How Shavuot came to be associated with cheesecake
When Jews think of Shavuot, cheesecake is almost as obvious an association as learning through the night. Shavuot is simply not the same without cheesecake. But how did this decadent dessert become a Jewish holiday tradition?
Before we seek an answer, it is important to note that not all cheesecakes are the same. The quintessential Shavuot dish comes in a myriad of forms, including variations such as sweet, savoury, custard, mousse, crumbly, topped, and plenty more. They are all made from innumerable cheeses like mascarpone, ricotta, cream cheese, pot cheese – the list is endless.
The diversity of its forms and ingredients is equally true of its development over the years. Recipes have evolved depending on location and time, with ingredient changes and modern technology having a hand in the form the cheesecake takes. We would probably fail to recognise earlier cheesecake if they were served today at shul brochas.
Although cheese making can be traced back as far as 2 000 BCE, cheesecake seems to have first appeared in ancient Greece. The author of Cheesecake Madness, Joe Segreto, explains that the first recorded instance was between 800 to 700 BCE on the Island of Samos in the Aegean Sea.
This decadent treat was reportedly fed to competitors in the first Olympic Games, supposedly giving them the energy needed to compete. Unlike the complex creations of today, the simple ingredients of flour, wheat, honey, and cheese were formed into a cake and baked.
The dish then became a wedding cake for wealthy Greek brides and grooms, eventually reaching the common man by the time of the Roman Empire.
As a result of the empire’s vast reach, cheesecake spread throughout Europe during Julius Caesar’s reign, supposedly even reaching the Middle East.
Some suggest that the dish hails from the Middle East. Joan Nathan, the author of Jewish Holiday Cookbook, maintains that the cake was originally created in the Middle East by placing sour cream in a bag and stringing it up for a time. It allowed the moisture to drain so that it would dry into a type of curd. This was then mixed with honey, lemon peel, egg yolks, and more sour cream, and baked into quite a lumpy cake. Nathan says the dish was spread by the Crusaders, who brought it back with them to Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries.
He says cheese curd was transported to Russia by the Mongols in the 13th century, where it was embraced by the Jewish community. Jews developed the recipe further when they moved to other places in Europe and North America. As Jews adapted recipes to local ingredients and tastes, variations on the original abounded across the world.
Even Christian tradition seeped in, with Italian Easter cheesecake being made with citrus rind and fragrant orange blossom water. This is served today in Italy on Shavuot, while cheesecakes in France are often made with fresh farmer’s cheese or savoury goat cheese, while Greek cheesecake uses Greek yoghurt, even feta. In Israel, Jews eat a light and creamy cheesecake made with gvina livana, a white cream cheese.
But how did this dish become associated with Shavuot?
Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah, a milestone in the journey of the Jews to Israel. It would therefore make sense that the promised sweetness of Israel be remembered on this day. Some say the sweetness of cheesecake is the flavour of the combined milk and honey of the promised land. Additionally, it may also be a nod to the early Greek cheesecake recipes which prominently featured milk and honey.
Another reason may lie in more recent history. German-Jewish restaurateur Arnold Reuben was the proprietor of Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen, a landmark restaurant and deli in New York City which first started trading in 1908.
The restaurant became known for inventing the Reuben sandwich, a less-than-kosher composition of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing, grilled between slices of rye bread.
However, Reuben also achieved greatness for his momentous decision to use cream cheese instead of milk curd in cheesecake for the first time in the 1920s. His creation became known as the New York Cheesecake, and it rapidly became all the rage among Jews and non-Jews alike.
His recipe, also known as Jewish cheesecake thanks to his heritage, was allegedly a favourite of actors and actresses wanting a little late-night indulgence after shows.
Some say cheesecake thus became popular in New York, especially on Shavuot, the holiday of dairy foods.
There is no particular religious rationale for eating cheesecake on Shavuot. A novel – and particularly cheesy – reason is that Har Gavnunim (the Mountain of Many Peaks) is one of eight names for Mount Sinai where the Torah was given. This name shares an etymological likeness to the word gvina (cheese) in Hebrew, hence the custom of eating cheesecake.
However, it may be that we eat cheesecake simply because there is little else to do. Unlike every other Jewish festival, Shavuot has fewer rituals for us to perform. Where Pesach has seders and Sukkot has a sukkah, Shavuot has no specific mitzvot (commandments) other than typical observances such as meals, prayers, and general festivity.
Perhaps it makes up for the absence of latkes, matzah, or apples dipped in honey.
Whatever the reason, the bond between Jews and cheesecake is firmly entrenched over Shavuot. Historical debate might help you to better understand the custom, but the burning question of which recipe to use is ultimately yours to answer.
Why we refuse to forget
Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. This Shabbos, we read the famous Haftarah of Chazon, the vision of Isaiah. And, next Thursday, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Sydenham Shul
But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was only 75 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?
