Question: When did Jews start eating milk and dairy products on Shavuot and why?
I) Sources about eating dairy on Shavuot ca. 1270-1700
The following are the early sources that I have found regarding eating dairy on the holiday of Shavuot, based on the Bibliography below:
1. The earliest source I have found is Rabbi Avigdor Tzarfati’s commentary on the Torah (Jerusalem, 1996, p. 478) written ca.1270 in France:
The world asks why we eat בלדן on Shavuot. And it seems that there is a hint in the Torah (Numbers 28:26) “And on the day of the first fruits, when you sacrifice מנחה חדשה לה’ בשבועותיכם (a new meal offering to God on your Shavuot) – [this is] an abbreviation of חלב (milk) on Shavuot, but [פלאדן] I don’t know.
I do not know what בלדן means, though it may be a variant of פלאדן, which is a baked dairy dish as we shall see below. In any case, French Jews wanted to know ca. 1270 why we eat dairy dishes on Shavuot – as opposed to the usual meat dishes eaten on Festivals (Pesahim 109a). Rabbi Avigdor replied with a hint from a verse in Numbers.
2. The next reference to our custom is in Rabbi Aaron Hacohen of Lunel’s Orhot Hayyim (Vol. I, Florence, 1750, Hilkhot Tefillat Hamoadim, paragraph 13, fol. 78a) and its “sister” Kol Bo (ed. Avraham, Vol. 3,Jerusalem, 1992, cols. 218-219), which were written inProvence ca. 1300:
And it is customary to eat honey and milk on the first day[this phrase is only in Orhot Hayyim] because the Torah is compared to honey and milk, as it is said “Honey and milk are under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11).
It is worth noting that Rabbi Aaron prefers a midrashic explanation on the Song of Songs, as opposed to other verses that explicitly connect Shavuot to milk and honey (see below II, A, 4).
3. Similarly, we read in Minhagim D’vei Maharam Mirotenberg, which was written by disciples of Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg in the early 1300s (ed.Elfenbein, New York, 1938, p. 30):
It is customary to eat all sorts of sweet foods on [Shavuot], such as honey and milk, because “Honey and milk are under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11), which is explained [in the Midrash] as referring to the giving of the Torah.
4. Kalonymus ben Kalonymus (Arles, Catalonia, Napoli etc., 1286-1328) wrote about our custom at length in his work Even Bohan, which he completed in Catalonia in the winter of 1322. Among other things, he satirizes his contemporaries for the fact that they care more about the foods of the Jewish holiday than the meaning of the holidays (ed. Haberman, Tel Aviv, 1957, p. 34): (1)
The Jewish people craved after milk and honey like bears and lions… He who doesn’t have [milk and honey], pawns his utensils for slices of cheese and fine flower… until they bake a strange bread… and upon them hallot of honey and cherries… a ladder standing on the ground and its head reaching the Heavens (cf. Genesis 28:12)… and they say that סלם (ladder) in gematria is equivalent to סיני (Sinai). And [they] also say that the number 613 [mitzvot] hints at דבש חלב קמחא דסמידא (honey, milk, fine flour) in gematria, except that the gematria is off by one…
In other words, the Jews of Provence or Cataloniain 1322 made special breads on Shavuot out of milk, honey and fine flour in the shape of a ladder to hint at Mt.Sinai, while the ingredients hinted at the 613 mitzvot. These two gematriot seem to indicate that eating milk and honey on Shavuot was already a well-established custom.
5. Rabbi Menahem ibn Zerah (Franceand Spain, 1310-1385) mentions our custom in his Tzedah Laderekh (4, 4, 1,Warsaw, 1880, p. 215): “Like our custom on this holiday to eat honey and milk, to refer to the Torah which is compared to honey and milk”. He then discusses at length the symbolism of milk and honey.
6. A few years later, we read in the Glosses to the Sefer Haminhagim of Rabbi Isaac Tirna (d. 1425):
On Shavuot we eat milk…, as it is written (Numbers 28:26): ” מנחה חדשה לה’ בשבועותיכם (a new meal offering to God on your Shavuot) – [this is] an abbreviation of חלב (milk). But one must also eat meat, because there is no joy without meat (Pesahim109a).
