Food and Drink on Shavuos
Like other yamim tovim, there is a mitzvah of joy on Shavuos (Orach Chaim 529:3), which is manifest (for men) in the foods that are served—specifically, meat and wine (see Biur Halachah 545, s.v. veim). This comes in addition to the general mitzvah of honoring the day with culinary delights, which applies to every Shabbos and festival day (See Pesachim 68b; Machazik Berachah 242:2).
Indeed, the Gemara states that whereas on other festival days some maintain that the day is entirely for Hashem (meaning that the day is dedicated to the service of Hashem, and not to personal pleasure), all concur that Shavuos is “half for you” (Pesachim 68b). The day on which Torah was given is a day that we must enjoy. The Torah is toras chayim, the Torah of Life, and on Shavuos we are duty-bound to sense it.
Shavuos has a special culinary program. Beyond the regular mitzvah of serving and partaking of fine foods, there is a specific custom of eating dairy products. Yet, this custom should not prevent a person from eating meat, and both dairy foods and a meaty meal should be combined. Of course, partaking of both meat and milk requires taking precautions to ensure that they don’t get mixed together.
In this article we will first delineate the different reasons for the custom of eating dairy foods on Shavuos. Following this, we will briefly explain how both dairy and meaty foods can be carefully combined on Shavuos, without falling into halachic pitfalls.
Eating Dairy Foods: Commemorating the Shtei Ha-Lechem
As noted, it is customary to partake of dairy foods on Shavuos. The principle reason for this is to partake of two distinct dishes in commemoration of the “Two Breads” (shetei ha-lechem) offering of Shavuos. One therefore starts the meal eating dairy dishes and foods, and mid-way through the meal one removes the dairy foods, and replaces them with meat dishes.
For fear that the bread came into contact with milk, there is a halachic requirement to remove the bread eaten during the dairy portion of the meal before eating the meaty foods (See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 89:4). By using two separate sets of bread, the shtei ha-lechem offering is thus commemorated (Rema 494:3).
Iggros Moshe (Yoreh Deah 1:38) notes that the prohibition to eat a meat meal with bread eaten with dairy products only applies to small pieces of bread that might have come into contact with dairy products. The large loaf of bread on the table can be used during the meat meal, because the concern of contact with milk is not great enough to warrant changing breads. Nevertheless, although there is no obligation to remove the bread eaten with the dairy meal, it remains a praiseworthy practice, and this might be sufficient to constitute a commemoration of the shtei ha-lechem offering.
To ensure that a new loaf of bread is used for the meaty part of the meal, some bake dairy bread (Mishnah Berurah 494:16). One who does so must be careful to bake a distinctive loaf of bread, ensuring that the loaf clearly recognizable as dairy.
Same Meal or Different Meals
According to the Rema, the custom is to eat dairy and meaty at the same meal, in commemoration of the shtei ha-lechem. However, some have the custom of splitting meals between dairy and meaty, eating a dairy meal at night, and a meaty meal for the day. This custom is particularly prominent among German Jews (and their descendents), and Orchos Rabbeinu (Vol. 2, p. 98) writes that this was the Steipler’s practice.
Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Mo’adim U’zemanim Vol. 7, no. 114) is critical of this custom. The mitzvah of simchas yom tov obligates the eating of meat on festival days, and this applies to both the night and the day meal. Although he concludes that the consumption of two meals for simcha might only be a rabbinic obligation, and for this purpose a fish meal might suffice, he does not entertain the possibility that a purely dairy meal (without meat or fish) will suffice to fulfill one’s obligation.
Yet, it is possible that the expression of simcha of Shavuos is distinct from that of other festival days. Whereas on other festival days one must partake of meat, the joy of Shavuos is manifest in dairy foods, in keeping with the customs of the day. This principle possible emerges from Yosef Ometz (a seventeenth century text of German custom), as Rabbi Aharon Miasnik (Minchas Aharon, Chap. 9) suggests.
The custom of eating distinct meals of dairy and meaty dishes does not fit the above rationale given by Rema, and we are forced to refer to other reasons for which dairy foods are consumed on Shavuos.
