The festival of Shavuot commemorates the Divine Revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah. There is a well-known custom to eat dairy foods on the holiday. Although it isn’t clear exactly where this custom came from, there are many beautiful explanations for it. Below are some of them.
Cheese & Coffee
The classic and most oft-cited answer for eating dairy on Shavuot is as follows: Since the Jewish people received the Torah on Shavuot, they were now bound by the laws of kashrut. This meant that whatever meat they had available was not kosher. Therefore, they had to consume dairy products. The consensus among the Talmudic sages is that the Torah was given on Shabbat, which means the people would not have been able to shecht fresh meat (Shabbat 88a). So, they ate dairy.
This standard explanation is actually problematic, for it is also forbidden to milk a cow on Shabbat or to make cheese (Shabbat 95a). Although the Israelites could have had cheese from before, making cheese requires rennet which, to be kosher, must be extracted from a kosherly-slaughtered cow. Whatever cheese they had would not have been kosher either! Perhaps they ruled that since only very little rennet is required—certainly less than 1/60th of the cheese’s total mass, although it is a davar hamaamid, a vital ingredient—and that they had produced that cheese inadvertently—not being bound by kosher law at the time—it would be okay.
Or, perhaps they reasoned like Rabbeinu Tam (Rabbi Yakov ben Meir, 1100-1171) who held that rennet was not the issue with non-kosher cheese. He argued that in our day and age all cheese is pretty much kosher, even that made by gentiles, though it is certainly better to be stringent and avoid those made with non-kosher rennet (see Tosfot on Avodah Zarah 35a). It should be noted that the halacha today is not in accordance with Rabbeinu Tam’s lenient position. Although over 90% of the cheese on the market is made from artificial rennet anyway, Jewish communities long ago accepted the prohibition of gevinat akum, not to consume any cheese not made or supervised by Jews.
Of course, it is possible that the Israelites at Sinai didn’t eat cheese at all, but had other dairy products such as butter, which would have been made before Shabbat, and would have been fine to consume. Today, on our fixed Jewish calendar, Shavuot can never coincide with Shabbat (at least not the first day of Shavuot). Because of this, as with other yom tovs, it is common to have a barbeque since cooking on a holiday, unlike on Shabbat, is permitted. Now, most people who had stayed up all night studying (as is customary on Shavuot) are unlikely to start grilling in the wee hours of the morning, nor could they stomach a heavy meat meal. In many synagogues, after staying up in study all night, the community then prays at the earliest possible hour, has a quick breakfast Kiddush—breakfast generally being a dairy meal—and then everyone is off to get some sleep. This is the simplest and most practical reason for the custom of a dairy meal on Shavuot.
Alternatively, others have the custom to have a dairy meal in the evening, before the all-night study session. This is because eating a heavy meat meal will make it hard to stay awake all night. It is better to have a light dairy meal, probably with a strong coffee. Jewish historian and scholar Elliot Horowitz presented a fascinating theory that the practice of staying up all night on Shavuot (as well as Hoshanah Rabbah) only became popular starting in the 16th century because it was in this century that coffee was introduced to the Ottoman Empire! Similarly, among Ashkenazis the practice didn’t take hold until decades later, when coffee was first brought to Europe. (See Horowitz’s 1989 paper, “Coffee, Coffee Houses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry.”)
Mountain of Cheese
In Psalm 68, which is recited on Shavuot, we read:
When God scattered kings therein, it snowed in Tzalmon. A mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan; a mountain of peaks [har gavnunim] is the mountain of Bashan. Why do you look askance, you mountains of peaks? The mountain which God has desired for His abode? God will dwell therein forever. The chariots of God are myriads, even thousands upon thousands; God is among them, as in Sinai, in holiness.
