Shavuot’s Origins as a Wheat Harvest Festival
If Shavuot makes you think of blintzes and cheesecake, that’s because, according to some sources, a 13th century French Ashkenazi custom to eat dairy foods on what is really a Jewish harvest holiday spread as thick as cream cheese on a bagel.
Vegan educators and activists in Israel—a country that may have more vegans per capita than any other—say it’s time to rewind Shavuot, which begins the evening of May 25, to its roots as a wheat harvest festival. And to acknowledge what they deride as the cruelty of the dairy industry and the environmental and health consequences of consuming its products.
Rabbi Asa Keisar is a vocal Israeli advocate for what he labels “religious veganism”—using the Torah and Talmud to expose the Jewish arguments against, for instance, eating meat. According to him, when the dairy custom arose almost a thousand years ago, Jews “had cows in their yard and they would take some milk while the calf would still suckle. But in our days, dairy products are coming through serious animal welfare sins.”
The dairy industry is also “very environmentally unfriendly,” said Omri Paz, founder of Vegan Friendly, a leading Israeli vegan advocacy and certification agency. He noted that raising cows for their milk causes gas emissions and overuses resources such as water, land and food to keep them fed.
Over the past decade, Vegan Friendly’s Shavuot campaigns have included a billboard on Israel’s Ayalon highway showing a dairy cow and her calf on their first—and last—day together, illustrating how cows are separated from their calves so that the milk goes to humans. Other efforts have been the Shavuot Without Cheese festivals and a National Milk-Out initiative that highlighted plant-based cheeses and pasta dishes.
The group is now focusing its efforts on Vegan Fest Tel Aviv, an all-things-vegan extravaganza that kicks off on June 21 and that bills itself as the largest such event anywhere in the world, having attracted more than 100,000 participants to both its 2019 and 2022 festivals.
Beyond activism, Vegan Friendly certifies over 14,000 products and 3,000 restaurants, hotels and other ventures in Israel as well as in the United Kingdom. The organization recently launched in the United States, where more than 30 businesses have signed up for certification. (Download the Vegan Friendly app to search for certified outlets.)
“Shavuot isn’t really connected to dairy,” said Paz. “In the Bible, Shavuot is about harvesting wheat, so we need to get back to the original intention.”