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Questions and Answers on the Custom of Eating Dairy on Shavuot

Questions and Answers on the Custom of Eating Dairy on Shavuot


נוהגין בכמה מקומות לאכול מאכלי חלב ביום ראשון של שבועות
It is customary in some places to eat dairy foods on the first day of Shavuot. (Rama, 494:3)

נוהגין בכל המקומות לאכול מאכלי חלב ביום א' של שבועות ומנהג אבותינו תורה היא
It is a custom in all places to eat dairy foods on the first day of Shavuot, and a custom of our father’s is Torah. (Shulchan Aruch HaRav, 494:16)

Torah Hints for Dairy on Shavuot

QUESTION: Where is there a remez — hint — in the Torah that dairy is eaten on Shavuot?

ANSWER: The Torah portion which enumerates the Shavuot musaf offerings, begins with the words “On the day of the first-fruits when you offer minchah chadashah l’Hashem beShavuoteichem” — “a new meal-offering to Hashem on your Festival of Weeks” (Bamidbar 28:26). The first letters of the words “chadashah l’Hashem beShavuoteichem” (חדשה לה' בשבעותיכם) spells the word “chalav” (חלב) — “milk.”

(מטה משה)

* * *

Alternatively, there is a pasuk in the Torah (Shemot 23:19) which says the following. “The earliest of the first-fruits of your land you shall bring to the House of G‑d your G‑d; you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Why are these two seemingly different subjects juxtaposed in the same pasuk?

Shavuot is known as the Day of Bikkurim (Bamidbar 28:26). One of the reasons is that it was the preferred time for bringing to the Beit Hamikdash, the Bikkurim — first-fruits — with which the land of Eretz Yisrael was praised (see p. 8).

Since it is customary to eat dairy on Shavuot, the Torah reminds us that when we bring the Bikkurim to the Beit Hamikdash on Shavuot, we should be very careful while cooking for Yom Tov not to mix any meat together with milk.

(של"ה מס' שבועות)

* * *

Reasons for Dairy on Shavuot

QUESTION: Why is it customary to eat a dairy meal the first day of Shavuot?

ANSWER: There are many explanations given, here are some of them.

1) Torah is Likened to Milk

In The Song of Songs (4:11) Hashem says to the Jewish people, “The sweetness [of Torah] drops from your lips; like honey and milk it lies under your tongue.” Since the Torah is compared to milk, we eat a dairy meal on Shavuot, when the Torah was given.

(כל בו)

2) Milk is Purified — Torah Purifies

Honey is made by the bee, and milk is a byproduct of blood (see Bechorot 6b), and the Torah forbids eating blood.

Thus, both milk and honey originate from a source which is tamei — spiritually unclean — and after the product is developed it is tahor — halachically clean — for human consumption.

Torah is compared to milk and honey because of its power to elevate and purify even one who has fallen into a state of spiritual contamination.

(עוללות אפרים)

* * *

Incidentally, some have a custom to also eat honey on Shavuot for the same reasons.

(כל בו, הובא בחק יעקב סי' תצ"ד)

3) Torah and Humility

The comparison of Torah to milk teaches us that just as milk keeps best in earthenware and spoils quickly in silver or golden utensils, Torah remains with humble people and despises the arrogant.

(תענית ז ע"א)

4) Reminds of Moshe’s Being Saved

Moshe was born on the 7th of Adar. Three months later, his mother put him in a basket and placed him among the reeds at the bank of the river. Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, found him and he refused to drink the milk of any of the Egyptian women. Consequently, she was forced to hire Yocheved (his mother) to raise him. This incident took place on the 6th of Sivan, the day when years later Moshe would receive the Torah on Mt. Sinai (Sotah 12b). Since he was miraculously reunited with his mother on the 6th of Sivan through milk, a dairy meal is eaten on Shavuot.

(מטעמים אות פ"ט)

5) Milk = 40

The Hebrew word for milk is “chalav” (חלב) having the numerical value of 40. Eating a dairy meal recalls the 40 days Moshe was up in heaven to receive the Torah.

(נזירות שמשון, ילקוט מפרשים בסוף שו"ע הל' פסח מהדורת מכון ירשלים ע' תשע"א)

6) Moshe Got Torah Because of Avraham’s Hospitality

According to the Midrash Rabbah (Shemot, 28:1), the angels wanted to attack Moshe for coming to take the Torah down to earth. Hashem altered his face to resemble Avraham’s and said to them, “Aren’t you ashamed to attack the person who was so hospitable to you?”