Additional Reasons for Eating Dairy Foods
An additional reason for eating dairy products is that at the time of Matan Torah the Jewish people became obligated in all of the mitzvos of the Torah. As such, in order to eat meat, they would have had to follow the complex procedure involved in producing kosher meat. Because this procedure required time (in order to properly prepare the meat), the only food items available immediately after Matan Torah were dairy products. This state of affairs is commemorated by the consumption of dairy products (Mishnah Berurah 494:12)
Shalmei Todah (no. 2) writes as an alternative explanation that because the Torah was given on Shabbos (see Shabbos 87a), the need to eat dairy products can be attributed to the prohibition of preparing meat on Shabbos. Dairy products generally don’t require must preparation, and our consumption of dairy foods on Shavuos commemorates the situation of the first Shabbos on which the Torah was given.
A further reason for the custom is to highlight the difference between Israel and Divine angels. As guests at the table of Avraham Avinu, the angels were not particular to separate between eating meat and milk. In response to the angels’ claim that the Israel was unworthy of receiving the Torah, G-d asked them: “Did you not descend upon Avraham, and eat milk and meat together?” (Midrash Tehillim Chap. 8).
Our meticulous separation of meat and milk thus demonstrates our worthiness of the Torah (Be’er Heitev 494:8; Mishnah Berurah 494:12-13). Beis Ha-Levi (Yisro) explains further that the angels did not actually mix meat and milk, but were rather not meticulous in the various laws pertaining to eating meat after the consumption of dairy products. Therefore, on Shavuos, the developed to eat dairy products followed by meat. By doing so with the proper meticulousness, we show that we are not like the angels, and we are indeed worthy of receiving the Torah
Symbolism of Milk
Additional reasons are given based on the symbolic significance of milk.
Milk is a symbol of purity, its whiteness a sign of spiritual cleanliness. This is representative of the purity that the nation of Israel attains over the period of the Omer count (Magen Avraham 494:6).
Moreover, the gematria of the word chalav (milk) is forty, corresponding to the forty days that Moshe spent on Sinai to receive the Torah, and the superlative elevation he achieved during this time.
Furthermore, the consumption of dairy products (and of honey) recalls the verse “honey and milk beneath your tongue” (Shir Hashirim 4:11), which is stated concerning the Torah (Mishnah Berurah 494:13).
Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Moadim U-Zemanim 8:319) adds that before the Torah was given it was prohibited to drink milk, because it was considered a limb from a living creature (eiver min ha-chay). The drinking of milk, the liquid by which the Holy Land is praised, is a function of the giving of the Torah.
Separating Between Meat and Milk
The Shavuos meals present an opportunity for applying the laws of separating between meat and milk.
If meat and milk are to be consumed in the same meal, one should perform the following steps: 1) Eat the milk first, for otherwise it will be prohibited to eat milk after meat (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 89:2); 2) Clear the table after completing the dairy part of the meal, or remove the tablecloth (ibid. 4); 3) Wash out one’s mouth and eat bread or something that clears the mouth of dairy residue (ibid. 2).
There is no need to recite birkas hamazon between eating the dairy foods and beginning the meaty part of the meal. Although some authorities require this, the basic halachah and the general custom is not to be particular for this added separation (see Mishnah Berurah 494:16).
Beyond the above principles, one must ensure that one’s hands are clean (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 89:2). Finally, some authorities maintain that one should wait half an hour (see Hagahos Maimoni to Rambam, Maachalos Assuros 9:28), but this is not a formal obligation.
In Joy and in Service
Before ending, it is important to note that even though eating and drinking is a mitzvah, one should not spend the entire day in eating and drinking.
On the one hand, the verse states, “It shall be Atzeres for Hashem” (Devarim 16:8). On the other, the verse also writes that “It shall be Atzeres for you”—presenting a seeming contradiction. The Gemara resolves the contradiction by stating that it is “half for you, and half for Hashem” (Pesachim 68b).
Aside from delighting in the joy of the day, one must therefore be careful to dedicate time to Torah story—the more so on Shavuos, the day on which the Torah was given (see Kaf Hachaim 494:9). Yet, as noted at the outset, on Shavuos we must also be careful to physically experience the sweetness of Torah. The day is thus celebrated both with foods, and with dedication to service of Hashem, and study of His Torah.
May we merit to truly receive the Torah, each one his part.