7. In the laws related to “taking Hallah” from bread, i.e. burning a small piece of the dough, Rabbi Ya’akov Mollin (Maharil, Worms, d. 1427, ed. Shpitzer, Jerusalem, 1989, p. 85) mentions: “and if it is on the Yom Tov of Shavuot, for then it is the way of the world that they make a large fladen and they call it Sinai…”. Fladen is a German and Yiddish word which means a type of cake (see Kossover for many sources). However, in medieval Germany and Poland in relation to Shavuot it always means a dairy cake.(2)
8. Rabbi Yosef ben Moshe relates (Leket Yosher, Part 1, Berlin, 1903, p. 103) that his teacher Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein (d. 1460):
On the first day of Shavuot ate fladen, and fish fried in butter, and then he would rinse his hands and mouth, and put his finger in his mouth in order to clean it well, and then he cleaned his mouth by eating bread, and [then] he ate [roasted] meat.
In other words, he wanted to eat dairy foods in honor of Shavuot followed by meat as on any festival. Therefore, he would eat dairy foods, rinse his hands and mouth, and then eat meat, according to accepted practice (see Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 89:2).
9. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rema, Cracow, d. 1572) relates to our custom in two places in his glosses to the Shulhan Arukh. In Orah Hayyim 494:3 he says that “it is customary in all places to eat dairy foods on the first day of Shavuot… one eats dairy foods and then meat…” (for a complete translation of this passage, see Goodman, p. 249). In Yoreh Deah 97:1, Rabbi Yosef Karo rules that one may not knead dough with milk lest he forget and eat the bread or cake with meat, but if it’s a small amount which can be eaten at once or if he changed the shape of the bread it is permissible, The Rema adds: “And therefore it is customary to knead bread with milk on the holiday of Shavuot… because… this is considered a small amount”.
10. In a similar vein, Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Maharshal, Poland, d. 1573; in his commentary to Shaarei Dura, Chapter 36, ed. Vranow, 1940-1941, p. 186) says that when one bakes bread on Shavuot together with the fladen, which are dairy as above, one must change the shape of the bread so that everyone will know that the bread is dairy. Similarly, he wrote a responsum (Responsa Maharshal, No. 75) as to whether one may use milk milked by a non-Jew on Shavuot in order to bake fladen.
11. Many poskim ruled that milk that is milked by a non-Jew on the first day of Yom Tov may not be used on that day (see the Rema to Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 505:1), but a number of prominent poskim allowed this milk to be used on the first day of Shavuot.(3) I believe that these poskim were lenient in order to enable Jews to fulfill the custom of eating milk on the first day of Shavuot.
12. Rabbi Moshe Machir, founded a yeshivah at Ein Zeitun near Safed in 1589, where he authored Seder Hayom. He wrote there in the laws of Shavuot (ed. Jerusalem, 1996, p. 160):
And it is appropriate to prepare sweet delicacies which fit his palate on this day. And some are accustomed with a cooked dairy dish and they put honey on it, to fulfill the verse (Song of Songs 4:11) “honey and milk are under your tongue,” and everything is according to … what is tasty to his palate…
13. Rabbi Moshe Matt (Poland, ca. 1551-1606; Matteh Moshe, parag. 695), a pupil of the Maharshal, quotes the Rema in Orah Hayyim, the wordplay on Numbers 28:26, says that we should also eat meat on Shavuot, and then quotes a few lines from Even Bohan.
14. Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the Shelah (Germany, Poland and Israel, 1558-1630) discusses our custom in his Shelah (Massekhet Shavuot, fol. 180b, s.v. hahaftarah). Like Rabbi Isserlein, he was worried about eating meat after milk:
The world (i.e. general practice) are accustomed to eat dairy foods on the holiday of Shavuot, and then they eat meat to fulfill the verse “and you shall rejoice in your festivals” (Deut. 16:14), and there is no joy without meat (Pesahim 109a), so one must be careful to be holy, especially on this holy day which is the time of the giving of our Torah, to eat some bread and rinse the mouth well, and to make a demarcation by Birkat Hamazon, and to wait an hour, and then he should spread another tablecloth and set the table for meat.
