How Much Dairy Should Older Adults Have?

Saturday at sunset begins the Jewish holiday of Shavuot–known in English as the Feast of Weeks or Jewish Pentecost. This festival recalls the harvest of the first fruits in the Land of Israel as well as the receiving of the Law at Mt. Sinai.

Over the centuries, the custom has developed to eat dairy products on Shavuot; cheese blintzes and cheesecake are particularly traditional, popular, and tasty. How did this custom develop? There is no single answer. One explanation has to do with a verse from the Song of Songs (4:11), where it states “honey and milk are under thy tongue;” since this book is seen as an allegory of the love between God and the Israelites, the honey and milk are thought to refer to the Torah, whose words are always spoken (by the tongue). Another interpretation is that the journey to Mt. Sinai was so arduous that the Israelites did not bring animals to slaughter and eat–it would have been too much bother–but rather ate only dairy leading up to the Revelation. Yet another explanation is that until the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, there were no laws about what was acceptable to eat (the dietary/Kashrut rules are in the Torah); in order to not transgress God’s will, the people only ate vegetarian and dairy. Whatever reason you like best, it all adds up to a tasty and rich holiday.

I will admit that I usually overdo it a little on Shavuot when it comes to the cheesecake and ice cream. It got me wondering just how much dairy is “right” for older adults. Most sources recommend 3 servings daily (each serving being one cup). It seems like a lot; what is the rationale behind this? As we age, the need for calcium becomes all the more important; it helps us to keep our bones strong. We know that one of the biggest fears of older adults is breaking bones, because the healing process is slower and can lead to complications. When it comes to calcium, there are few sources that pack as much punch as dairy products.

Unfortunately, many older adults have a hard time digesting dairy products. There are also many vegans who do not consume them at all. What alternatives exist to get the proper amount of calcium in their diets? Many non-dairy foods contain calcium: soy products (like tofu, tempeh, edamame), legumes (such as beans, peas, lentils), nuts, seeds, some grains, and other vegetables. There are also some drinks such as oatmilk and orange juice that may come enriched with calcium.

Is the real reason why we eat dairy on Shavuot because God knew that the Israelites would need strong bones to wander for 40 years in the wilderness? There is no way to know for sure, but it is about as plausible an explanation as those put for by Jewish tradition over the generations.

In any case, as we grow older, we must be diligent about maintaining the proper levels of calcium in our diets. Maybe that should be the 11th Commandment!

Thought for Shabbat

D-Day - June 6, 1944

It has been interesting and emotional to watch as our nation and Europe marked the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion during WWII.

This heroic and painful endeavor turned the tide of the war in Europe and led to the eventual liberation of those on the continent who were under Nazi control.   What we have learned since 1944 (and perhaps knew all along) is that liberation is not just a one-time event; just because the Nazi forces were pushed back and eventually surrendered does not mean that everything in Europe was rainbows and unicorns.  There is a never-ending struggle to create, uphold and defend the institutions of freedom.  There is also a recognition that freedom is not just for freedom’s sake; that liberty should be used for a higher goal to enrich the lives of those living under it, allowing for peace and justice to survive and thrive.

It is a meaningful coincidence that this milestone anniversary was celebrated just before the holiday of Shavuot.  This holiday recalls the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai; that event is what the exodus from Egypt was all about.  Freedom from Egypt was not just an exercise in liberty for the sake of running around the desert doing whatever we pleased.  It was liberty in order to serve God and our fellow humans (rather than an earthly ruler like Pharaoh).  Just as in Europe after the conclusion of WWII, this process is not over.  It did not end when the sea closed in on the Egyptian Charioteers.  It did not end when the Children of Israel received the Torah.  It did not end when we entered the Promised Land.  And it did not end when we went into exile.  The work is never done.

The 75th Anniversary of D-Day and Shavuot are strong reminders to us that not only is the work of freedom never done, but that we must also remind ourselves for what purpose liberty has been won.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach!