Why Do Jews Eat Dairy on Shavuot?

If there's one thing everyone knows about the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, it's that Jews eat lots of dairy. 

Stepping back, as one of the shalosh regalim or three biblical pilgrimage festivals, Shavuot actually celebrates two things: 

  1. The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. After the Exodus from Egypt, from the second day of Passover, the Torah commands the Israelites to count 49 days (Leviticus 23:15). On the 50th day, the Israelites are to observe Shavuot. 
  2. The wheat harvest. Passover was the time of the barley harvest, and it was followed by a seven-week period (corresponding to the omer period of counting) that culminated with the harvesting of grain on Shavuot. During the time of the Holy Temple, Israelites would travel to Jerusalem to make an offering of two loaves of bread from the wheat harvest. 

Shavuot is known as many things in the Torah, whether it's the Festival or Feast of Weeks, Festival of Reaping, or the Day of the First Fruits. But let's get back to the cheesecake.

Considering a popular assumption is that most Jews are lactose intolerant ... why exactly do Jews consume so much dairy on Shavuot? 

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A Land Flowing With Milk ...

Israel: A Land of Milk & Honey
Getty Images/Creativ Studio Heinemann

The simplest explanation comes from Song of Songs (Shir ha'Shirim) 4:11: "Like honey and milk [the Torah] lies under your tongue."

Likewise, the land of Israel is referred to as "a land flowing with milk and honey" in Deuteronomy 31:20.

Essentially, milk serves as sustenance, the source of life, and honey represents sweetness. So Jews the world over make dairy-based sweet treats like cheesecake, blintzes, and cottage cheese pancakes with fruit compote. 

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Cheese Mountain!

Cheese on Shavuot

Getty Images/Shana Novak 

Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which is also known as Har Gavnunim (הר גבננים), which means "mountain of majestic peaks." 

The Hebrew word for cheese is gevinah (גבינה), which is etymologically related to the word Gavnunim. On that note, the gematria (numerical value) of gevinah is 70, which ties into the popular understanding that there are 70 faces or facets of Torah (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15). 

But don't misunderstand, we don't recommend eating 70 slices of Israeli-British chef Yotam Ottolenghi's sweet and salty cheesecake with cherries and crumble

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The Kashrut Theory

A man purifying kitchen utensils to make them kosher for Pesach
A man takes part in the ritual of purifying kitchen utensils in boiling water to make them kosher for Passover. Uriel Sinai/Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

There is one theory that because the Jews only received the Torah at Mount Sinai (the reason Shavuot is celebrated), they didn't have the laws of how to slaughter and prepare meat prior to this.

Thus, once they received the Torah and all of the commandments about ritual slaughter and the separation law of "do not cook a kid in its mother's milk" (Exodus 34:26), they didn't have time to prepare all of the animals and their dishes, so they ate dairy instead

If you're wondering why they didn't just take the time to slaughter the animals and make their dishes kosher, the answer is that the revelation at Sinai occurred on Shabbat, when those acts are forbidden. 

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Moses the Dairy Man

Moses Showing the Tablets of the Law to the Israelites
SuperStock/Getty Images

Much in the same vein as gevinah, mentioned earlier, there is another gematria that is cited as a possible reason for the heavy consumption of dairy on Shavuot. 

The gematria of the Hebrew word for milk, chalav (חלב), is 40, so the reasoning cited is that we eat dairy on Shavuot to remember the 40 days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the whole of the Torah (Deuteronomy 10:10).