15. Rabbi Yosef Yuzpe Hahn (Frankfurt am Main, 1570-1637) wrote in his Yosef Ometz (paragraph 854, pp. 188=189) that “many are accustomed to eat dairy foods on the first day of Shavuot”, but he goes on to say that there is no joy without meat and therefore it is customary to eat meat after the dairy and those who do so must make sure that all members of the household should wash their hands between milk and meat. He also says that since one must wait six hours between milk and meat (see Yoreh Deah 89:2 in the Rema), one should fulfill this custom with a cooked dairy dish, but not actual milk or butter.
In any case, our custom is to make a mulyata [a type of cake] out of milk OR meat in the shape of a ladder with seven rungs upon it [cf. Even Bohan above] in memory of the seven heavens which God tore at the time of the Giving of the Torah to show that there in none beside Him, and this is a good and beautiful custom.
16. Rabbi Hayyim Benveniste (Turkey, 1603-1673, Shiyarei Knesset Hagedolah to Tur Orah Hayyim 494, subparagraph 3) quotes both the Rema ibid. and the custom of milk and honey.
And I, even though I am among those who are not accustomed to eat cheese and milk at the same feast, in order to fulfill this custom of eating dairy and meat on Shavuot, I eat the milk with honey first, and then I bless Birkat Hamazon, and after one hour I eat meat.
17. Finally, Rabbi Yosef Yuzpe Shamesh of Worms (1604-1678; Minhagim dk”k Vermaiza, Vol. 1,Jerusalem, 1988, p. 113) reports briefly: “Some are accustomed to eat in the morning feast [on the first day of Shavuot] dairy dishes”.
After the year 1700, there are dozens of other descriptions of this custom, not just in Ashkenaz but throughout the Jewish world. See all of the books listed below, and especially Gaguine, Lewinsky, Goodman, Dobrinsky and Wassertil for the customs of Sefardic and Oriental Jews.
II) Why do we eat milk and dairy products on Shavuot?
As Rabbi Avraham Gumbiner stressed in the 17th century (Magen Avraham to Orah Hayyim 494, subparagraph 6) “there are many explanations” for this custom. Rabbi Zinger, after giving seven reasons, says (p. 115): “other explanations have been said and written – search in the books and you shall find”. Rabbi Goodman gives nine explanations for this custom (pp. 248-249). Finally, Rabbi Yitzhak Lipietz of Shedlitz gives 19 different explanations for this custom! Therefore, rather than trying to enumerate all of the explanations, I shall give a representative sample, divided into two categories. I have purposely omitted the more farfetched explanations:
A. Homiletic explanations
1. We have seen the reference to milk and honey in Song of Songs 4:11 quoted by Orhot Hayyim = Kol Bo and many others.
2. We have seen the reference to Numbers 28:26 and the abbreviation of חלב (milk) quoted by Rabbi Avigdor Tzarfati and many others.
3. We have seen the gematria quoted by Even Bohan: “And [they] also say that the number 613 [mitzvot] hints at דבש חלב קמחא דסמידא (honey, milk, fine flour) in gematria, except that the gematria is off by one”.
4. My brother Cantor Abe Golinkin, as well as David Zinberg in his articles, refer to the Bikurim/First Fruits passage found in Deuteronomy, Chapter 26, which concludes in verse 9: “And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey“. Though this verse is not quoted by any of the above sources, it has a much more direct connection to Shavuot than the verse from Song of Songs.
5. חלב (milk) in gematria is 40, the number of days that Moses spent on Mt. Sinai in order to receive the Torah (Rabbi Lipietz, paragraph 84).
6. Milk products are kept in simple clay and glass vessels and they spoil if kept in silver and gold vessels. So, too, the Torah is found among poor Jews who are lowly and modest, not among the rich and haughty (Rabbi Zinger, p. 114; Rabbi Dvorkas, p. 326).
