Many Jews have a tradition of eating cheese and other milky products on the Holiday of Shavuot. What do these dairy delicacies have to do with the day that celebrates receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai? The great Kabbalist Rabbi Shimshon of Ostropoli (d. 1648) explains that these foods are associated with Shavuot because an alternate name for Mount Sinai is Mount Gavnunim (see Ps. 68:16-17), and the name Gavnunim is related to the Hebrew word gvinah (“cheese”). The truth is that there are actually three Hebrew terms for “cheese” in the Bible (gvinah, charitz, and shfot), and each one appears only once. This essay explores the respective etymologies of the three words in question, and shows the nuances between them.
The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2:4) assumes that the name Mount Gavnunim somehow relates to gnivah and cheese-production. Cheese is produced by separating the most pristine curds of milk from any impurities (i.e., whey). In the same way, the Midrash expounds on the name Mount Gavnunim as referring to the fact that of all the possible mountains on which Hashem could have given the Torah, He chose Mount Sinai because it was clean and pure from idolatry, just like cheese is clean and pure. Moreover, the Midrash relates that just as cheese represents a dross-less substance, so were the Jewish People at Mount Sinai in their purest, most pristine state such that all dross-like physical blemishes were miraculously healed. Interestingly, Rabbi Yosef Nissim Ben-Adahan (1846-1926) adds that the gematria of the word gvinah is seventy, alluding to the seventy planes of interpretation that apply to every aspect of Torah.
The word gvinah only appears once in the Bible — in a candid admission of Hashem’s role in creating man: “Is it not like milk that You have poured me, and like cheese [gvinah] that You have solidified me?” (Iyov 10:10). As Gersonides and others clarify, this refers to Hashem taking the liquid/viscous human egg and causing it, after fertilization, to solidify into a full-fledged human being. Although gvinah only appears once in the Bible, it is the standard word for “cheese” in the Mishna (see Brachot 6:3, Shabbat 17:2, Nedarim 6:5, Eduyot 5:2, Avodah Zarah 2:4-5, and Chullin 8:1-3). This word was so popular in the ancient world that it was borrowed into Akkadian as gubnatu (although Assyriologists argue that gvinah is originally Aramaic, not Hebrew).
We can safely assume that gvinah derives from the triliteral root GIMMEL-BET-NUN. Yet, there is another Hebrew word that is also derived from that root — giben (Lev. 21:20), which is a blemish that disqualifies a Kohen from service in the Temple. According to some commentators (like Rabbi Saadia Gaon, Radak in Sefer HaShorashim, and Abarbanel to Lev. 21:20), giben refers to a “humpback,” while the Mishna (Bechorot 7:2) explains that giben refers to somebody with abnormally long eyebrows. Modern Hebrew follows the former approach in using giben to mean “hunchback/humpback.” Either way, some explain the aforementioned Midrash about the name Mount Gavnunim as teaching that even blemishes like giben were healed at the Sinaitic Event.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) reduces the triliteral root GIMMEL-BET-NUN to its core biliteral root GIMMEL-BET, which he defines as referring to a “bulge” or something else that sticks out and is plainly visible. The simplest word that derives from this root is gav (“backside/top”), which refers to the exterior of a vessel or of one’s hand/body. This word also refers to one’s eyebrows (Lev. 14:9), because that patch of hair is plainly visible on one’s face.
Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that giben either refers to one whose gav (“back”) is hunched, or to one whose other gav (“eyebrow”) is otherwise abnormal. Rabbi Pappenheim adds that the word gavnunim refers “bulgy mountains” that protrude upwards and are quite conspicuous. He connects this to gvinah in the sense of “cheese,” because that substance is likewise “mountainous” in its composition. Other words that Rabbi Pappenheim sees as derived from this biliteral root include gavoah (“high,” which is something that stands out and is especially visible from far away), negev (“highlands, south, dry”), geveh (“pools of water” that are located on the surface of the earth, which are “higher” than underground springs), govai (“grasshoppers,” which frequent the geveh), and yogvim (“trappers,” who are trained in catching govai).
In a slight variation on this theme, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) traces the root GIMMEL-BET-NUN to the biliteral root GIMMEL-BET (which, in turn, he argues is ultimately derived from the monoliteral root GIMMEL). He sees the core meaning of this biliteral root to be “heights/upwards.” The most obvious derivative of this root is the Hebrew word gavoah (“high/height”). Rabbi Marcus also sees the word gibbor (“hero/warrior”) as deriving from this root, because the gibbor bests his enemies and overpowers, thus rising “above” them. He also explains that the word gabachat (Lev. 13:41-42) said about a hairless patch of skin actually refers to the top part of one’s forehead which does not grow hair. That part of the body is obviously the highest point of one’s face, so it too relates to the core meaning of GIMMEL-BET.
