Torah, Milk and Honey

From: Melissa

Dear Rabbi,

I am hosting my first Shavuot meal this year and I’d like to know what to prepare. I know each holiday has its own special cuisine and featured foods, but I thought the basis for Shabbat and Holiday meals was always meat or poultry. My sister said that Shavuot is different and that the custom is actually to eat dairy food! Is this right, and if so what’s the reason behind the custom?

Dear Melissa,

The wide-spread custom is in fact to eat dairy foods during the morning meal of the first day of Shavuot (Rema, Sh.A., O.Ch. 493:3) This often takes the form of various types of cheese cakes and quiches or as an actual meal of various types of cheeses.

However, since Shavuot is a Yom Tov, it is also proper to honor the festival with the traditional holiday cuisine of various meat dishes as well (ibid).

Many people therefore have both dairy and meat by first making a dairy kiddush with a variety of cheese cakes and other baked goods with enough dough to require an after-blessing, followed by a regular Yom Tov meat meal. Alternatively, after kiddush some actually have a light bread-meal with dairy foods and then make the blessing after meals, followed by another Yom Tov meat meal.

In either of these scenarios one must separate the eating of dairy from meat by rinsing one’s mouth of residual dairy food, making the appropriate after-blessing, waiting at least half an hour, and changing tablecloths, plates and utensils.

There are several reasons for eating dairy on Shavuot.

One well-known explanation is that before the Torah was given, Jews were permitted to eat meat of non-kosher animals as well as that of kosher animals without needing to properly slaughter and salt the meat to remove its blood. After the giving of the Torah, kosher slaughter, salting and other preparations were needed to make meat kosher became required and the Jews were not able to prepare meat or even use their cooking vessels which became prohibited. They therefore could eat only dairy foods on the day the Torah was given (ibid, M.B. 12).

Another explanation is that since Shavuot is both an extension of, and conclusion to, Passover which includes two cooked dishes corresponding to the two sacrifices eaten then, Shavuot also includes two dishes – meat and milk. And since one loaf of bread can’t be used for both, thereby requiring two loaves of bread, this corresponds to the two breads that were offered in the Temple on Shavuot (Rema).

An additional, very interesting explanation is based on the idea that the day that Moses was drawn out of the waters of the Nile and destined to receive the Torah was the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, the day destined for the giving of the Torah on Shavuot. This is based on the fact that Moses was born on the 7th of Adar and, according to the Torah, was hidden for three months until, under the threat of his death, his mother was driven to save him by setting him in a basket on the river. That same day he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter and refused to nurse from any other but a Hebrew woman. We thus recall this by eating milk foods on that day (Book of our Heritage, Sivan).

Finally, the numerical value of the letters that make up the Hebrew word for milk, chalav – chet (8), lamed (30), bet (2) – add up to forty, corresponding to the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai in conjunction with receiving the Torah (ibid).

There is also a beautiful tradition that highlights the theme of milk and honey on Shavuot by sweetening the dairy foods and challa bread with honey. This is because the Torah is compared to the fulfilling and enriching quality of milk and to the sweet and pleasurable quality of honey, as in the verse metaphorically referring to G‑d’s giving of the Torah (Song of Songs 4:11), “Honey flows from Your lips, honey and milk from under Your tongue”. (M.B. 13)

Also, the comparison of Torah to milk and honey teaches that Torah enables one to live in harmony with the physical and spiritual worlds since “its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace” (Prov. 3:17). Milk and honey are both foods that do not require the taking of life or the severing of growth. They, like the ways of Torah, are harmonious with life. (Gateway to Judaism, Shavuot).

Similarly, Torah is compared to milk and honey in that just as these foods originate from non-permitted sources – milk from blood and honey from the bee – yet they themselves are kosher, so too the Torah transforms a person from a state of spiritual defilement to spiritual purity and refinement. (ibid).

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