The Hallachic Challenges
by Jonathan Dubow
The upcoming holiday of Shavuot, aside from its most common name, has several others: Chag HaKatzir(The Holiday of the Harvest), Atzeres(Assembly), Yom HaBikkurim(Day of the offering of the first fruits), and Zman Mattan Toraseinu(The Time of the Giving of the Torah). Yet, in Israel, it has gained a new moniker: Chag HaGevinah- The Holiday of the Cheese! Amazingly, and only in Israel, will you find a Jewish custom that has become so commercialized. Although no one really minds paying a lot less for all the various cheeses on sale during the weeks leading up to Shavuot, still, the idea that a “holiday” can be commercially sponsored (by the cheese companies, no less), should give us pause.
Interestingly, having cheesecake on Shavuotis one minhagwith which many non-practicing Jews are stringent! Have you ever met someone who turned down a piece of cheesecake? But where does this time-honoured traditional custom of consuming cheesecake on Shavuotcome from?
It seems that one of the earliest mentions of such a minhagis by the great Rema, Rav Moshe Isserles, the authoritative decisor for all AshkenazicJewry, who cites the ‘prevailing custom’ of eating dairy items specifically on Shavuot. Although there are many rationales and reasons opined through the ages to explain this custom, the Rema himself provides an enigmatic one, to be a commemoration of the special Korban, the Shtei HaLechem(Two Loaves) offered exclusively on Shavuotduring the times of the BeisHamikdash.
The halachastates, that one may not use the same loaf of bread at both a dairy meal and a meat meal. The reason for this is that there may be some possibly unnoticed residue on the bread, and thus one might come to eat a forbidden mixture of milk and meat.
Therefore, in order to properly commemorate this unique Korbanwhich had two loaves of bread, one should have a separate dairy meal aside from the traditional meat meal one has on YomTov. This way, he will be mandated to have separate breads for each of these meals, as the challahmeant for the dairy meal cannot be used for the meat meal and vice versa.
Bread has been mankind’s basic staple since time immemorial. Therefore, Chazalworried that an unsuspecting person might mistake dairy bread for plain parev bread and eat it together with meat. He would thus inadvertently violate the prohibition of eating a forbidden mixture of milk and meat. They thereby decreed that one may not bake dairy bread unless certain criteria are met: either changing the shape of the dough prior to baking, thereby making it instantly recognizable to all as milky, or baking dairy bread exclusively in small quantities. The same prohibition and exclusions apply to meaty bread as well, due to bread’s propensity to be eaten with a dairy meal.
Let Them Eat (Cheese)Cake!
Although several authorities extend this prohibition to include other baked goods, such as cookies and bourekas, which, if baked milky, might be mistakenly eaten with meat, nevertheless, the prevailing ruling is that the prohibition only applies to bread. Even so, aside from the signs in the bakeries proclaiming which items are dairy and which are parev, it is nonetheless a widespread practice throughout Israel that bakeries form the dairy baked goods (cheese bourekas, anyone?) in a triangular shape and the parev ones in a rectangular shape as an extra safeguard against mix-ups.
So…does this ruling affect our beloved cheesecake in any way?
Actually, not much. In a typical cheesecake, since the cheese aspect of it is quite conspicuous, it would be considered as if produced with a changed shape from standard dough. Additionally, cheesecake is universally recognized as… containing cheese (!), and thus known world-wide as being dairy. No one would make a mistake confusing cheesecake with parev bread. Therefore, even according to the opinions of those authorities who maintain that the prohibition of dairy bread extends to cakes, even so, they all agree it would be permissible to make plenty of cheesecake for Shavuot, even in large quantities.
Thankfully, when it comes time to indulge in a piece of traditional cheesecake on the holiday of Shavuot, we can “have our cake and eat it too”, both in the literal sense as well as in the spiritual sense; knowing we have fulfilled the halachicrequirements and are even commemorating a unique Korban.
Another common question related to cheesecake concerns the proper brachato recite, whether Mezonosor Shehakol. It seems that the consensus of contemporary authorities is that the correct brachais subjective, depending on the makeup of each individual cheesecake and its crust, based on the laws of primary and secondary food. If the crust is indeed deemed significant and adds necessary taste and crunch, many poskimmaintain that two separate brachosbe recited. One should ascertain a final ruling on the matter from his or her own local halachicauthority.
I would like to thank Rabbi Yehuda Spitz of Ohr Somayach for his kind permission for the use and publication of this article. If you require more information please visit the link https://ohr.edu/ryspitzsefer/.