Ilana and Tova’s food for thought

(Alireza Etemadi on Unsplash)
(Alireza Etemadi on Unsplash)

I have to admit that when it comes to Shavuot, I get a bit carried away. This is the rare occasion that I serve dairy meals to guests so I find myself overwhelmed with choice. I usually start with desserts and try to limit the number of cheesecakes and milky treats that I will make and urge myself to think about the rest of the meal!

Various reasons are offered for this custom to eat dairy on Shavuot ranging from the numerical value of chalav, the Hebrew word for milk, being 40 just like the 40 days Moshe spent on Mount Sinai when receiving the Torah. To Mount Sinai also being known as Mount Gavnunim, a word which is similar to the Hebrew word for gevina, cheese. There is a reference in the book of Shir hashirim, Songs of Songs, likening the Torah to milk, so we eat dairy foods on the day we receive the Torah. Then there are the technical issues of kashrut. Once the Jewish people received the Torah they didn’t have kosher meat or vessels available so could only eat the milk they already had.

Generally, I endeavor to cook and eat healthily. Shavuot, though just a one-day festival here in Israel, isn’t quite fitting into that mold…Shavuot for me has strong associations with food. In particular once a year my mother would make us a chocolate cheesecake. To this day the word Shavuot conjures up fond memories of this cake being prepared, it sitting in the fridge, and then after all that anticipation us enjoying eating it. 

Tova Kramer, a friend, and dietician was on hand to answer some of my questions. Namely, what are some practical ways for us to be able to celebrate Shavuot and still focus on healthy eating? 

Ilana, Shavuot today has turned into the “cheesecake festival” by association, but as you said that was probably not the initial intention.

There is always the option of finding a healthier way of making a cheesecake – you could opt to try and substitute half of the higher fat cream cheese to a lower fat cream cheese, or drop some of the butter in the base, or try using less sugar.

BUT – there is always that one cheesecake that you don’t really want to change the recipe for because it tastes SO GOOD and it is made up of Shavuot memories and it’s what you really want to eat! 

I think there are many different ways we can look at this. Regarding your mom’s chocolate cheesecake – it sounds delicious! I think that is such a perfect example of how to allow yourself to enjoy special food which brings positive associations with Shavuot, family time and enjoyment. Your mom created a very healthy environment for you even if the food itself was not so healthy.  You were aware of the preparation that went into the cake, you knew that you would be allowed to eat it at some stage which was probably why when she put it into the fridge it stayed whole and didn’t get picked at, and you enjoyed it and were allowed to enjoy it – which is so important. Let us not forget that it was a positive experience for you and your siblings (and your mom hopefully.) I really think that that is the key to eating healthy.

Healthy eating doesn’t have to be about all or nothing. I very much believe in using moderation to help us eat and behave healthily when it comes to eating. I like to look at it as an 80/20 approach  – 80% of the time healthy foods and trying to have balanced meals. 20% of the time  – it is okay to be able to treat yourself to the foods that you may like as well but are not as healthful. I believe that allowing ourselves and our kids to have “treats” and not making an issue of it- but enjoying it with them is a healthy way of living. 

I also suggest that if you decide to have that piece of decadent cheesecake – HAVE A WHOLE PIECE, not a sliver. What generally happens is that when we have a sliver- people are prone to take another sliver and then another -because they try to convince themselves that they haven’t really eaten so much… but it tastes so good… so they usually end up eating much more than one piece of cake. On the other hand, if you were to take a piece of cake – and eat the whole piece and enjoy it- chances are that even though you want seconds you probably won’t have another piece…   

Great ideas Tova- super practical and they make me feel less guilty.

I wanted to ask your opinion on a shift in our focus. What do you think about us moving towards emphasizing other aspects and customs of Shavuot? Shavuot is also known as Yom Habikkurim, the day of the bikkurim. These were the first fruits of the seven species of Israel that were brought on Shavuot in the time of the Temple. We could make a special Shavuot fruit salad. Or maybe we could move away from food altogether and emphasize the custom of decorating our homes with greenery and flowers, just as the foot of Mount Sinai was covered in flowers.

Ilana, I love your idea of focusing on the bikkurim – the new fruits, especially in Israel where all the new summer fruits are just coming out. I think in general – fruit should definitely be used as a theme during Shavuot, especially with kids. Besides being good for you, packed with vitamins, minerals, fibre, and natural sugars, fruit is also really tasty! It could be an idea to have a bikkurim contest – and cut up different fruits and get the kids to see which one they like the best – which one is the nicest colour… When we as parents and adults, show our kids that we can enjoy fruit as a snack or dessert – or even as a fun food – they are likely to follow suit and at the end of the day it is a much healthier option!

I think to sum up there are many different aspects of Shavuot and we as parents can decide what to put the focus on, and if we are able to do it in a positive way I think that our kids have much to gain and learn and please G-d will pass the messages and recipes on to their kids as well!  Flowers are a lovely idea to decorate the table in honour of Shavuot and Har Sinai. A celebration of fruit in different ways and forms (cut up/ skewers/ fruit salad) is a great way to encourage our kids to eat fruit and celebrate the healthy treats that G-d gives us! And there is always room for a piece of cheesecake to be enjoyed as well!

Wonderful Tova. I will definitely be making use of your suggestions, thank you so much for all that “food for thought!”

Chag sameach!

Ilana & Tova (

About the Author
Ilana Harris is a teacher and educational consultant. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four kids.
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