Just like other yamim tovim, there is a mitzvah of joy on Shavuos (Orach Chaim 529:3). In fact, the Gemara (Pesachim 68b) writes that although there is a dispute concerning other mo’adim concerning whether the day is “entirely for Hashem” or “half for you” (meaning, dedicated also for our pleasure), on Shavuos all agree that the day is “also for you.”
The most basic way in which we dedicate the day for our own enjoyment and pleasure is by the special foods we prepare in its honor. The standard for YomTov meals is meat and wine (see Biur Halachah 545, s.v. veim), which are considered to be especially joy-inducing. Yet, on Shavuos many indulge in a special culinary program constituting of dairy products, and doing so is a custom that is cited by many halachic authorities.
This custom does not prevent a person from eating meat, and both dairy foods and a meat meal are generally. Yet, partaking of both meat and milk requires taking precautions to ensure that they don’t get mixed up.
In the present article we will discuss the issue of eating dairy foods on Shavuos, including both the question of why we do so, and the explanation of how this combination can be achieved without running 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 given for this custom is that one should partake of two distinct dishes in commemoration of the “Two Breads” (shetei ha-lechem) offering of Shavuos.
The “Two Breads” are commemorated by starting the meal with dairy dishes, and replacing them mid-way through the meal with meat dishes. For fear that the bread on the table 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 fleishig foods (See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 89:4). Thus, a meal that combines dairy and meat foods requires two separate sets of bread, one for the dairy part of the meal, and another for the meat part.
The shtei ha-lechem offering is thus commemoratedby the two breads of the same meal(Rema 494:3). Those who eat separate dairy and meat meals will fulfill the custom based on the other reasons given below.
RavMosheFeinstein (Iggros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:38) notes that the prohibition to eat a meat meal with bread eaten with dairy products only applies to pieces of bread that might have come into contact with dairy products. By contrast with small pieces and slices, a large loaf of bread on the table can be used during a meat meal that follows dairy foods, 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 praiseworthy, 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 fleishig part of the meal, some bake dairy bread (Mishnah Berurah 494:16), which of course must be removed before beginning the meat part of the meal. One who baked dairy bread must be careful to bake a distinctive loaf of bread, making the bread clearly recognizable as dairy. This halachah applies the year round, the reason being so that a person should not come to eat the bread with fleishig foods.
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)
The 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 (meat requires cooking). Dairy products generally don’t require must preparation, and our consumption of dairy foods on Shavuos thus 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 the nation of 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). See also the Chok Yaakov (494) who cites from the Kol Bo that some are more lenient on waiting after meat than during the year, but adds that authorities agree that this must not be relied on – on the contrary, one should be particularly meticulous on Shavuos to ensure that one property separates between the two.
The 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 custom developed to eat dairy products followed by meat. By combining dairy and meat foods 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 transcendent 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).
RavMosheSternbuch (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 permission we have to drink milk, a liquid for which the Land of Israel is praised, is a function of the giving of the Torah.
Separating Between Dairy and Fleishig Foods
The Shavuos meals present an opportunity for applying the laws of separating between meat and milk.
If meat and dairy foods are to be consumed in the same meal, one should perform the following steps: 1) Eat the dairy foods first, for otherwise it will be prohibited to eat dairy foods 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 (or drink something) 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 milky foods and beginning the meat 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). Indeed, assuming that it is not needed, one should not recite birkas hamazon for this purpose, because this will be considered an unnecessary berachah (she’einah tzerichah).
Beyond the above principles, one must ensure that one’s hands are clean (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 89:2). The Peri Chadash writes that those who are particular to eat with a knife and fork are not obligated to wash their hands, and this depends on circumstances.
Waiting a Half Hour
Finally, some authorities maintain that one should wait half an hour (see Hagahos Maimoni to Rambam, Maachalos Assuros 9:28).
The Shulchan Aruch makes no mention of an obligation to wait beyond washing out one’s mouth, but the Birchei Yosef (Yoreh De’ah 89:13) writes that it is customary to wait “one hour,” and this has a source in the Zohar (see Kaf Ha-Chaim, Orach Chaim 173:2). This appears to indicate a full hour’s delay.
However, the Maharshag (Vol. 1, Yoreh De’ah 13) writes that the expression sha’ah achas (“one hour”) does not necessarily mean a literal hour, but can also mean “a (short) period of time.” This is where the custom of waiting a half hour derives from (see Mateh Reuven 186; Moriah, Teves 5756, p. 79, citing from RavShlomoZalmanAuerbach).
Thus, according to the strict halachah it is sufficient to wash out one’s mouth with liquid and solid. Yet, some are particular to wait a half hour (even after washing out the mouth), and this is a worthy custom.
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, as the verse states, “It shall be Atzeres for Hashem” (Devarim 16:8).
The verse also writes that “It shall be Atzeres for you,” presenting a seeming contradiction with the above verse. 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 study – the more so on Shavuos, the day on which the Torah was given (see Kaf Hachaim 494:9). The day is thus celebrated both with foods, and with dedication to the service of Hashem and study of His Torah.
May we merit to truly receive the Torah, each one his part.