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Shavuot Feature Why Do We Eat Dairy on Shavuot? One Family Searches for Theories

June 10, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

“What are we going to do today?” 6-year-old Aviv demanded as he shoveled in his 10th spoonful of cornflakes in as many seconds. It was shortly before Shavuot last year and the kids were off from school. Ten-year-old Merav and 12-year-old Amir looked up from their breakfasts as well, waiting for my pronouncement.

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

One Shavuot tradition is to eat dairy products. So I declared, in as animated a voice as I could muster,”We’re going to a cheese farm!”

“A what?” Amir asked 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?”

To my surprise, the kids were into it. I should have known: They like just about anything that has to do with eating.

Later that morning, we took off for the Har HaRuach Goat Farm in the hills just outside the village of Nataf, about 20 minutes west of Jerusalem.

Har HaRuach is run by Haim and Dalia Himelfarb, who studied cheese making at Israel’s Rupin Institute.

The farm is an ecological project and the goats are left to graze in a natural meadow year-round. Even the milking is done in a highly goat-friendly way.

The article had said the road was “a bit rough” in spots. That was the understatement of the year: Rocks the size and shape of small fax machines were strewn along the road.

But the payoff was worth it: At the top of the hill was a charming dining room — and a take-out window. We had a choice.

I opted for the latter, in no small part because I found the idea of a take-out window in the middle of the woods utterly incongruous and amusing. Add a drive-through window, and I’d be set for life.

Dalia Himelfarb, who was at the counter, insisted we try all the cheeses, plus the yogurt made from that 4 a.m. milking, and some sweet-and-spicy goat-cheese pesto. We nearly filled up just on the samples.

But it was smart marketing. We wound up ordering four containers: a smoky, hard, goat cheese camembert; a semi-soft local creation called itla; spreadable labneh drizzled with olive oil and za’atar; and a cheese named after Nataf, which had large chunks of raw garlic throughout.

We had thought ahead and brought our own pita bread, which fortunately didn’t bother Dalia. The bill came to slightly more than $16.

Picnic benches were scattered throughout the pines below the restaurant. Amir, who had been skeptical throughout — “I don’t really like goat cheese,” he confided just before we arrived — took one bite of the garlic-infused nataf and was in heaven.

Aviv favored the labneh, while Merav and my wife, Jody, went for the itla. I was the sole fan of the camembert: their loss.

As we soaked up the cheese on a perfect spring day, our conversation turned to the upcoming holiday. Shavuot marks the day the Israelites received the Torah on Mount Sinai after leaving Egypt.

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

Blank stares.

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

“That was the matzah,” Amir corrected her.

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

“They didn’t use dishes,” Amir and Merav shot back in unison, dipping their pita into the cheese as if to drive home the point.

All the joking, however, didn’t diminish the fact that here we were, chowing down on some delectable dairy products in honor of the holiday, and we didn’t have the foggiest idea why. It was terribly embarrassing.

A faint tinkling sound interrupted our consternation. The goats were returning from the pasture in time for their 3:00 p.m. milking. Talk about being saved by the bell.

We packed up our cheese and went to watch before enduring the bumpy ride home.

All the way back, though, the question of “why dairy?” kept eating at me.

I proposed a contest. We have two computers at home. We would divide into teams and scour the Internet.

Whoever came up with the best explanation would get to finish the remains of the cheese 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?

That sounded too much like my joke about the dishes. Plus, Israel is known as the land of milk and honey, so why don’t we eat honey cake on Shavout instead of cheesecake and blintzes?

From Team Amir: The gematria — a practice in which each Hebrew letter is assigned a numerical value — of chalav, the Hebrew word for milk, is 40, the same number of days that Moses was on Mount Sinai.

Hmm . . . a whole holiday based on what essentially comes down to an ancient magician’s card trick? Another thought: Receiving the Torah was a form of national rebirth, so we celebrate by eating baby food — milk. Even Amir 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, when the Jews left Egypt, and Shavuot, when they received 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, and we all burst out laughing.

Except for Jody, who turned to us and, with a single withering look that encapsulated why it’s so difficult to change 3,000 years of tradition, said simply, “So, what am I supposed to do with all that lasagna?”

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