Archive for the 'Yom Tov' Category

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

by Geert ter Horst

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.



Why Extinguishing a Fire Could be Considered Permissible on Yom Tov

Exploring an Awkward Halachic Problem


by Geert ter Horst

Should it be kept burning during Yom Tov?

Should it be kept burning during Yom Tov?

[This article is exclusively written for scholarly discussion purposes. It’s author, and his opinion expressed here, have no halachic authority or competence.]

The traditional halachah distinguishes between two manners of making fire: (1) creating a flame from a flame, and (2) creating a flame from a non-flame. On Yom Tov the first is permitted while the second is prohibited. [1] On Shabbat both are prohibited. On all other days both are permitted.

Creating a flame from a flame comprises three kinds of activity: (1) Transferring a flame from one place to another place; (2) Increasing the magnitude or intensity of a flame; (3) Numerically diversifying a flame, either by splitting it up or by extending it to other combustible material. [2]

I.      The Problem: Extinguishing a Fire on Yom Tov

My purpose in this article is to address a particular problem which arises on Yom Yov. This is the problem that after cooking — a biblically permitted activity on Yom Tov (Ex. 12:16) — it is not permitted to extinguish the flame of the furnace. The reason for this prohibition is that extinguishing a flame is treated as the negative equivalent to creating it. So if I simply turn off the gas switch of the furnace after cooking, this is considered as the negative equivalent of striking a match. It is creating a non-flame from a flame, which is equally prohibited as the positive creating of a flame from a non-flame. [3]

The alternatives are either to leave the flame burning or to let it extinguish through some permissible cooking activity. The first alternative is often considered dangerous or alarming, especially if there are children around. The classic suggestion is here to put a pan of water on the furnace, using the same flame, for making soup or tea, and to let the water boil over it. This will cause the flame to be extinguished. This solution is often considered awkward and no less dangerous, either because of the risk of forgetting to turn the switch off after the flame is extinguished, or because this method is not infallible and the flame sometimes stays burning.

The question is thus: Are there no halachic reasons why extinguishing a flame could be considered permitted? Actually there are, and I’ll present three of them.

1.     The Yom-Tov rule for creating a fire is that is should be derived from an existing flame. Extinguishing such a derived fire just seems to be the complementary equivalent to creating it. Therefore it seems that such a derived fire may be extinguished under the condition that its source flame keeps burning.

2.     Extinguishing the flame after cooking marks the completion of the cooking process, and for that reason should be considered as part of this process. Since cooking is permitted, its completion must be permitted too.

3.     The traditional prohibition leads to dangerous and awkward situations and thus to discouragement of cooking on the Yamim Tovim. Discouraging cooking cannot be the purpose of the halachah and the dangerous situations are detrimental of experiencing the typical joy of the holy day.

Against the first reason one can argue that, once a derived flame is brought into existence, it is a flame in its own right, which exists independently from its source flame. Its existence is only dependent on its fuel, the combustible material that was brought into contact with the source flame.

Extinguishing a derived flame is therefore not the exact opposite of its bringing into existence. In fact, there is no difference between extinguishing a flame that was derived from a source flame and extinguishing the source flame itself.

The halachic problem is thus that, although there is a difference in the coming into existence between a fire that is generated absolutely and one that is generated from another flame, there is no corresponding difference in the going out of existence between these two types of flames. The reason for this lack of a corresponding difference in the act of extinguishing is that the causal connection between the source flame and the derived flame only concerns the process of generation, the coming into existence.

The secondary or derived flame is not dependent on the source flame for its existence absolutely, but only for its coming into existence. There is no continuous dependence. Albeit the derived flame is generated by another flame, its dependence on this other flame ceases as soon as the generation process is completed. Producing fire by deriving if from an existing flame is thus a case of univocal causality: a new examplar of the same species is generated. Extinguishing a derived flame is a case of producing non-fire out of fire, which the exact complement of producing fire out of non-fire. Since the last is forbidden, the first is also forbidden.

II.     A Possible Solution Considered

Perhaps there may be a way out here if we give a more detailed attention to the above mentioned three ways of creating fire from fire. Nobody considers it prohibited to bring back a flame to its original place or room, after it was removed and transferred to another place or another room. There are also authorities who find it permissible to lower the flame during or after the cooking process — although there is some opposition to this opinion. Now, if two of the three permitted activities of creating a flame from a flame have their permitted negative equivalent in a reversal of these activities, one would expect there to be such an equivalent for the third as well.

If we take the first activity, transferrring a flame to another location, we see that it is symmetrical, meaning that it’s negative equivalent is included in it. If we bring a burning candle from the dining room to the kitchen, the flame not only starts to exist in the kitchen but it also ceases to exist in the dining room. The cessation of existence in one location is here an inseparable aspect of its coming to existence in another location, in a continuous movement. This movement is purely accidental to the flame itself.

