No one really knows why the holiday of Shavu’ot is celebrated with dairy products – cheese cakes, blintzes, puddings, ice cream and other dairy sweets, depending on the particular Jewish community.
When the Jerusalem Temple was standing, Shavu’ot was the holiday that marked the beginning of the wheat harvest (Shemot / Exodus 34:22), marking the beginning of the yearly Bikkurim cycle, with its groups of villagers described in the Mishnah (Bikkurim 3:3-4) as arriving in Jerusalem bringing offerings of grain and fruits of the Seven Species with fanfare, flutes and decorated bulls over the following months, as each ripened.
Dairy is not mentioned in the Torah or Mishnah in relation to the holiday, nor even alluded to (besides, perhaps, the decorated bull), yet the tradition is found across the Jewish world, pointing to an ancient origin, and in our days various explanations are given. Perhaps dairy was a way to celebrate the giving of the Torah, which Jewish tradition associates with the holiday, since the Torah is in turn thought to be represented in the Shir ha-Shirim / Song of Songs line (4:11) about “honey and milk under your tongue”? Perhaps abstaining from meat was intended to show gratitude for the Torah’s instruction regarding proper treatment of animals and regulations governing kosher slaughtering, or in remembrance of the time before the Torah was given and there was no such instruction, and therefore no way to eat meat? These are some of the traditional explanations for the mysterious abstention from meat on this day and equally mysterious focus on dairy products.
(Or perhaps dairy was celebrated as this holiday corresponds roughly with the time that lambs are weaned and their mothers’ milk is again available for human consumption?)
Making the situation more perplexing is the fact that Jews are overwhelmingly lactose-intolerant, together with the rest of the population along the Fertile Crescent (Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq) and in other places where agriculture goes back millennia, such as China. (This past week there have been a JTA article and a Kan video drawing attention to this irony.)
In short: Wheat in the Fertile Crescent and rice in China made the mutation allowing for easy digestion of lactose into adulthood less necessary, whereas the mutation spread quickly among populations that were more dependent on herding and cattle – such as the bulk of ancient Northern Europe, where the vast majority of the population is lactose-tolerant into adulthood. Among the Israeli population, as noted in the Kan video, only the Bedouin have a significant proportion of lactose-tolerant adults – around 50% – reflecting both their pastoral economic base and their geographical origin away from the Fertile Crescent, in the Arabian Peninsula, where lactose tolerance is much more widespread.
This divide among the Semitic peoples – between mostly lactose-intolerant agriculturalists and largely lactose-tolerant herders – is also seen in Semitic languages. In Hebrew and Aramaic – languages which developed along the Fertile Crescent – the word לחם or לחמא (pronounced léhem in Hebrew, and l’hēm or lahmå in Aramaic) means “bread.” In Arabic, however, the same word, لحم (pronounced lahm), means “meat.” Originally, this word seems to have designated the staple “food,” the basis of the diet, and received its more specific meaning as the different Semitic cultures developed in their respective circumstances: agriculturalists turned this word into “bread” while pastoralists turned it into “meat.” In biblical Hebrew, the word léhem, ostensibly “bread,” can still mean “food” or “a meal” in a more general sense, as seen in Bereishit /Genesis 28:20, “bread to eat and a garment to wear” or in 37:25 “they sat to eat bread”
Similary, the word shémen שמן in Hebrew means oil, and by default it specifically refers to olive oil (as in Vayiqra / Leviticus 2 and Bemidbar / Numbers 15, describing Temple offerings including olive oil, yet not mentioning olives)*. In Arabic, however, the cognate word, pronounced samn or samneh (سمن, سمنة), traditionally means ghee, clarified butter oil. (Consumers be aware however that these days this often needs to be specified as samn baladi or samneh baladiyeh (سمن بلدي, سمنة بلدية) “traditional ghee,” since just samn can be the same as samn nabati (سمن نباتي), “vegetal ghee” (margarine). This can be a very important detail when buying baklava! There are English and Hebrew videos for making Yemenite-style smoked samneh, which is similar to French beurre noisette.) The Arabic word for raw butter, zibdah (زبدة), seems to be related to a Hebrew word for a festive gift or offering, zéved (זבד), perhaps indicating its ritual use among Arabs in ancient times, as olive oil was used in Israel.
A similar distinction can be seen in the respective words for the spring season: The Hebrew word for spring, aviv (אביב), relates originally to the green, sprouting phase of grains. The biblical name for the Hebrew month Nisan as the “Month of Aviv” refers specifically to this green, almost-ripe phase of wild barley in Israel, the crop that helps calibrate the Hebrew calendar. Kara’ite Jews to this day use the wild barley in Israel to gauge if a second month of Adar must be added to be sure that the mostly lunar Hebrew calendar still reflects the solar seasons for the year in question (Rabbinic Jewry developed a mathematical formula for determining when to add the leap-month instead).
