TNL Classic: More Cheese Please

by Brian on May 28, 2009

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

The Jewish holiday of Shavuot begins tonight and I’ve dug up another TNL classic. This one first appeared just before Shavuot in 2005. The kids are, naturally, a bit younger in this story but the learning is just as relevant today. Enjoy…and chag sameach!


“What are we going to do today?” six-year-old Aviv demanded as he shoveled in his tenth spoonful of cornflakes in as many seconds.

It was shortly before Shavuot last year and the kids were off school. Then ten-year-old Merav and twelve-year-old Amir were now looking up from their breakfasts as well, waiting for my pronouncement.

But I was ready. I had concocted the perfect plan.

Now, one of the traditions of Shavuot is to eat dairy products. So I declared in as animated a way as I could: “We’re going to a cheese farm!”

“A what?” asked Amir with more than a hint of cynicism.

“I read about it in the paper. There’s an organic goat farm that sells these incredible cheeses. It’s only a few minutes outside the city. Wouldn’t that just be perfect?

But to my surprise, the kids were into it. I should have known; they like just about anything that has to do with eating.

[Unfortunately, the Har HaRuach Goat Farm has been closed since this story was originally written. But there are other great goat farms in Israel, including Eretz Zavat Chalav u’Dvash near Petach Tikva, the Zook Farm outside of Beit Shemesh, a farm in Sataf and another in the Negev (see this link for more information on all of the farms.]

As we drove home from our cheesy day, the conversation turned to the upcoming holiday. Shavuot symbolically marks the day the Israelites received the Torah on Mount Sinai after leaving Egypt.

“So, does anyone know where the custom of eating dairy on Shavuot comes from?” I asked.

Blank stares.

“Um…I think it had something to do with when they left Egypt, they didn’t have enough time to take any meat…” Merav ventured a guess.

“That was the matza,” Amir corrected her.

“Maybe they didn’t have meat plates?” I joked.

“They didn’t use dishes,” Amir and Merav both shot back in unison.

All the joking, however, didn’t diminish the fact that we hadn’t the foggiest idea why we eat dairy

So I proposed a contest. We have several computers at home. We would divide into teams and scour the Internet. Whoever came up with the best explanation would get an extra helping of quiche at dinner.

Amir and I headed for the computer upstairs. Merav and Jody took control of the downstairs machine. We came back together and shared the results of our research.

From Team Merav:
“Shavuot was when the Jews accepted the Torah which means it’s also when we learned about separating milk and meat and the various laws governing animal slaughter. Before that, what else could we eat but dairy?” OK, but that sounded a little too much like my joke about the dishes!

“Israel is known as the land of milk and honey.” But then why don’t we eat honey cake on Shavout instead of cheesecake and blintzes?

From Team Amir:
“The gematria (the practice where each Hebrew letter is assigned a numerical value) of chalav – the Hebrew for milk – is 40, the same number of days that Moses was up on Mount Sinai.” Maybe, but a whole holiday based on what essentially comes down to an ancient magician’s card trick?

“Receiving the Torah was a form of rebirth.” So we celebrate by eating baby food. Namely: milk.

Even Aviv shook his head at that one.

Finally, it was Jody who found what we all agreed was the most acceptable, if somewhat obtuse, explanation.

According to the mystical book of the Zohar, for the 49 days of the omer period – the amount of time between Passover (leaving Egypt) and Shavuot (receiving the Torah), the Jews needed to be in as pure a state as possible. Abstaining from eating meat, which is inextricably connected with death, facilitates such purity.

“But wait a minute,” I said. “If Shavuot is supposed to be the night we got the Torah, then we should be celebrating by eating meat. The 49 days of purification are over. Time to break this flesh fast. Let the party begin!”

“Meat, meat, meat,” the two older kids began to chant [this was several years before Merav became a vegetarian].

Jody, however, turned to us and, with a single withering look that encapsulated exactly why it is so difficult to change 3000 years of tradition, said simply:

“So, what am I supposed to do with all that lasagna?”

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