Many Jews have a tradition of eating cheese and other dairy products on the holiday of Shavuot. What do these dairy delicacies have to do with the day that celebrates receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai?
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Shimshon of Ostropoli (d. 1648) explains that these foods are associated with Shavuot because an alternate name for Mount Sinai is Mount Gavnunim (see Psalms 68:16-17), and the name Gavnunim is related to the Hebrew word gvinah (cheese).
In fact, there are actually three Hebrew terms for cheese in the Bible: gvinah, charitz, and shfot, each one appearing only once. This essay explores the respective etymologies of the three words in question, and shows the nuances between them.
The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah §2:4) assumes that the name Mount Gavnunim somehow relates to gvinah and cheese-production. Just as cheese is produced by separating the most pristine curds of milk from any impurities (i.e., whey), the Midrash says the name Mount Gavnunim refers to the fact that of all the possible mountains on which G-d could have given the Torah He chose one which was clean of idolatry. Moreover, the Midrash relates that just as cheese represents a substance free of dross, so too were the Jewish People at Mount Sinai in their purest, most pristine state – even physical blemishes were miraculously healed. Rabbi Yosef Nissim Ben-Adahan (1846-1926) adds that the gematria of the word gvinah is seventy, an allusion to the seventy planes of interpretation that apply to every aspect of the Torah.
The word gvinah only appears once in the Bible: “Is it not like milk that You have poured me, and like cheese [gvinah] that You have solidified me?” (Job 10:10). As Gersonides and others clarify, this refers to G-d taking the viscous human egg and causing it, after fertilization, to solidify into a full-fledged human being. Although gvinah appears only once in the Bible, it is the standard word for cheese in the Mishnah (see Brachot 6:3, Shabbat 17:2, Nedarim 6:5, Eduyot 5:2, Avodah Zarah 2:4-5, and Chullin 8:1-3).
Rabbi Avi Kobernick sees a connection between the root gimmel-vet-nun and roots gimmel-nun-vet (to steal) and nun-gimmel-vet (to dry). In all three cases, an integral component is removed from its proper place: when something is stolen, the thief takes an item from its proper domain (i.e. the possession of its true owner) and moves it elsewhere; when something dries, its moisture has been removed from within it; and, when milk curdles and transforms into cheese, there is likewise a process whereby the liquid is removed and only the curds remain.
The book of Samuel tells of Jesse sending his son David to bring ten charitzei he’chalav to a local warlord (I Samuel 17:18). Targum Yonatan renders this term in Aramaic as guvnin d’chalva (literally, “cheese of milk”), as does Rashi (there and to Bechorot 6b) and Machberet Menachem. The Talmud (Bechorot 6b), cites this passage as one of two sources to the notion that milk and its byproducts are permitted to be consumed (i.e., they are not considered like eating a limb off a live animal).
The Midrash (Midrash Shmuel §20:4) does not explain that charitzei he’chalav refers to cheese, however. Instead, interprets it as referring to young kids not yet been weaned from their mother’s milk (Mahari Cohen, Eitz Yosef, and Radal) or just recently been weaned (Yefeh Nof). Such young goats or sheep were apparently considered something of a delicacy. Similarly, Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach in Sefer HaShorashim entertains the possibility that charitzei he’chalav does not mean actual cheese, but rather refers to thick, coagulated milk found in an animal’s udders.
Rabbi Avraham Maskileison (1778-1848) explains that the Talmud only cited the verse about charitzei he’chalav as a possible proof-text to the permissibility of consuming milk because the Talmud took into consideration the possibility cited by the Midrash that charitzei he’chalav refers to young animals (or Ibn Janach’s explanation that it refers to leftover milk in the udders), not to their cheese-tastic byproducts.
Several explanations have been offered to account for how the word charitzei relates to the triliteral chet-reish-tzadi in relation to cheese:
- Radak in Sefer HaShorashim and the Yemenite commentator Rabbi Avraham ben Shlomo explains that charitzei he’chalav refers to “pieces of fresh cheese.” They note that the cheese-making process somehow involves shaking the cheese, which resembles the shaking movement of one who threshes. Therefore, since the “threshing process” is called charutz (see Isaiah, 10:22, 28:27), cheese came to be called charitz.
- Rabbi Yosef Kara (to I Samuel 17:18) explains that because cheese was often collected in charitzim (ditches) that were dug into the ground (see Daniel 9:25, Eruvin 7:3, Bava Kamma 5:5, Mikvaot 5:6), the word charitz came to be associated with “cheese” itself.
- The Metzudat Tzion (to I Samuel 17:18) suggests that perhaps it was the accepted practice to cut cheese to specific measurements while it was still being processed, so because charitz means “to cut” (e.g. Job 14:5) that word also came to mean cheese.
- The Italian scholar Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak Tedeschi-Ashkenazi (1821-1898) in his work Hoil Moshe (to II Samuel 17:29) writes that cheese is called charitz (sharp) in reference to a specific form of cheese that is made from fermented milk that has a tart, tangy flavor.
- Rabbi Shmuel Yaffe-Ashkenazi (1525-1595) notes that if the term refers to young animals that were recently weaned from their mother’s milk, then charitz relates to cutting in the sense that they were cut off from their mother’s milk supply.
In a later passage in the Book of Samuel, King David was supplied with various foods during his travels in the midst of Absalom’s rebellion. One of those foods was shfot bakar (II Samuel 17:29). Targum Yonatan there renders this term in Aramaic as guvnin d’chalav (literally, “cheese of milk”). This gives us our third cheeselicious word.
But as Midrash Tehillim (to Psalms 3) clarifies, shfot bakar does not refer to any ordinary cheese. It refers specifically to cheese made from bovine milk that was so slippery and fatty that flies could not stick to it but would slip off. Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz (1909-2001) in Daat Sofrim (to II Samuel 17:29) takes this to mean that shfot bakar was a type of cheese that was loaded with preservatives (salt maybe?) to protect it from flies so the cheese could weather long-term travel. [See responsa Chatam Sofer vol. 6 §22, which discusses why the Talmud in Bechorot 6b did not adduce the permissibility of milk/cheese from the verse that mentions shfot bakar.]
Rabbi Tedeschi-Ashkenazi in Hoil Moshe (to Psalms 127:5, II Samuel 17:29, and Ezekiel 40:43) explains that shfot bakar is related to the homonymous shfot: the act of bringing a pot on a stovetop closer to the fire (see II Kings 4:38). In the context of cheese, shfot refers to the coming together of the cheesy particles within the milk to become one joined glob.
Nonetheless, not all commentators explain that shfot bakar refers to cheese. Just like Ibn Janach wrote in Sefer HaShorashim that charitzei he’chalav might refer to the milk found in an animal’s udders, he offers the same explanation regarding shfot bakar. Moreover, Radak suggests that shfot bakar refers to the udders themselves. Finally, Rabbi Avraham ben Shlomo writes that shfot bakar refers to butter, not cheese (although this is difficult because butter is already mentioned in II Samuel 17:29 using the word chemah).