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BAS Rabbi's Message

May, 2013

Several weeks ago, a congregant asked me why we eat dairy on Shavuot. Though I knew several answers to the question, I wanted a little more time for research. It turns out that the history of the ritual is complex, ultimately elusive. My research directed me to a Hebrew article by Rabbi Gedalia Oberlender, “The Custom of Eating Dairy on Shavuot.” My article this month is based heavily on his research, which reveals not only some of the origins of the custom, but also what Jews were eating during different times in our history.

Apparently, the first authority to mention the custom of eating dairy on Shavuot was Avigdor Tzarfati, a rabbi living in France a generation after the great sage Rashi (c. 13th Century). He writes “The public does not understand why we eat [flat cakes?] on Shavuot. It seems to me that this the Torah alludes to this ritual in the verse ‘On the Holiday of the first fruits [Shavuot], you shall bring a new offering to God.’” [The Hebrew text for that verse includes the phrase ‘chadasha l’adonai bishvuoteichem’; the first letters of that word form an acronym for chalav—milk.]

The next text to suggest the ritual is the Kol Bo—a book of customs of unknown authorship dating to the 14th century. There, the author notes the following: “It is customary to eat honey and milk on Shavuot, because the Torah is compared to milk and honey, as it says in the Song of Songs: “(Torah) is like milk and honey beneath your tongue.’” Also, it is a custom amongst all of Israel to prepare matzah with saffron, for it gladdens the heart. (Another rabbi who mentions this custom, Aaron of Lunel, notes that the leftover Passover matzah was soaked in honey and saffron and prepared into cakes for Shavuot.) And it is custom to make a challah with four tails—as a reminder of the two loaves offered on Shavuot, or perhaps as a symbol of the Zodiac sign of Twins (Gemini), which appear in the month of Sivan. [Perhaps the challah was meant to resemble the zodiac sign for Gemini, II]

Rabbi Israel Isserlein , an Austrian rabbi living in the 15th Century, notes the following menu for Shavuot: “On the first day of Shavuot, we eat cakes and fish fried in butter, and afterwards we clean our hands and mouth…and then we eat our meat course.”

Another possibility for the custom is suggested by Rabbi Moshe Isserles, a Polish rabbi living in the 16th Century: “It is the custom in many places to eat dairy on the first day of Shavuot, and this appears be the reason: it is analogous to the two cooked dishes we place on the Seder plate (the egg and shank bone). One (the shank bone) is meant to be a reminder of the Pascal offering, and the other (the egg) is meant to remind us of the general festival offering. Similarly, we eat dairy first on Shavuot, followed by meat, and we serve the meal with two loaves of bread—a reminder of the altar on which two loaves were offered on Shavuot.”

Yet another possible suggestion for the origin of the custom comes from Yisrael Meir Kagan, a rabbi who lived in the beginning of this century. He notes: “I have heard in the name of a great sage the right reason for this custom. When Israelites stood on Mount Sinai, they received all of the laws of the Torah —including the laws of Kashrut.

When they returned to their homes, they found nothing accessible to eat but dairy, because to prepare Kosher meat requires a great deal of preparation. The animal must be slaughtered with a specially prepared knife, as commanded by God. The meat must be butchered in a special way, in accordance with the law; it must be soaked and salted. They could no longer use their non-kosher vessels—they had to find new ones. It was easier to prepare dairy, and, in remembrance, we do the same.” When I was a student at the seminary, I learned the following rule: if there is more than one reason for a custom, we do not know its origin. We likely will never discover the true origin of the custom of eating dairy on Shavuot, but who would pass up an opportunity for cheesecake? I do hope you’ll find a chance to join us for a slice during the holiday.

Rabbi Stein