Avraham served the angels cream, milk, and meat (Bereishit 18:8). To commemorate this meal, which contributed to the Jewish people receiving the Torah on Shavuot, we eat a dairy meal, and a meat meal an hour later. (See Shelah, Shavuot 180b: Sha’arei Halachah Uminhag, vol. 3, p. 38.)

(מהר"ם שי"ף)

7) Two Loaves for Dairy and Meat Meals

In the Beit HaMikdash on Shavuot there was a meal-offering that consisted of Two Loaves baked from chadash — the new wheat crop — which was harvested or formed roots at least three days before Pesach (see Vayikra 23:17). Until then all the meal-offerings had to be from the flour of earlier crops, and the Two Loaves made permissible the use of the new crop in the meal-offerings of the Beit Hamikdash. (The Omer-offering of Pesach was of barley and made the use of new crop permissible for individuals see p. 7).

For the dairy and meat meals, according to halachah, separate loaves of bread have to be used. Thus, the eating of a dairy meal followed by a meat meal (at least one hour later) necessitates the use of two separate loaves which, in turn, commemorates the Two-Loaf meal-offering offered on Shavuot.

(רמ"א סי' תצ"ד, ג' ועי' משנה ברורה)

* * *

Incidentally, it is not everyone’s custom to eat two full meals. Some have a custom to just eat some dairy mezonot — cake — and beverage after Kiddush and then make a berachah acharonah. Then after waiting at least one hour, they eat the Yom Tov meal consisting of challah, fish and meat, etc.

(אוצר מנהגי חב"ד ע' ש"ז)

8) Kosher Meat was Unavailable

On Shavuot, when the Torah was given, the Jews learned the laws of shechitah — slaughtering — and kashrut for the first time. Since the Torah was given on Shabbat, they were unable to slaughter any animals on that day, and their vessels needed to be “kashered.” Any meat they may have had from before, even if slaughtered, was not usable because no one was a bar zevichah — a proper ritual slaughterer — when the animal was killed.

Thus, immediately after receiving the Torah, they did not have kosher meat or utensils available, and their only alternative was eating dairy.

(גאולת ישראל, ועי' משנה ברורה סוסי' תצ"ד, אמרי פנחס לר' פנחס זצ"ל מקאריץ, שער יששכר, עי' תורת מנחם ח"ח ע' 102 אות ט' ועי' לקו"ש חי"ח ע' 365)

9) Dairy Meal was More Convenient

Though many people observed Torah precepts before the Torah was actually given, nevertheless, it was permitted to eat meat of a killed animal which was not ritually slaughtered. Once the Torah laws were conveyed, the only meat permissible was that of a ritually slaughtered animal. To have such meat it is necessary to have a chalif — slaughtering knife — that is extremely sharp, and without any imperfection. Preparing a chalif is a tedious and time consuming task. After the animal is slaughtered there are again many halachot concerning its preperation for cooking (e.g. removing non-kosher fats, soaking and salting) which requires much time. Moreover, the actual cooking (in new utensils) also takes much time.

Hence, for technical reasons the simplest and most connvenient thing was to make the first meal a dairy one. This was the easiest to prepare and least time consuming.

To commemorate the dairy meal which was eaten after the giving of the Torah, we too eat a dairy meal on the festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah.

(תולדות יצחק מר' יצחק זצ"ל מנשכיז בשם ר' לוי יצחק זצ"ל מברדיטשוב, ועי' משנה ברורה סוסי' תצ"ד בשם "גדול אחד שאמר טעם נכון לזה")

Major Difference between Reasons 8 and 9

Although superficially these two reasons (8 and 9) appear to be similar, there is a major difference between them.

According to the first explanation, they did not prepare meat dishes because they were precluded from doing so lest they violate the holy Shabbat. According to the latter reason, they would not have violated Shabbat had they slaughtered and cooked. The reason they did not, is strictly logistical: Since it would be more time consuming to make meat dishes in accordance with halachah, they chose the easy way out and ate dairy.

Now, we may rightfully wonder: slaughtering and cooking are among the 39 major forms of work that are Biblically forbidden on Shabbat. Why on the Shabbat when the Torah was given would doing these acts not be considered violating the sanctity of Shabbat?