This symmetry is lost, however, when we compare the enlargement or intensification of a flame, the second activity, to diminishing its intensity or magnitude. By lowering the flame of a furnace we ‘destroy’ a part of it by making it smaller in size. If we increase the magnitude of a flame no such destruction occurs. The two changes here are not symmetrical. The destruction is not part of the increasing but only of the decreasing. For this reason some authorities are opposed to lowering a flame on Yom Tov, because of the partial destruction involved in it. Enlarging or diminishing its size affects the flame itself. And while the first is undoubtedly permitted, since it is the creating of fire from fire, the second is often considered of dubious permissibility since it involves a destruction, a partial creation of non-fire from fire.

When the third activity of making fire from fire, the numerical multiplication of a flame, is compared to its negative equivalent, extinguishing a derived flame, not only the above mentioned symmetry is lost. There’s the additional problem that the extinguishing itself doesn’t seem to be the proper equivalent of the kindling. For the kindling is done by means of another flame and is in the category of generating fire from fire. But the extinguishing is a simple destruction and is the return of fire to non-fire. So we again meet the obstacle that there doesn’t seem to be a real negative equivalent of the permissible action of creating new flames from existing ones.

We have to conclude now that the three kinds of activity: transferring, increasing and multiplying, are not comparable to each other in all respects. In the first the negative equivalent is simply included in the positive because of the symmetry of movement; in the second this negative equivalent is not included but is a separate action; in the third there doesn’t even seem to exist a real negative equivalent of the activity at all.

However, matters may not be exactly as they seem. For there’s an aspect in the extinguishing which until now was left out of our consideration. We saw in the above that the generation of a new flame from an existing one is a case of univocal causality, whereby a new individual of the same species is generated. It is this analysis in terms of individual and species which may be relevant here.

III.    Analysis in Terms of Species and Individual

By a numerical expansion nothing new is created in the order of the species (flame), only in the order of the individual: the number of light- or fire-bearers is multiplied. What happens is not the generation of fire per se but only of instances of fire. Similarly, by a numerical reduction nothing is destroyed in the order of the species, only in the order of the individual: the number of light- or fire-bearers is reduced.

Now for the purpose of our analysis the species must here be accurately defined as fire or flame of Yom Tov (within the limits of a particular household).

It is clear when we hypothetically consider reducing the number of fire-bearers during Yom Tov as permitted, that care should be taken that this number is not reduced to zero. For then the species (i.e. the Yom Tov fire itself) would be extinguished. Reduction to zero corresponds to the situation in which a numerical expansion would start from zero, which is not permitted on Yom Tov because it implies the act of creating fire from non-fire.

Simply reducing the number without reducing it to zero can be considered permitted, however, because it is the negative equivalent of producing more flames from other flames. In this analysis such a reduction is not an act of making non-fire from fire. For before and after there is fire. It is an act of diminishing the number of flames, or instances of fire. If one considers the extinguishing of an individual flame here as making non-fire from fire, then, equivalently, the ignition of new combustible material (for instance new candles) in the multiplication of flames should be consisered as making fire from non-fire. But this would destroy the whole permission to multiply the number of flames by deriving a flame from another flame. And thus the logical consequence of this permission seems to be that reducing the number of flames is permitted. For fire is not extinguished absolutely or on the level of the species, but only an instance of it or on the level of the individual.

IV.    Hypothetical Conclusion

This halachic option is dependent, as the reader will have noticed, on the opinion that accepts the permissibility of decreasing the intensity or magnitude of a derived flame. If the partial ‘destruction’ of an individual flame is prohibited, then obviously its total destruction will also be prohibited. If, however, the destruction of an individual flame is permitted under the condition that its source flame keeps burning, then obviously the partial destruction of an individual flame is also permitted.

If my conclusion is valid, the awkward and dangerous situations referred to in the exposition of the problem (in the first paragraph), can be easily avoided, without the specific halachic distinctiveness of Yom Tov being damaged.

A question which may possibly arise here is the following: What about the situation in which a Yom Tov fire is in existence and a new fire is produced directly, without deriving it from an existing flame? Is there no danger that this too would become permitted under this new halachic option? For this doesn’t seem to be an expansion from zero to one, because there was already a flame burning.

The answer to this question is simply that a newly created flame is outside the species of Yom Tov fire. For it belongs to the nature or definition of Yom Tov fire that it isn’t created from non-fire. Therefore this procedure would still be not permissible. Under this halachic perspective it would thus remain prohibited to extinguish a Yom Tov source flame, i.e. a flame which was already burning before the arrival of Yom Tov and which was kindled in advance in order to derive other flames from it during Yom Tov.


[1] Ganzfried III.98.1: “Carrying objects from one place to another, and kindling a fire  are also permitted on a festival, even when not needed for cooking but for some other purpose.”
Ganzfried III.98.31: “It is not permissible to draw fire on a festival, either from a flint, , or a glass, or a match.” [R. Solomon Ganzfried, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Hebrew Publishing Company — New York 2004 (1961).]

[2] Zevin I.23: “To produce fire (as opposed to using, increasing, or transferring an already burning flame) is forbidden.” [R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin, The Festivals in Halachah Vol I, Mesorah Publications — New York 2002 (1981).]

[3] The reason why simply creating a flame from a non-flame is prohibited is the legal principle that those parts of food preparation which can be done beforehand, without diminishing the quality of the food, should not be done on the Yom Tov. The prohibition of producing fire is held to be scriptural by some because they hold this legal principle to be scriptural.