Additionally, Rabbi Marcus notes that the Arabic word jabal (“mountain”) — from which the Hebrew word gvul (“border”) possibly derives — also stems from this root, because it is a topographical feature that extends upwards. The same is true of the Hebrew word givah (“hill”), which similarly extends upwards and contains the GIMMEL-BET string. Moreover, Rabbi Marcus sees the word el-gavish (Yechezkel 13:11, 13:13, 38:22) for “hail” as related to GIMMEL-BET, because such balls of ice fall from the Heavens, located “all the way up.” Interestingly, Alexander Kohut (1842-1894) in his Aruch HaShalem suggests connecting gavnunim with jabal/gvul via the interchangeability of NUN and LAMMED, so that gavnunim just means “mountainous/hilly.”
Finally, Rabbi Marcus notes that the root GIMMEL-BET-NUN also derives from the core meaning of GIMMEL-BET because it denotes some sort of hump or lump. It is unclear whether Rabbi Marcus was discussing GIMMEL-BET-NUN in the sense of “cheese” or giben in the sense of the blemish that disqualifies a Kohen.
Rabbi Avi Kobernick sees a connection between the root GIMMEL-BET-NUN and its metathesized forms GIMMEL-NUN-BET (“stealing”) and NUN-GIMMEL-BET (“drying”). In all three cases, an integral ingredient from the equation is “removed” from its proper place. In other words, when something is “stolen,” the thief takes an item from its proper location (in the possession of its true owner) and moves it elsewhere. When something “dries,” its moisture/liquid has been “removed” from within it. Similarly, when milk curdles and transforms into cheese, there is likewise a process whereby the liquid is “removed” and only the curds remain, thus leaving a more solid substance than previously existed.
In the book of Samuel, the story is told of Jesse sending his son David to bring ten charitzei he’chalav to a local warlord (I Shmuel 17:18). Targum Yonatan renders this term in Aramaic as guvnin d’chalva (literally, “cheese of milk”) as does Rashi and Machberet Menachem. Therefore, we have a second term for “cheese” in Biblical Hebrew. The Talmud (Bechorot 6b), in fact, adduces this passage as one of two sources to the notion that milk and its byproducts are permitted to be consumed (i.e., they are not considered like eating a limb off a live animal).
On the other hand, the Midrash (Midrash Shmuel 20:4) does not explain that charitzei he’chalav refers to “cheese,” but instead interprets it as referring to young kids who had not yet been weaned from their mother’s milk (Mahari Cohen, Eitz Yosef, and Radal) or had just recently been weaned (Yefeh Nof). Such young goats or sheep were apparently considered something of a delicacy. Similarly, Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach in Sefer HaShorashim entertains the possibility that charitzei he’chalav does not mean actual “cheese,” but rather refers to thick, coagulated milk found in an animal’s utters.
Interestingly, Rabbi Avraham Maskileison (1778-1848) explains that the Talmud cited the verse about charitzei he’chalav only as a possible proof-text to the permissibility of consuming milk, but did not see it as a conclusive proof-text, because the Talmud took into consideration the possibility cited by the Midrash that charitzei he’chalav refers to young animals (or Ibn Janach’s explanation that it refers to leftover milk in the udders), not to their cheesetastic byproducts.
Several explanations have been offered to account for how the word charitzei relates to the triliteral CHET-REISH-TZADI in relation to “cheese”:
- Radak in Sefer HaShorashim and the Yemenite commentator Rabbi Avraham ben Shlomo explains that charitzei he’chalav refers to “pieces of fresh cheese.” They note that the cheese-making process somehow involves shaking the cheese, which resemble the shaking movement of one who threshes. Therefore, since the “threshing process” is called charutz (see Isa. 10:22, 28:27), “cheese” came to be called charitz.
- Rabbi Yosef Kara (to I Shmuel 17:18) explains that because cheese was often collected in charitzim (“ditches”) that were dug into the ground (see Daniel 9:25, Eruvin 7:3, Bava Kamma 5:5, Mikvaot 5:6), the word charitz came to be associated with “cheese” itself.
- The Metzudat Tzion (to I Shmuel 17:18) suggests that perhaps it was the accepted practice to “cut” cheese to specific measurements while it was still being processed, so because charitz means “to cut” (like in Iyov 14:5), that word also came to mean “cheese.”
- The Italian scholar Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak Tedeschi-Ashkenazi (1821-1898) in his work Hoil Moshe (to II Shmuel 17:29) writes that cheese is called charitz (“sharp”) in reference to a specific form of cheese that is made from fermented milk that has a tarty/tangy/sharp flavor.