7. Psalm 68:17 says with regard to the revelation of the Torah: “Why do you run “הרים גבנונים, which is usually translated as “jagged or multi-peaked” mountains. But the word gavnunimsounds like גבינה, cheese. So eating cheese reminds us of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai (Rabbi Sperling, paragraph 624; Rabbi Dvorkas, p. 326; Gaster, pp. 76-77).
8. There is a widespread explanation first suggested by the book Ge’ulat Yisrael in 1821. When the Children of Israel returned from Mt. Sinai to their tents, they could not eat meat because they would have needed to slaughter the animals according to all of the new laws which they had just received at Mt. Sinai, so they ate dairy products instead. Therefore, we eat dairy products in memory of this event. (Quoted by Mishnah Berurah to Orah Hayyim 494, subparagraph 12 and many others; cf. Rabbis Gaguine, Kafih and Dvorkas, p. 325 for critiques of this reason.)
B) Modern, historical explanations
1. Some modern scholars, such as Chaim Nachman Bialik and Prof. H.L. Ginsberg, trace our custom back to Exodus 23:19 and 34:26: “The first fruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God; you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk”. What is the connection between the two halves of this verse? They say that there was an ancient Canaanite custom to boil a kid in its mother’s milk as part of the first fruits festival. Our custom of eating dairy followed by meat on Shavuot, the festival of first fruits, is a remnant of this ancient practice. (See Lewinsky, 1950, pp. 270-272 and Gaster; cf. Rabbi Lipietz, paragraph 98; Rabbi Gaguine, p. 16; Rabbi Zinger, p. 114). This is very clever explanation, but it doesn’t really fit the facts. It maintains that Jews ca. 1300 CE observed a custom which is a remnant of a Canaanite practice of ca. 1500 BCE!
2. Prof. Theodor Gaster, as per his usual practice, says that the Jews borrowed this custom from their non-Jewish neighbors (p. 77).
At the analogous Scottish celebration of Beltane, on May 1st, dairy dishes are commonly consumed, and churning and cheese-making are a common feature of spring harvest festivals in many parts of the world. In Macedonia, for instance, the Sunday before Lent is known as “Cheese Sunday”; in several districts of Germany, cheese and dairy dishes are (or were) standard fare at Whitsun [=Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter].
Similarly, at the Roman rural festival of Parilia (April 21), milk and must [=grape juice] were drunk.
Aside from the fact that many of these festivals occur in the early spring and not in May-June like Shavuot, this explanation begs the question: why do these groups of people eat dairy products at this time of year?
3. This leads us to the final explanation, the simplest, which was suggested by John Cooper and Dr. Ben Elton. As Elton wrote: “The reason we have milky foods on Shavuot, is probably because the festival falls in the calving season when there is a large amount of surplus milk”. Or as Cooper said: “there was an abundance of milk at this time of year” (p. 119) and that in Russia “on Shavuot… there was glut of milk” (p. 195). Indeed, Jeffrey Singman wrote in his Daily Life in Medieval Europe:
Milk was available principally in the spring and summer, once the calves were weaned and when fodder was plentiful. Since it did not keep well, especially in an age before refrigeration, most milk was made into butter and cheese.
Thus, it seems that the custom of eating dairy on Shavuot arose from the simple fact that there was an abundance of milk, butter and cheese in Europe in May-June. After the custom arose, our ancestors invented the beautiful explanations we have seen above. May we ponder them as we eat blintzes, borekas and cheesecake on Shavuot.
- Regarding Even Bohan and its author, see the Introduction at the end of the Haberman edition and Hayyim Schirmann and Ezra Fleischer, Toledot Hashirah Ha’ivrit Bisfarad Hanotzrit Uvidrom Tzarefat,Jerusalem, 1997, Chapter 12.
- See a responsum from the 12th century in: David Golinkin, The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa, Jerusalem, 2012, p. 296; Kossover, note 298, quoting another passage in the Maharil; the Maharshal, Rabbi Shlomo Luria in his commentary to Sha’arei Dura, Chapter 36, ed. Vranow, 1940-1941, p. 186 and in his Responsa, No. 75.
