OpinionJewish & Israeli Holidays

What’s with all the milky food on Shavuot?

It’s about feeling like a child again.

Classic plain New York Cheesecake sliced on wooden board. Photo: Vladislav Noseek/Shutterstock
Classic plain New York Cheesecake sliced on wooden board. Photo: Vladislav Noseek/Shutterstock
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

I love cheesecake! Who doesn’t? And blintzes too. Shavuot is famous for the traditional dairy foods we enjoy on this lovely chag. It’s only one day in Israel and two in the Diaspora, but on Shavuot Jews can probably eat enough for a seven-day yom tov like Passover or Sukkot.

I remember hearing a rather rotund rabbi explain why Shavuot was his favorite yom tov. “On Pesach, we may eat where we want, but not what we want. On Sukkot we may eat what we want, but not where we want. But on Shavuot we can eat what we want where we want! Definitely my favorite chag!”

But seriously, this cannot be just a gastronomic exercise. We are talking about, arguably, the most important Jewish festival of our entire calendar. Without Shavuot, the Season of the Giving of the Torah, there would be no Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, no tradition, no Jewish way of life. Everything started at Sinai when God gave us the Ten Commandments, the Torah and our unique Jewish mission. The interesting delicacies we enjoy are nice, but surely they pale into insignificance when compared to the history, meaning and essence of what this foundational chag is all about.

I know, and it is a sad and tragic fact of life, that Shavuot is somewhat orphaned and neglected in relation to other festivals. It doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. While it is one of the three Pilgrim Festivals alongside Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is not observed nearly as widely. I remember some years back when I was walking to Shul one Shavuot morning and a congregant pulled over in his car to offer the rabbi a lift! He was, obviously, totally unaware that it was a yom tov.

Back to the cheesecake. While there are a variety of reasons for the tradition of eating dairy foods on Shavuot, not that many years ago I discovered one I had never known before.

Milk is the most universal baby food. Newborns and infants have been nurtured and nourished since the beginning of time by their mother’s milk and, as they grow older, by cow’s milk.

Babies have no baggage. Theirs is a new life, a new beginning. Babies are innocent, untainted and unencumbered by any past experiences or disappointments. Young children are sweet and pure, trusting and believing. They haven’t yet had the time and experience to suffer disappointment and disillusion and become cynical like us adults.

Give an adult something unexpected and he will ask, “OK, what’s the catch?” I mean, we all know ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch,’ right? But a child hasn’t yet become so sophisticated and cynical. They still trust us.

So, according to one opinion, we eat milky foods on Shavuot to inspire us with the mindset of the child. Only if we can approach our Jewish lives with the open-mindedness of the child, the innocent curiosity and inquisitiveness, the preparedness to learn new tricks and allow ourselves to be exposed to new ideas can we successfully “receive” the Torah on Shavuot.

How refreshing it is when we see someone who is open to new experiences and new spiritual adventures. How many of us are stuck in our ways and immobilized from moving forward. “Been there, done that.” We’ve become resigned. “It is what it is.”

Shavuot recalls the seven-week-old, newly born Jewish nation, standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, receiving God’s mandate to live a Jewish life and commit to our national vision.

We were a new, fledgling, child-like nation, just liberated from Egyptian bondage. Then, we were given a new Torah, a new way of life and a new relationship with God. We were presented with the incredible opportunity of a brand new beginning. There’s no need to wait for Rosh Hashanah. Shavuot provides the perfect opportunity.

We are encouraged to reexperience our forgotten child-like curiosity and eagerness to learn; to open our thirsty minds and hearts to imbibe the new, life-giving waters of Torah; to quench our innate thirst for meaning and relevance in our lives.

So, we eat milky foods on Shavuot to allow us to become more innocent and childlike. To learn from our children. To be inspired by our children and our cheesecake and to take delight in new discoveries.

Enjoy the cheesecake. But remember what it’s all about. With the freshness, excitement and passion of the child, we recommit ourselves to studying our holy Torah and living by its sacred principles.

Chag Sameach!

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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