Archive for June, 2014

The Custom of Eating Dairy on Shavuot: An Attempt at a Logical Explanation

Blintzes, a popular Shavuot dessert

Blintzes, a popular Shavuot dessert

The festival of Shavuot is not marked by any inherent mitzvah. While Passover is characterized by the mitzvah of abstaining from Chametz, Rosh HaShanah by the mitzvah of blowing of the Shofar, and Sukkot by the mitzvot concerning the Sukkah, the Lulav, and the Etrog, the only scriptural mitzvah characteristic of Shavuot is the wave-offering of the two loaves of the first fruits, which cannot be observed nowadays.

Since Shavuot is the celebration of the giving of the Torah (Matan Torah), this lack of specifics is understandable in a way. That which is about the whole of the Torah doesn’t seem fit to descend into the specific.

Yet there’s a specific custom which everyone associates with this festival. Eating dairy foods on Shavuot has become an enduring and universal Jewish tradition. The reasons usually given for it, however, are rather improbable and spurious. I’ll mention some of them.

Rabbi Shlomo Kluger says, in HaElef Lecha Shlomo, that on Shavuot milk became permitted for the Jewish people. He arrives at this conclusion through a particular explanation of the Noachide prohibition of the limb of a living animal. While non-Jews were allowed to follow a lenient interpretation of this prohibition, according to which only the parts of the animal itself should not be consumed while being alive, the Jews were obligated to follow a stricter interpretation and to abstain from all produce of a living animal. They were freed from this additional restriction at Sinai, when they received the Torah. Since the Torah refers to the promised land as “a land flowing of milk and honey”, they concluded that the stricter interpretation of the prohibition was no longer necessary.

This explanation is supplementary to another one, found in the Mishnah Berurah (494:12) and the Talmud Bavli (Berochot 6b), stating that when the oral instructions regarding Shechitah were revealed at Sinai, all meat foods — plus all meat utensils — became treif, because in the light of the new rules they weren’t properly prepared. So the Jews had to resort to milk food, which became permissible at the same moment when their meat became prohibited.

Some other reasons for this custom are based on gematria:

The gematria of chalav (milk) is 40, and this is the number of the days Moshe spent on Mount Sinai while receiving the Torah.

The gematria of gevina (cheese) is 70, which is also the number of an alternative name of Mount Sinai, Har Gav’nunim, the mountain of majestic peaks.

The Zohar associates each of the 365 negative commandments with a day of the year. The commandment associated with the rabbinic date of Shavuot (the 6th of Sivan) is the prohibition of mixing meat and milk. The association is based on Exodus 34:26, where this prohibition is found in connection with the obligation to bring the firstfruits.

Another spurious explanation is given in the Talmud, Tractate Sotah (12b), which places the birthday of Moshe on Adar 7. After being hid three months (Ex. 2:2), he was received in Pharao’s household on the 6th of Sivan, the traditional date of Shavuot. Through Yocheved’s and Miryam’s ruse he was given Yocheved as a nurse and thus received milk on Sivan 6. The custom of eating dairy foods is explained as a remembrance of this event by which Moshe’s life was saved.

Moshe’s greater life is the Torah, since he was chosen to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai and to transmit it to Israel. On the 6th of Sivan following his birth the Torah was thus ‘saved’ to be given to Israel on a later 6th of Sivan.

As I said, these reasons and explanation don’t seem to be genuine or real. They are rather improbable and spurious and clearly bear the mark of being invented for the occasion, in order to defend this custom or to give it an appearance of rationality.

Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried’s Kitzur Shulchon Oroch (III:103:7) shows some concern about this minhag, when it says: “The custom of eating dairy foods [may be problematic] because it is a mitzvah to eat meat [on Shavuos] as on all other holidays. Accordingly, precautions should be taken that a prohibition is not violated”.

The Kitzur text draws our attention to the fact that on Shavuot we are not supposed to eat dairy instead of meat, the normal festive ingredient, but in addition to it. While normally on the festivals the emphasis is on meat, here it is on milk, without neglecting, however, the custom of eating meat. It would be wrong to abstain from meat on this occasion, since meat is the festive food per se.

The concern expressed by the Kitzur may perhaps be the key for understanding and appreciating this custom. The tradition to eat meat on the Yamim Tovim undoubtedly dates from times when the Temple was functioning. The pilgrimage festivals were occasions to bring thanksgiving offerings in abundance, so naturally meat was the main food on these days. Jerusalem was packed with visitors and for families and friends the festivals were important meeting events.

Even in the diaspora and without a functioning Temple the festivals still have this meeting function for the larger Jewish communities. The eating of meat on these days is still a precious tradition because it reminds us of the Temple and the thanksgiving offerings. The custom to eat dairy on Shavuot may thus cause complications if a person visits a home where dairy was eaten while he has just finished his meat meal. He cannot simply jump in and join them in eating dairy snacks. He has to be on the qui vive about his eating. On the community level it is thus necessary to take precautions, in order that all can join.

The Kashrut laws of the Torah are fundamentally about meat. They are about what kinds of animals we may eat, how they are to be slaughtered, what parts of them may be consumed, and what combinations with other foods are permissible. Eating permissible meats is thus always a significant part of Jewish observance, for it involves obeying many rules of the Torah.

There is one type of food which may not be combined with meat. This is dairy food. Now, if there is an occasion when we eat both meat and dairy, all the Kashrut rules are fully and explicitly involved. On this occasion we thus obey the rules concerning kosher animals and kosher slaughter, plus the rules concerning the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy.

By simply adding a dairy meal on the festival of Shavuot, we thus symbolically express, in the domain of Kashrut, that we are willing to obey the entire Torah. Adding a dairy meal in the context of a Yom Tov, when meat normally is the predominant food, causes us to be mindful of the prohibition of mixing meat and milk and draws our attention to all the rules of Kashrut.

The custom of eating dairy on Shavuout is thus a beautiful dietary symbol of one of the main themes of this festival, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The specific character of the festival is brought about, in this case, not by a special positive or negative mitzvah, such as blowing the Shofar or abstaining from Chametz, but by bringing to full relevance all rules that govern a certain domain, and by positively obeying these rules to the fullest extent, with all their implications.

To me at least this sounds like a simple and logical explanation of a simple and yet extremely meaningful custom.



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