In this passage, we see how God’s chosen mountain, Sinai, is called by other names. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2:4) elaborates:
[Mt. Sinai] has five names: Har HaElohim, Har Bashan, Har Gavnunim, Har Horev, Har Sinai. “Har HaElohim” because there Israel accepted Hashem as their God. “Har Bashan”, since everything a person eats with their teeth [b’shinav] comes from the merit of the Torah, which was given on this mountain… “Har Gavnunim” because it is pure like cheese [gevinah], free of all blemishes. “Har Horev” since here the Sanhedrin was given the authority to pronounce the death penalty [harev]… “Har Sinai” since henceforth there was hatred [sinah] for idol worshippers [who did not accept the Torah].
We see that one of the names for Sinai is “mountain of cheese”, which is another reason to consume dairy products on Shavuot. Better yet, the gematria of cheese (גבינה) is 70, alluding to the “seventy faces” of Torah, as well as the seventy names for God, and the seventy names for Israel—all revealed at Sinai.
Interestingly, in the Talmud, Rav Kahana adds that Sinai comes from the word nes, “miracle”, since the Jewish people witnessed the greatest miracle there (Shabbat 89a). The Sages countered his point by saying: Then it should’ve been called Har Nisai! Another Midrash adds that Sinai comes from the word sneh, the burning bush through which Moses first encountered God on that mountain (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 41).
We read in the Torah that when Moses was born, his mother hid him from the Egyptians for three months (Exodus 2:2). Since we know that Moses’ birthday was the 7th of Adar, three months later would be the 7th of Sivan. According to one opinion in the Talmud, the Torah was actually given on the 7th of Sivan, even though today we celebrate Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan (Shabbat 88a). Whatever the case, Shavuot is the day when Moses was placed into the River and discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter.
We then read in the Torah that Moses’ sister, Miriam, who was a servant of Pharaoh’s daughter, told her: “Shall I go and call you a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for you?” (Exodus 2:7) Miriam brought Yocheved, and Moses was nursed by his own mother despite being raised in the Egyptian palace (Sotah 12b). So, another reason to eat dairy on Shavuot is in commemoration of baby Moses being reunited with his mother and continuing to nurse from her. In fact, the entire nation standing on Mt. Sinai on Shavuot is likened to a newborn baby, for this is the official birthday of the Jewish people. At that moment, the Jewish people “nursed” directly from God. And there is an allusion to this in Psalm 68, cited above.
There, the first verse refers to God coming upon Mt. Sinai using the Name Shaddai. The first time this Name appears in the Torah is when God reveals Himself to Abraham: “…I am El Shaddai, walk before me, and be pure, and I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” (Genesis 17:1-2) Later we read how Isaac blesses Jacob and says: “May El Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of peoples.” (Genesis 28:3) Finally, Jacob invokes the Name Shaddai when he blesses his own children: “…And by Shaddai you will be blessed, with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that couches beneath, blessings of the breasts [shaddaim], and of the womb.” (Genesis 49:25)
In all of these cases, we see that El Shaddai is associated with blessings of fertility and reproduction. The last verse in particular makes this explicit, connecting Shaddai with shaddaim, “breasts”. In fact, later in the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:13), God states that He “suckles” us with sweet honey, and the Name used is once again Shaddai (though it should be mentioned that it is typically read as saddai, “My field”). In short, El Shaddai is a Name of fertility and reproduction, and symbolic of the Jewish people—children of God—“suckling” and sustaining ourselves from God’s blessings. The association with milk is quite clear.
Better yet, the Torah itself is compared to nourishing milk (Song of Songs 4:11). And, fittingly, the gematria of “milk”, halav (חלב) is 40, alluding to the 40 days and nights that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to bring down the Torah. Forty is the value of the letter mem, which is unique in that it has an “open” (מ) and “closed” (ם) form. The open mem is incomplete, searching for meaning and for its purpose, while the closed mem is complete, a full circle (or square). The open mem’s value is only 40, while the closed mem is 600. The difference between them is 560, the value of parpar (פרפר), “butterfly”, the ultimate symbol of transformation and metamorphosis. All of this alludes to a person’s own growth, transformation, and completion through Torah.