Mitzvot — Before and After Sinai

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains it in the following way:

At Mount Sinai, Hashem conveyed through Moshe a Torah consisting of 613 mitzvot. Though there were a number of mitzvot which were given earlier, they ceased to be in effect once Torah was given. That is, we do not circumcise our children today because Avraham circumcized himself and his household: rather, we do it because Hashem commanded us at Sinai, through Moshe, to circumcize our children the same way Avraham did it. Similarly, though the mitzvah of observing Shabbat was already given to the Jewish during their sojourn at Marah (Shemot 15:25, Rashi), nevertheless, after the Torah was given at Sinai, we do not observe Shabbat for that reason, but rather because Hashem told us at Sinai, through Moshe, to observe Shabbat.

Hence, in a sense, the Shabbat mitzvah of Marah was nullified and replaced with the Shabbat mitzvah given at Sinai through Moshe. (See Rambam, Pirush Hamishnayot, Chullin 7:7.)

Following this line of thought, at Sinai, when Hashem appeared and gave the Jews the Torah, through Moshe, there was a changeover from the Shabbat of Marah to the Shabbat of Torah.

The questions arises; How did this changeover affect their Shabbat observance?

The Unobserved Shabbat

Shabbat is a twenty-four-hour entity which begins Friday evening and concludes Saturday night. There is no such thing as a partial Shabbat. Thus, we must say that since the Shabbat of Marah was superceded by the Shabbat of Torah at Sinai, the remainder of the day was equivalent to an ordinary weekday. It was indeed the seventh day of the week, and the day on which Hashen rested when He created the world, but this particular seventh day (Shabbat) lacked the essence of Shabbat. Accordingly, the first actual Shabbat to be observed, as the fulfillment of the mitzvah of Shabbat given at Sinai, was the shabbat of the week that followed the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

Such being the case, immediately after the giving of the Torah, it was permissible to slaughter and cook but for practical reasons they chose to make a dairy meal because it involved a considerably lesser amount of time to prepare.

(לקוטי שיחות ח"ח ע' 58, ואע"ג דקיי"ל (יבמות לג, א) דמי שהביא ב' שערות באמצע השבת חלו עליו איסורי שבת, וכן גר שנתגייר באמצע השבת (ירושלמי עירובין פ"ד ה"ה) ה"ז דוקא לאחר שכבר חלה קדושת שבת על כל המעל"ע כולו, דאז אמרינן שחלות קדושה זו היא על כל רגע ורגע בפ"ע, אבל כאשר אין מציאות של "יום שביעי" שלם לא תתכן חלות קדושת שבת על חצי יום.)

10) Commemorates “Seeing the Sounds”

A unique thing about the kashrut status of milk is that it depends on whether a Jew saw the milking. As the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 35b) says that “it is forbidden to drink milk which was milked by a non-Jew when a Jew did not see him milking.”

A unique thing that took place when the Torah was given is that “And all the people could see the sounds” (Shemot 20:15) — they saw that which is audible; i.e. they saw the sounds that emerged from the mouth of Hashem (Rashi).

To commemorate the receiving of the Torah in a visual way, we eat dairy which may be eaten only if a Jew saw the milking.

(חגים וזמנים מהרב ק.א. ז"ל פרנקל בשם ספר אהלי צדיקים)

11) Limited Meat Consumption Because of Anninut

When a relative for whom one must observe mourning passes away, G‑d forbid, the survivor is an onein until the burial, and is forbidden to eat meat. The laws of anninut do not apply to Yom-Tov. Nevertheless, the Jerusalem Talmud, (Chagigah 2:3) says King David passed away on Shavuot and the entire community were onenim, and due to their great agony, shalmei chagigah — festival peace-offerings — were not offered and postponed for the following day.

A reason for reading Megillat Ruth on Shavuot is because King David passed away on this day and his geneology is deliniated in it. Thus, to commemorate that all the people were onenim on that day and they did not eat some of the sacrificial meat normally eaten, we eat dairy. (But, since in reality anninut is not practiced on Yom Tov, and even on the day of David’s passing, they offered the obligatory sacrifices such as the daily offering and musafim. and ate the meat, we also eat a meat meal to bring us into a joyous Yom Tov spirit.)