They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the Emperor. “About 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot its past would be destined to forever have a future.
Elie Wiesel once said, “Jews never had history. We have memory.” History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.
Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they were led into captivity, the Jews sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry for? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They weren’t weeping for themselves or their lost liberties, but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.
And, because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And, because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over while our victors have been vanquished by time. The Babylonian and Roman destroyers of old are no more. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated, and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai.
Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. If we are to make our return to Zion successful and permanent, if our people are to harbour the hope of being restored and revived internationally, then we dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning next Wednesday night and Thursday. Forego whatever entertainment options your COVID-19 lockdown allows. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people, and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days, and rebuild His own everlasting house. May it be speedily in our day.
Strength in diversity
The double portion of Matos/Massei deals with Moshe divvying up the land for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Rabbi Ryan Goldstein, West Street Shul
Moshe didn’t choose land based on population size, demographics, or even agricultural usefulness, it was all decided through the casting of lots. Leaving such an arduous task in the capable hands of Hashem was the best way to dodge any farribles.
The Twelve Tribes, once settled in the Holy Land, could finally bring to fruition the mammoth task of being a light to the rest of humanity. As the prophet Isaiah foretells, “Ki mitZiyon tetzei Torah [Torah will come forth out of Zion].”
The harmonious unity of the Twelve Tribes in one centralised place was very much like an orchestra, with multiple sounds coming together to form a beautiful symphony.
In fact, that’s how Hashem prefers things. He displays this to us through the diversity of nature. If Hashem wanted only one way of doing things, then nature would have sufficed with one type of fauna. For example, there would be only penguins around or zebras. Forget about the beautiful and intricate multitudes of glorious beasts, big and small, that inhabit our earth and deep seas. Hashem makes it obvious that He wants unity to thrive out of diversity.
The same is true of the tribes of Israel. Hashem wasn’t happy with Israel being represented by an Avraham figure, an Isaac, or even a Jacob alone. And even though Jacob was called Israel, that wasn’t our legacy until we became bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel). Why? Harmony through diversity. The tribe of Yehuda was earmarked for kingship, Yosef were to be the politicians, Issachar could sit and learn Torah all day, Zevulun were the sea-faring merchants, Shimon were the educators, and Levi were the priests and temple workers. One man/identity couldn’t be all things.
And so it should be today. Our job is not to judge, and to be tolerant of the paths and journeys each person has in trying to make their legacy within the realm of Judaism and Torah.
Visiting the sick good for our spiritual health
There is a fundamental mitzvah that is alluded to in this week’s parsha. When Moshe addresses the Jewish people in the stand-off against the rebel faction led by Korach, he says the following, “If these die like the death of all men, and the visiting of all men is visited upon them, then it is not Hashem Who has sent me.” (Numbers 16:29)
Rabbi Yonatan Landau, Ohr Somayach Savoy
The Talmud in Nedarim 39B discusses these mysterious words. What is Moshe referring to when he says, “the visiting of all men is visited upon them”?
The Talmud explains that this alludes to the mitzvah of bikkur cholim – visiting the sick.
What exactly does this mitzvah entail, and what are some of the benefits we reap from it?
Torah authorities tell us that there are two main components of this mitzvah. First, we must take care of the needs of the ill person. This entails making sure that their health is looked after, and that they have adequate food and clothing. The Talmud recounts a story of the great Rabbi Akiva, who visited a sick student and took care to clean the room of its dust. This helped the student to recover. Furthermore, often the extra effort can make a difference to a person’s recovery.
Second, we must daven for the ill person. When we plead with Hashem, he recognises that the fate of the ill person is in divine hands, and thereby invokes divine compassion. Our rabbis teach us that as Hashem, so-to-speak, visits the sick, the divine presence is more concentrated above the bed of the ill person, and therefore it’s particularly powerful to daven in their room.
Those who perform this mitzvah acquire four main benefits.
In Parshas Vayeira, our rabbis teach that Hashem visited Abraham after his bris. This means that one who practices bikkur cholim is in fact acting like Hashem, who is the epitome of kindness and love. This is a fulfilment of the mitzvah of walking in Hashem’s way.
Performance of this mitzvah on a regular basis also helps you to become a kinder and more considerate person as the classic work, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, explains it – a person is influenced by the activities he involves himself in.
The commentator, Kli Yakar, adds that visiting the sick reminds us of our mortality, which serves as a stimulus to improve our ways.
Rav Avigdor Miller says that when we see others with an illness absent in ourselves, we acquire an appreciation for the myriad kindnesses that Hashem performs daily with our bodies.
Hashem should bless us with health especially in these difficult times, and let us try, albeit from a distance, to fulfil this vital mitzvah.
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