So...On Rosh Hashana: broiled chicken. Succot: meat borsht and roast beef. Pesach: Grandma’s tongue and brisket. Shavuot: CHEESECAKE???
In my house growing up, my mom would only make meat and chicken once a week on Shabbat, and besides for the cold leftovers we’d have Sunday night for dinner, that was really the only time we ate meat the whole week. So I grew up as a dairy kind of kid. I drank a glass of milk with every meal, melted cheese in the microwave just for a snack, and ate yogurts all day long. I guess that’s why when Shavuot comes along, my mouth begins to water weeks in advance.
Why so much milk?
The Shavuot custom to eat dairy was a favorite amongst my family. There are many theories as to why and how this custom came about.
The sweetness of Torah
One of the most famous reasons is that the Torah is compared to “milk and honey.” And so, on the holiday when the Jewish people received the Torah, it has become the custom to not only learn Torah, but to also symbolically eat it, and that, of course, means eating lots and lots of dairy! (I am thinking of starting a campaign to change the custom to eating tons of honey instead of milk. Honey cake… honey pie… honey soup… honey honey…)
Similar to the previous reason, the Jewish people received the Torah on their journey from bondage in Egypt to freedom in Israel. This was described as traveling “from the misery of Egypt to a country flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:8). Eating dairy on Shavuot is to remind us of the wonderful freedom that lies ahead.
Forty days of Torah
In Jewish tradition, every Hebrew letter correlates to a number. Starting with the beginning of the alphabet, the first letter, aleph, correlates to one, bet to two, gimmel to three and so on and so forth. These correlations are referred to as gematriya. The Hebrew word for milk, chalav, in gematriya translates into the number 40. This correlates to the forty days that Moshe is said to have remained on Har Sinai to receive the Torah. Since the numerical value of the word chalav is the same as the amount of days that Moshe was on Har Sinai for, it has become the custom to eat dairy on Shavuot.
First-time Kashrut keepers
At the receiving of the Torah, many laws were learned for the first time. Included in these laws were the laws of kashrut, the laws laying out which foods are okay to eat, and which are not. These include the laws of how to kill an animal properly, what kinds of animals specifically are okay, etc. If this was the first time that the Jews learned about these laws, that means that all of their tools that they used to slaughter and eat meat beforehand were not kosher, which means that they only had one option left- to eat dairy! To commemorate the actions of the Jewish people at the time of the receiving the Torah, it has become a custom to eat dairy on Shavuot.
Mount Sinai? Mount Cheese!
It is most commonly known that the Jews received the Torah on Mount Sinai. However, there is another, less widely known name for the mountain, and that is Har Gavnunim, meaning mountain of majestic peaks. The word gavnunim strongly resembles the Hebrew word for cheese, gvinah, so it is only fitting to eats lots and lots of cheese on the holiday that commemorates an event that happened at Har Gavnunim.
Separating between milk and meat
The verse in the Torah from which the prohibition of eating milk and meat together is “Bring Bikkurim (first fruits) to the God’s Holy Temple; don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 34:26). Shavuot, aside from being the holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai, is also the holiday of bikkurim, when the first fruits were brought to The Temple. Since the first half of the verse is connected to Shavuot, it is derived that the second half of the verse does as well. And since the second half of the verse refers to eating milk and meat separately, it has become a custom to eat dairy on Shavuot, so that we can fulfill the commandment of eating it separately from meat.
Whatever the reason, I wish you some delicious dairy on this upcoming holiday!