Lacking the distinctive rituals of Sukkot and Passover, Shavuot still has dairy — especially cheese. It wasn’t always this way. While it may often seem like the Shavuot cheesecake is on par with matzah at the Seder, the dairy custom is a relative newcomer, first recorded by French and Spanish authors in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. But despite the custom’s popularity, its connection to the holiday appears tenuous and has long been a subject of fanciful speculation. To paraphrase an old rabbinic expression: “What does cheese have to do with Mount Sinai?”
We might also ask, “what has cheese to do with any of the themes of Shavuot?”
Those themes evolved over time. In the Torah, Shavuot is “the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field” (Exodus 23:16), and “the Day of First Fruits, your Feast of Weeks” (Numbers 28:26). To mark the beginning of the wheat harvest, the priests offered two wheat loaves, baked from the new grain, in the Temple. Farmers from all regions of Israel came to Jerusalem on a celebratory pilgrimage bearing the first fruits of the “seven species.” Later, most likely in the wake of exile, the holiday took on an additional motif — the revelation at Sinai — whose traditional date coincides with Shavuot.
So, is dairy on Shavuot supposed to represent the Torah, the early summer harvest, or both?
Taking a closer look at the written sources, the original custom appears to have been to eat both dairy and honey dishes on Shavuot. That will immediately remind us of “a land flowing with milk and honey,” and suggests that the practice may have begun as a reminder of the land of Israel on the summer harvest holiday. Also, the Midrash sees an allegorical reference in “milk and honey under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11) to the Jewish people’s constant and sweet Torah study, and to their commitment at Sinai to the keep the law. With some exegesis, then, we might conclude that dairy-and-honey arose from biblical references to both major Shavuot motifs, the harvest and the acceptance of the Torah.
My guess is that there is an even simpler explanation for the connection between cheese, honey, and Shavuot, an explanation which speaks to both material and spiritual aspects of the holiday and complements the textual allusions.
Consider the production of cheese in medieval Europe, based largely on sheep’s milk. Sheep were raised for wool and meat, and were also a ready source of protein-rich milk and cheese. In their normal breeding cycle, they give birth in early spring (the lambing season) after which sheep milk is abundant. But without refrigeration, milk has almost no shelf-life. To preserve the milk, herders made cheese — depending on the aging process, the finished product could last for months or even years. The earliest cheeses to be ready would have been soft and semi-soft varieties like Brie and Feta, common for centuries throughout Europe, which take four to eight weeks to ripen. The “harvest” of the first cheeses was likely an important date on the calendar and it would have taken place near Shavuot.
By the medieval period, beekeeping was well established in Europe. Bees produced honey from the nectar of spring wildflowers and, like cheese, was harvested in significant quantities — as it is today — in the summer. Here are two commodities that would have been first available around Shavuot at the time and place the custom took shape. It should come as no surprise that celebrants of an ancient harvest festival would find added meaning in new cheese and honey, especially given the associations these foods already had with the land of Israel and with Torah study.
When thinking about the meaning of the biblical festivals, we tend to drift towards special, rather than universal themes. After all, what’s particularly “Jewish” about any holiday, if not its connection to a major event in our history?
Still, the historical-religious elements of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot needn’t overshadow their agricultural side. Our Siddur and Machzorim are full of prayers revolving around the agricultural cycle. The Torah itself, and much of Tanakh, assumes an agrarian mindset, with all the anxiety of the rainy season, the anticipation of early spring, and the joy of the harvest. In fact, the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot (approximately, depending on the solar calendar), during which the hot hamsin winds could destroy the wheat crop, were a particularly anxious time on the Near Eastern calendar. A successful wheat harvest meant sustenance for the coming year. Our ancestors surely had deep religious feelings of gratitude while bringing in the wheat from the fields to the threshing floor.
Most of us are unfamiliar with food insecurity caused by drought, famine, or shortages. But in recent months we’ve all had a taste — however trivial it may be compared to the health crisis or to chronic hunger — of how fragile the food supply chain can be. As we enjoy a favorite dairy product this Shavuot (with or without honey), it may be a good time to take stock of the perennial harvests we normally take for granted and of the all hands, human and divine, that bring them to our tables.