In Arabic, the word for spring is rabī‘ (رَبِيع רבּיע), which for Hebrew-speakers seems to refer explicitly to the mating season of livestock (breeding livestock in Hebrew is רְבִיעָה, revi‘åh, by way of the verbs הִרבִּיעַ, hirbī‘a, and רָבַע, råvá‘). In Arabic this connection is less explicit – there are other words for breeding livestock – but the word rabī‘ is still related to holding livestock, as the verb raba‘a (رَبَع רבע) has become a synonym for “to herd” (alongside the more commonly used ra‘a رَعَى, identical to the Hebrew verb for “to herd,” רָעָה), and an area used for holding livestock is called a marba‘ (مَربَع, מַרְבַּע).
But wait, King David himself was a shepherd, and from the town of Beit-Lehem. Furthermore, his father had him bring cheese, or “ten wedges of milk,” to his brothers on the battlefield (1 Shemu’el / Samuel 17:18). His family were clearly involved in herding livestock. Could it be that the town was actually named “House of Meat,” not “House of Bread”?
Not likely: David’s great-grandmother Ruth arrived in Beit-Lehem with her mother-in-law No‘omí at the beginning of the barley harvest (Ruth 1:22), and she stayed on gathering grain in Bo’az’s fields during the wheat harvest as well (2:23), all the while eating bread dipped in vinegar and roasted wheat kernels (2:14). The grain harvest as a central motif of the book is one explanation as to why Megillat Rut is traditionally read each year at Shavu’ot.
Several generations later, David’s father’s care package from Beit-Lehem to his sons and their comrades in battle also included ten loaves of bread and an eifah (nearly 40 liters) of roasted wheat kernels (1 Shemu’el / Samuel 17:17), and he had earlier sent David with a gift to King Sha’ūl / Saul including bread and wine, together with a young goat (16:20). The inhabitants of Beit-Lehem are then known in the Hebrew tradition as being involved in both agriculture (barley, wheat, wine) and shepherding, not only one or the other. The adoption of agriculture generally does not entail the complete abandonment of herding and involvement with livestock; meat or cheese go well with bread.
The importance of the nomadic, pastoral past to ancient Israel’s narrative is still clearly visible in the book of Bereishit / Genesis – The patriarchal clan is depicted as wandering from place to place with their livestock and living in tents (such as in Bereishit / Genesis 18:1). Israel and the neighboring nations towards the east are described as being descended from this same nomadic clan, whether Hebrew-speaking (as were the Edomites, Moabites and Ammonites) or the Arabic-speaking tribes descended from Abraham through Ishmael, living just over the linguistic border in the Hijaz. (On the other hand, Hebrew-speaking Canaanites living in the cities are considered to be utterly foreign, of Egyptian stock and descended from Ham / Khemet, as per Bereishit / Genesis 10:6, despite the common language.)
Still, despite any nostalgia for the pastoralism of ancestral nomads, the Hebrew language and the culture that developed in Israel, as known from the Tanakh and other Jewish sources, show a strong connection with agriculture, and we can surmise that agriculture, “eating bread”, was central enough to the lifestyle in the Land of Israel and surroundings even then, that the vast majority of people in the region to this day have difficulty digesting raw milk products as adults.
Though they may enjoy a yearly overdose of cheese cake and dairy desserts come Shavu’ot, the wheat harvest holiday.
* An important exception to this is the name of a tree mentioned in the Tanakh and the Mishnah, עץ שמן etz shémen, meaning “oil tree”. Many have automatically understood this to be another way of saying “olive tree”. However, the use of the “oil tree” in construction in the Temple (1 Kings 6: 23, 31-33 ) and as simple fuel (Mishnah Tamid 2:3) would make that identification a little strange – olive trees are more practically used for their fruit than for such uses. And the Mishnah (Tamid 2:3) even specifies that olive trees and grape vine wood were expressly forbidden for use as fuel for the altar, but lists walnut, fig and the “oil tree” among those that were customarily burnt. The two can therefore not be the same tree. Israeli historical botanist Yehuda Felix proposed identifying the “oil tree” with the Jerusalem pine tree, oren yerushalmi (also known as the Aleppo pine), which is known among Aramaic-speaking Jews as a’a de-mish’ha (אעא דמשחא), or “oil tree,” to this day. He attributes this name to the pine tar that could be obtained from the tree, called ‘itran (עטרן) in Hebrew and used occasionally as fuel for oil lamps (though some opposed its use for Erev Shabbat lamps, as noted in Mishnah Shabbat 2:2, Bameh Madliqin). In ancient times, people would also have known that the sap visibly oozing from the tree is also highly flammable and useful as such, further identifying the tree with fuel and earning it the name “oil tree.”