbi. “What do you mean?” replied the old man. “Well”, said the new Rabbi, “Some people stood and some people sat. The people who stood yelled at the people who sat, and the people who sat yelled at the people who stood. It was bedlam. What is the custom of the shul?” The old Rabbi answered, “That, young man, is precisely our custom”.

The Prophet Jeremiah [23:29] describes the Torah with the idiom “Like a hammer smashing rock”. When a sledgehammer impacts a rock, the rock explodes. Hundreds of shards of all shapes and sizes fly in all directions. The impact of Torah is the same. Torah cannot be compartmentalized or relegated to the Study Hall. While there may be seventy ways of interpreting the Torah, there are millions of variations, most of them valid. The Torah is not the Museum of Art. It is the New York Stock exchange. It is hustle and bustle. It is the sound of a Beit Midrash in which 300 men shout at each other, trying to understand what the Talmud is saying. The custom of eating dairy on Shavuot, with its multiple sources, its plethora of halachic ramifications, and its impossible set of constraints and interactions, defines and epitomizes the Torah. Do you want to experience the Torah? Start with a piece of cheesecake.

Chag Sameach,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774


[1]The Sha’agat Aryeh holds that a person who especially enjoys eating dairy is not required to eat meat on Yom Tov, Shavuot or otherwise.

[2]This solution is only pertinent for Reasons 6 and 7 above.

[3]It is interesting to note that the Chazon Ish and Rav Aharon Kotler implemented this solution.

[4]There are two major halachic opinions as to whether the congregation should sit or stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments. Those who stand do so in order to recreate the giving of the Torah at Sinai, where the entire nation stood. Those who sit do so in order to show that the Ten Commandments are no more important than any other part of the Torah.