It seems we can never remember exactly why we eat dairy on Shavuot. Multiple thanks to our good friend who researched and thought about this question and sent us a retrospective for this year and reminder for years to come.
After immersing myself and my family in milk, cheese, eggs and noodles for the past two days, the question remained, why? Why do we eat dairy on Shavuot? Here are the top ten reasons that I came up with.
My first thought was to look for some Biblical or Talmudic reason and for that, I turned to "The Jewish Book of Why", which gave three reasons:
1. "Dairy foods should be eaten on the day the Tora was received on Mount Sinai because the words in the Song of Songs, 'honey and milk under thy lips' (4:11) imply that, like milk products and honey, the words of the Tora are pleasant and good for our spirits".
2. From Exodus 23:19: "'The choicest first fruits shalt thou bring to the House of the Lord. Thou shalt not cook a kid in its mother's milk.' The 'first fruits'... refers to the Shavuot holiday. The second part... is taken to mean that the two main dishes to be served at the holiday meal are to be first a dairy dish, followed later by a meat dish".
3. According to a legend repeated in "The Jewish Book of Why", the Israelites returning from Mount Sinai did not have enough time so slaughter an animal and instead made the quickest possible meal, which was dairy.
I don't find any of these explanations convincing, so I turned to the experts. We are, after all, talking about food, so where better to look than in Jewish cookbooks? So, here we go:
Joan Nathan, noting the origin of Shavuot as a harvest festival in the iconic "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen", asks "how do dairy dishes fit into a barley harvest festival?" and she gives the following explanations:
4. "At this time of year...such foods are eaten because of the large amount of cheese produced. Churning and cheesemaking are common features of spring harvest festivals the world over, when goats, sheep, and cows begin to graze more and thus produce more milk."
But wait, there's more from Joan Nathan:
5. Psalm 68:16-17 refers to Mount Sinai as the "mountain of peaks (har gavnunim). She notes that gavnunim comes from the same root as gevinah, Hebrew for "cheese". "Thus (writes Joan Nathan), it could also be called Cheese Mountain, a common folk image."
6. Another reason Nathan cites is a follow-up to Reason #3, in which the Israelites returning to camp after receiving Ten Commandments or Torah, found that they had been gone so long that their milk turned sour and was made into cheese.
7. Nathan cites another rabbinic source which says "the Israelites fasted while they went to receive the Ten Commandments and returned so hungry that they drank milk immediately rather than go through the long process of preparing a meat meal."
Marlene Sorosky's "Fast and Festive Meals for the Jewish Holidays" refers to Reason #4 above, but suggests there is an abundance of milk, rather than cheese, and to another explanation
8. that "the Hebrews abstained from eating meat the day before they received the Torah".
9. Sorosky also suggests that "perhaps it's because the whiteness of milk is symbolic of the purity of the Torah".
So I offer Reason #10. Yes. Let's eat dairy meals because they're fun to make, and when the holiday is over, you can work off all that cheesecake and those blintzes.