Rabbi David Walk
Shavuot doesn't have all that much going for it. There aren't the preparations and the Seder connected with Pesach, and we don't have distinctive mitzvoth like sitting in the sukkah and shaking the four species associated with Sukkot. So, what do we do to make this holiday distinguished? Well, we stay up all night. That's a custom which seems less and less reasonable to me as I age. Then there's eating dairy products. I must admit that consuming industrial sized servings of cheese cake is more attractive than missing a night's sleep. But why do we eat milchig meals? This question is even more intriguing when we realize that according to the Talmud eating meat is one of the methods of achieving the simcha or joy required on Biblical feast days. So, let's take a look at the curious custom of Dairy on Shavuot.
First of all, I should inform you my dear reader that many observant Jews make sure that they have meat meals, too, on Shavuot. There actually is a custom to have some dairy products and then recite an after blessing, wash out one's mouth and then have a more normal holiday meat based spread. I actually used to do this, but found myself eating too much. More recently I've been having one dairy dinner and one fleishig feast.
But what are the roots of this tradition? There are a number of reasons given for eating dairy on Shavuot. We should find that troubling. Usually when the rabbis give multiple reasons for something, it's because none of the answers are compelling. In any event the most popular answer is that given by the Mishna Berura (494:12). He explains that after receiving the laws of kashrut in the Torah, the Jewish People were no longer able to eat their meat; they had to properly slaughter and prepare new meat in kosher vessels. This process is time consuming, and they, therefore, ate dairy products, whose halakhot are less intricate and which can be prepared in less time. R. Isaac Tyrnau records in his Sefer Ha-minhagim (Hagahot U-minhagim, Chag Ha-Shavuot) that this custom is alluded to by the verse (Bamidbar 28:26), "mincha Chadasha La-shem Be-shavuoteichem," the first letters of which spell "chalav" – milk. The Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 494:3) explains that, in remembrance of the shetei ha-lechem, the two loaves offered in the Beit Ha-Mikdash on Shavuot, we wish to eat two loaves of bread at the meal. Since one is not permitted to use the same loaf of bread for both a dairy and meat meal (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 89:4), we eat a dairy meal and then a meat meal, in order to ensure that two loaves are eaten.
However, I'd like to investigate another concept that's based on an idea I saw in an article from Yeshivat Ma'alot in northern
I read this article a couple months when I was concerned with a totally different problem. I was wondering why the Torah records the cooking of the kid prohibition right next to the list of the three pilgrimage festivals. In Mishpatim (Exodus 23:14-19) and Ki Tisa (Ibid. 34:21-26) the holidays are listed right before the law of milk and meat. In Re'eh (Deuteronomy 14:21 and 16:1-15) this mitzvah is recorded just a chapter earlier. What is the connection between not cooking a baby in its mother's milk and our three joyous feasts?
I would like to suggest that the holidays are being referenced in the prohibition. Pesach is the beginning of the year in so many ways. The first crops begin to appear, the flowers bud and babies are born to our domesticated animals. So, it makes sense that Pesach and its Paschal sacrifice of lamb or kid is represented by the baby goat, which, perhaps, was bought for two zuzim. Sukkot, on the other hand, signals the end of the year when harvests are gathered and animals prepare for the offspring to arrive in the spring. This time of introspection and looking back, I believe, is well compared to the mother. Finally, Shavuot is the time of Torah giving by God, and Torah receiving by us. The Torah is the marvelous gift of the Heavenly Parent to the earthly child with all of its concern about how to live a productive and meaningful life. What should better represent this endowment than mother's milk? It is both grant and connection between benefactor and beneficiary.
So we consume dairy products on Shavuot to represent this relationship between God and the Jewish nation, God the Divine Parent and us the needy babe. Every parent reading this knows well how much each baby yearns for their mother's sustenance. That metaphor should instruct us in how thirstily we must imbibe from the Torah being presented us on Shavuot. If that's the message of the cheesecake, I'll make the sacrifice and have a piece (or more). Chag Sameach!