How did Shavuot become known as Cheesecake Day?

18 May 2018

During the Jewish festival of Shavuot, one food stands out proud amongst all the others – the cheesecake. But how did we end up fixating on cheesecakes at this time of year?

Short version: No one really knows!

Longer version: there are probably as many theories as there are cheesecake recipes!

Cheesecakes themselves date to at least times of the Ancient Greeks, with references found dating to the 5th century BCE. The Romans had three types of cheesecake which were used for religious purposes, libum, savillum and placenta, so it seems that there has always been a religious aspect to cheesecake.

For Jewish people, it’s also an old tradition, but the earliest mention only dates back to the late 14th century, from Rabbi Isaac Tyrnau’s collection of Jewish Law, the Sefer HaMinhagim, and although he acknowledges the custom exists, he doesn’t explain why.

In the 19th century, Rabbi Meir Horowitz took another go at explaining the cheesecakes, saying that Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah. As the Book is likened to milk and honey in the Songs of Solomon, then on Shavuot, Jews should eat dairy foods.

So what delicious food can be made with dairy? You got it, cheese! But what about the honey right? Well, older cheesecakes were very different to the ones we eat today, and they were often made from unripened cheese sweetened with honey and then baked. They were more savoury as well than the sweet desert that we consume today.

One factor that almost certainly does support the dairy consumption is that cheese was an important source of protein for the majority of people who would not have been able to afford meat. Cheese was also a better way of preserving milk at a time before refrigeration. It has also been suggested that at times, cheese would have been the main source of protein for medieval folk.

One of the most cited explanations for the cheesecake obsession comes from Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, who suggested that when the Israelites received the Torah from Moses during Shavuot, they didn’t have time to prepare a kosher friendly meat meal, so ate dairy only to avoid contaminating meat and milk.

Somehow that special dairy meal became cheesecake, which isn’t a bad turn up for the books – if you like cheesecake that is.

It does seem that most of the reasons are later attempts to bolt on an idea that fits the situation without any actual hard evidence. The theories are as soft as a good cheesecake.

But the greatest unanswered question remains a mystery…modern cheesecake recipes usually call for the base to be made from crushed digestive biscuits.

What did we do before digestive biscuits?