- Rabbi David Luria (1798-1855) writes that if charitzei he’chalav refers to animals that were still nursing, then the term derives from the word charutz (“diligent”), in the sense that someone diligently (i.e. quickly) separated these kids from their mothers while they were still quite young and tender.
- Rabbi Shmuel Yaffe-Ashkenazi (1525-1595) notes that if the term refers to young animals that were recently weaned from their mother’s milk, then charitz relates to “cutting” in the sense that they were “cut off” from their mother’s milk supply.
Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1520-1572), in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 89:4) records that in order to avoid using the same utensils for milk and meat, a custom developed to maintain two separate knives — one for dairy foodstuff and one for meaty foodstuff. He also notes that the prevailing custom is to somehow mark the dairy knife (ostensibly leaving the meaty one unmarked). Rabbi Yosef Teomim-Frankel (1727-1792) in his Pri Megadim (Mishbetzot Zahav, Yoreh Deah 89:7) finds an allusion to this last detail in the above-cited verse which juxtaposes the word charitz (“ditch/digging”) to chalav (“milk”), thus hinting to the notion that the utensils used for dairy foods should have a special indentation to mark them as dairy equipment.
In a later passage in the Book of Shmuel, King David was supplied with various foods during his travels in the midst of Absalom’s rebellion. One of those foods was shfot bakar (II Sam. 17:29). Targum Yonatan renders this term in Aramaic as guvnin d’chalav (literally, “cheese of milk”). This gives us our third cheeselicious word.
As Midrash Shocher Tov (to Ps. 3) clarifies, shfot bakar does not refer to any ordinary cheese. It refers specifically to cheese made from bovine milk that was so slippery/fatty that flies could not stick to it, but would rather slip off. Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz (1909-2001) in Daat Sofrim (to II Shmuel 17:29) takes this to mean that shfot bakar was a type of cheese that was loaded with preservatives (salt?) to protect it from flies, so that the cheese can serve as provisions for long-term travel. (See responsa Chatam Sofer vol. 6, 22 who discusses why the Talmud in Bechorot 6b did not adduce the permissibility of milk/cheese from the verse that mentions shfot bakar.)
Radak and Metzudat Tzion explain that the word shfot is related to other verbs derived from the SHIN-PEH root, which mean “massaging/rubbing” as in Iyov 33:21 (see also Radak’s Sefer HaShorashim). Rabbi Pappenheim sees the core meaning of the biliteral SHIN-PEH as referring to a “rubbing-like movement” (shifshuf), whereby something moves from its place without being lifted up. In the case of “cheese,” he explains that shfot bakar refers to “soft cheese,” which can easily be spread onto one’s bread with a rubbing-like movement.
Rabbi Tedeschi-Ashkenazi in Hoil Moshe (to Ps. 127:5, II Shmuel 17:29, and Yechezkel 40:43) explains that shfot bakar is related to the homonymous shfot (the “act of placing a pot on a stovetop” next to the fire, see II Kings 4:38). He sees the shared meaning of both words to be the idea of “bringing things closer or joining them together.” In terms of the pot, shfot refers to bringing the pot closer to the fire, so they can join together in the cooking process. In terms of cheese, shfot refers to the coming together of the cheesy particles within the milk to become one joined glob. He also sees ashpah (“bin/container” for arrows) and shifshuf (“rubbing”) as related to this word. (As an aside, Josephus mentions an area in Jerusalem called Tyropoeon, also known as “the Valley of the Cheesemakers.” Some scholars have identified this spot as Shaar HaAshpah because of the connection between ashpah and shfot.)
Alternatively, Rabbi Tedeschi-Ashkenazi suggests that shfot refers to the “wicker baskets” used to filter the fermenting milk by separating the curds from the dregs/whey.
Nonetheless, not all commentators explain that shfot bakar refers to “cheese.” Just like Ibn Janach wrote in Sefer HaShorashim that charitzei he’chalav might refer to the milk found in an animal’s utters, so does he mention the same explanation regarding shfot bakar. Moreover, Radak suggests that shfot bakar refers to the udders themselves. Finally, Rabbi Avraham ben Shlomo writes that shfot bakar refers to “butter,” not “cheese” (although this is difficult because “butter” is already mentioned in II Shmuel 17:29 with the word chemah, “butter”).
Postscript: According to tradition, King David died on the Holiday of Shavuot (see Jerusalem Talmud Chagigah 2:3, Ruth Rabbah 3:2). Perhaps because most instances of “cheese” in the Bible relate to King David, we have a custom to eat cheese on that holiday. Alternatively, because the permissibility of eating dairy is derived from a story concerning King David, as mentioned above, we honor his memory on the day he died by eating milk products.