Why do we eat dairy dishes on Shavuot?

cheesecake met de woorden chag sameach sjavoeot

Speciaal voor De Vrijdagavond schrijft de Amerikaanse geleerde Shulamit Reinharz over de belangrijkste tradities van het Wekenfeest (ofwel Sjavoe’ot / Shavuot) met één prangende vraag: waarom eten we deze dagen al die melkkost?

Tonight is the start of the two-day holiday of Shavuot, a very important moment in the Jewish calendar, seven weeks after Pesach. On Pesach, the early part of the seder includes singing or reciting the Ma Nishtana? Why is this night different from all other nights?  The answer starts with what we eat – i.e. matzah and not chametz. Quickly baked flatbread and not slowly leavened bread that has had time to rise. 

Every year before Shavuot begins, I ask myself the same question – why do we eat dairy dishes on Shavuot? Why do we even have a holiday which tradition says is accompanied by dairy foods?  After all, 75% of the worldwide Jewish population is lactose intolerant.

A different food

The answers I have found in previous years have not yet satisfied me. One is that it is enjoyable to have each holiday paired by a different food – challah and wine for Shabbat; apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah; hamantaschen for Purim; latkes, sufganiyot and chocolate gelt for Hanukah and so on. Because there was no holiday with milk as a theme, Shavuot got the honor and we’ve been puzzling over this pairing for years.


The point of Shavuot is to celebrate the Jewish people being given the Torah that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. So maybe it’s the Torah that provides the link. This idea has led me to a provocative suggestion. We all know that a newborn’s first food is milk. It takes several months before the baby receives solid food. Because receiving the Torah enabled us to be re-born as freedom-loving Jewish people, we eat dairy foods to remind us of this link. 

No tools, no rules

Another idea is legalistic. When we received the Torah, we did not yet have the tools for preparing meat nor the knowledge of the rules about when we should eat meat. It took a while to create kosher cooking practices. So, until we learned how to slaughter cows, we ate simple dairy products.

Female themes of Shavuot

Some of my female friends urge an explanation that connects milk to the strong female themes of Shavuot. This is the holiday when we read the book of Ruth, which teaches us the story of about Ruth’s love of Naomi and Ruth’s taking on of the mitzvot, as she converted to join Naomi’s people.”

Milk is associated with women, including these two marvelous role models; and women produce milk, ergo, dairy on Shavuot.

Healthy diet in a healthy land

A very satisfying set of answers comes from Rabbi Julie Zupan of Boston. She reminds us that in the Torah, the Land of Israel frequently is referred to as the “Land flowing with Milk and Honey.” The phrase is meant to conjure up “abundant fertility.”  

Rabbi Zupan writes, “In the Book of Exodus (3:8), God promises to take the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to a `good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim, which means “narrow places.” In other words, a life of slavery is constricted, narrow and oppressive, while living in freedom in Israel is wide, spacious and ripe with what we need to build a new society. A land so fertile that it flows with milk and honey. She then asks “Which milk and which honey?” She answers that the milk is the product of a goat, and the honey comes from bees and dates. The pairing of the two – milk and honey – reflects the harmony of a diet based on animals and plants, a healthy diet in a healthy land.

No waste

And after learning all of this, I have one more answer. We eat dairy on Shavuot out of respect for our spiritual and nutritional environments that nourish our beings. 

We eat the produce of trees and insects. We eat dairy products that produce no waste. There are no bones or fat to throw out. Thus, Shavuot and dairy products are wedded in spiritual meaning and environmental awareness. And finally, I have my answer.

cover collage by Bloom

Over Shulamit Reinharz 4 Artikelen
Shulamit Reinharz retired from Brandeis University in 2017 where in addition to her teaching, speaking and publishing she revamped the Women's Studies Program, created the Women's Studies Research Center, and art gallery (2001). She established the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, which studies the intersection of Jews and gender. The author of 15 books, her recently completed volume (whose title is being debated) concerns her father's Holocaust experience in Germany and in Holland, where he became an onderduiker. Shula was born in Amsterdam in June 1946 and has visited the Netherlands frequently.


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