To the honourable Rabbi,
I am a bit puzzled about a certain behaviour of the Jewish people this time of year and I am hoping to gain a bit of understanding. I am sorry for any intrusion, but I felt that this was the proper address for my query.
The Bible refers to the Festival of the Feast of Pentecost as “50 days from the day that the first fruits of the barley harvest was waved before the Lord” (Leviticus Ch. 23, verses 15 – 22).
Yet, a Jewish associate of mine mentioned that the Jewish prevailing custom, instead of feasting on barley products on this Holy Day, is to make do with dairy products such as cheesecake. Perhaps you can help me glean a bit of insight to this seemingly (to my unlearned self) puzzling behaviour.
Thanking you in advance.
The barley offering, which we know as the “Korban Ha-Omer” (Omer referrring to the amount of barley used) was sacrificed in the days of the Temple on the second day of Passover, to which the Bible refers as the “morrow of the Sabbath.”
This was a communal offering, and did not involve the consumption of barley. However, the offering permitted the consumption of the “new produce” (grains) for the current year (as per Lev. 23:14).
Fifty days after the day of the Omer Offering, we are instructed in the festival of Pentecost, which we celebrate as “Shavuot” (the name is derived from Deut. 16:10). On this day we are instructed to bring a wheat offering of “two breads,” which contrasts with the barley offering of fifty days before (Lev. 23:17).
Today, we do not have these offerings, yet we continue to count the days as instructed by the Torah, and to rejoice the festival of Shavuot.
The consumption of dairy products is a custom, and not a formal obligation, though it has become fairly universal.
Several reasons are suggested for the custom:
1) One should partake of two dishes on Shavuot, in commemoration of the “Two Breads” offering of the day. One therefore starts the meal eating dairy products, and mid-way through the meal, one removes the dairy products, and replaces them with meat products (according to Jewish law, they may not be consumed together). Upon replacing the dairy products with the meat products, one is required to remove the bread eaten during the dairy portion of the meal, and replace it with bread that was not used with a dairy meal. By using two separate sets of bread, the offering of “two breads” is commemorated. To ensure that a new loaf of bread is used for the meaty part of the meal, some bake milky bread.
[The following reasons are based on the tradition, as stated in the early tannaic texts, that the day of Shavuot (the fiftieth day of the count) is the day on which the Torah was given to the nation of Israel at Sinai.]
2) An additional reason for eating dairy products is that at the time of giving the Torah the Jewish people became obligated in all of the precepts 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 the giving of the Torah were dairy products. This state of affairs is commemorated by the consumption of dairy products.
3) A further reason for the custom is to highlight the difference between Israel and Divine angels. As guests at the table of Abraham, the angels were not particular to separate between meat and milk. When the angels claimed that the people of Israel were unworthy of receiving the Torah, God asked them (according to a midrashic source): “Was it not you who descended upon Avraham and ate milk and meat together?” Our meticulous separation of meat and milk demonstrates our worthiness of the Torah.
4) Additional reasons: Milk is a symbol of purity, which the nation of Israel attains over the period of count of fifty days; the numerical value chalav (milk) is forty, corresponding to the forty days that Moses spent on Sinai to receive the Torah; the consumption of dairy products (and of honey) recalls the verse “honey and milk beneath your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11), which is stated concerning Torah; before the Torah was given it was prohibited to drink milk, because it was considered a limb from a living creature, which is forbidden according to the Torah (even) for non-Jews.