(עיטורי תורה ח"ז ובקובץ יגדיל תורה גליון י"ט הביא מר' אברהם אבלי ז"ל פאסוועלער אבד"ק ווילנא שעל נשיא ומלך נוהג אנינות ביו"ט ואסורים בבשר. אבל זה קשה כמבואר בשו"ת ושב הכהן סי' צ"ג, מר' רפאל ז"ל מהמבורג)

12) Before Sinai, Milk was Forbidden

One of the Noachide laws (which apply to all mankind) is the prohibition of “eiver min hachai” — eating the limb of a live animal (Rambam, Melachim 9:1).

The Gemara (Bechorot 6b) asks: Why are we permitted to drink cow’s milk — doesn’t it come from a live animal?

One of the answers is, since the Torah praises Eretz Yisrael “as flowing with milk” (Shemot 13:5), it must be permitted. Otherwise, the Torah would not have praised Eretz Yisrael with something forbidden. However, only after the Jews received the Torah, in which Hashem praised Eretz Yisrael for its milk, did it become permitted for them to drink it. Before the Torah was given, however, milk was forbidden because it was considered “eiver min hachai.

Thus, to emphasize that milk became permitted only after the giving of the Torah, a dairy meal is eaten on Shavuot immediately after the receiving of the Torah.

(ילקוט הגרשוני, טעמי המנהגים ועי' שו"ת חתם סופר יו"ד סי' ע"ב, ועי' אריכות בכל הנ"ל בירחון אור ישראל חוברת ל"ב בעריכת הרב גדלי' שי' אויבערלאנדער)

How come Avraham served Dairy?

QUESTION: According to the above (#12) why did Avraham serve the angels milk products? Even if he didn’t know that they were angels and perceived them to be Noachites, he should not have caused them to violate one of the seven Noachide laws of not eating eiver min hachai — a limb or meat of a live animal?

ANSWER: In the Gemara (Berachot 6b, Niddah 9a) there are two opinions as to why perhaps milk should be forbidden. One reason is that “dam nekar vena’aseh chalav” — “the blood changes (becomes murky) and becomes milk.” Since milk is thus a byproduct of the blood of the animal, drinking it should be forbidden just as it is forbidden to drink the blood of an animal. The other opinion is that since milk is derived from the live animal, it should be forbidden the same as a limb (or meat) of a live animal is forbidden.

Hence, it makes sense to say that Avraham followed the opinion that milk originates from forbidden blood and not the opinion that it is a limb. According to halachah, a Noahite is only forbidden from eating the limbs or meat of a live animal, but it is not forbidden for a Noachite to drink the blood of an animal (Sanhedrin 56a, Rambam, Melachim 9:9). Therefore, there was no problem for Avraham (who considered them as Noachites) to serve them milk.

(בית האוצר לר' יוסף ז"ל ענגיל ח"א כלל א' אות י"א)

Alternatively, even if we were to say that Avraham did consider milk to be eiver min hachai, he did not cause the Noachites to violate any law when they drank the milk and ate the dairy products he served them, for the following reason:

Commentaries focus on the Gemara’s search for a source for the permissibility of milk — though it may resemble eiver min hachai — and ask why doesn’t the Gemara derive its permissibility from the fact that Avraham served milk to his guests?

To answer this some say that the milk products Avraham served came from an animal which was a ben peku’ah — a viable developed fetus found in the womb of a slaughtered animal. That is, after slaughtering the animal the womb was slit open for the offspring to be removed. Such a fetus is permissible for consumption through its mother’s slaughter and does not need slaughtering of its own. So even though it is actually still alive, it has the halachic status of a slaughtered animal.

Consequently, no proof can be derived from Avraham’s act in establishing the permissibility of animal milk since the milk Avraham served was from an animal not subject to the prohibition of eating eiver min hachai.

(Some halachic authorities opine that the milk of a ben peku’ah is analogous to milk which oozed from an animal after it was slaughtered which is not forbidden under the edict of not eating milk with meat. (See Yoreh Dei’ah 87:6; Chidushei Rabbi Akivah Eiger.))

(עי' שיטה מקובצת על מס' בכורות ו' ע"ב בשם תוס' חיצוניות, ועי' מצפה איתן, ופתחי תשובה יו"ד סי' פ"ז ס"ק י"ד ועי' פרדס יוסף על בראשית)

Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky has been a pulpit rabbi for over thirty years, and is author of more than ten highly acclaimed books on the Parshiot and holidays. His Parshah series, Vedibarta Bam, can be purchased here.
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