- See Responsa Maharshal, No. 75; Mateh Mosheh, paragraph 695; and the summary by Yosef Ometz, paragraph 855.
Ariel – Z. Ariel, Sefer Hahag Vehamo’ed, Tel Aviv, 1970, p. 319
Ben Ezra – Akiva Ben Ezra, Minhagei Hagim,Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1963, pp. 282-283
Bloch – Abraham Bloch, The Biblical and Historical Background of Jewish Customs and Ceremonies,New York, 1980, p. 264
Cooper – John Cooper, Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, Northvale, New Jersey and London, 1993, pp. 119 and 195
Dobrinsky – Herbert Dobrinsky, A Treasury of Sephardic Laws and Customs,Hoboken and New York, 1986, pp. 285-294
Dvorkas – Rabbi Elyakum Dvorkas, Bishvilei Haminhag, Jerusalem, 1996, pp. 325-327
Elton – Dr. Ben Elton, “The spiritual genius of eating cheesecake”, The Jewish Chronicle, May 9, 2013
Elzet – Yehudah Elzet, “Miminhagei Yisrael“, Reshumot 1 (1918), p. 340
Elzet – Yehudah Elzet, Yudishe Macholim, [Warsaw, 1920], pp. 42-44 (Yiddish)
Feinstein – Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim, Part I, No. 160
Gaguine – Rabbi Shemtob Gaguine, Keter Shem Tov, Vols. 4-5,London,
1954, pp. 15-16
Gaster – Theodor Gaster, Festivals of the Jewish Year,New York, 1953, pp. 76-77
Goodman – Philip Goodman, The Shavuot Anthology, Philadelphia, 1974, pp. 248-259
Hirshowitz — Rabbi Avraham Eliezer Hirshowitz, Sefer Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun, second edition, Lvov, 1930, pp. 201-202
Kafih – Rabbi Yosef Kafih, Halikhot Teiman, third edition, Jerusalem 1982, p. 31
Kahana-Shapira – Rabbi Menahem Nahum Kahana-Shapira, Otzar Hashe’elot Uteshuvot, Vol. 7,Jerusalem, 1988, p. 162
Kossover – Mordechai Kossover, “Yiddishe Macholim“, Yuda Yoffe Buch, New York, 1958, pp. 97-99 (Yiddish)
Lewinsky – Yom-Tov Lewinsky, ed., Sefer Hamo’adim, Vol. 3, Shavuot, Tel Aviv, 1950, pp. 267-284
Lewinsky – Yom-Tov Lewinsky, Eleh Mo’adei Yisrael, Tel Aviv, 1971, pp. 208-209
Lewysohn – Avraham Lewysohn, Sefer Mekorei Minhagim, Berlin, 1846, paragraph 42, p. 71
Lipietz — Rabbi Yitzhak Lipietz of Shedlitz, Sefer Matamim, Warsaw, 1889, Shavuot, paragraphs 80-98, pp. 58-60
Pollack – Herman Pollack, Jewish Folkways in Germanic Landsetc., Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1971, pp. 102, 277
Schauss – Hayyim Schauss, The Jewish Festivals,Cincinnati, 1938, p. 94
Singer – Rabbi Yehuda Dov Singer, Ziv Haminhagim, third edition, 1975, pp. 114-115
Singman – Jeffrey Singman, Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Westport, Conn. and London, 1999, p. 51
Sofer – Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer, Kaf Hahayyim to Orah Hayyim 494, paragraphs 60-64
Sperling – Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Sperling, Sefer Ta’amei Haminhagim U’mekorei Hadinim, Tel Aviv, 1957, pp. 281-282
Vainstein — Yaacov Vainstein, The Cycle of the Jewish Year, second edition, Jerusalem, 1971, p. 163
Wassertil – Asher Wassertil, ed., Yalkut Minhagim, third edition, Jerusalem, 1996
Zevin – Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Hamo’adim Bahalakhah, seventh edition, Tel Aviv, 1960, p. 311