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Friday, May 13, 2011

Dairy on Shavuot

Some holiday customs are, lehavdil, like difficult biblical texts.  They have been practiced for centuries, but their origins and meaning remain obscure.  We "read" them annually, even if we may not fully understand their significance.  And, much like biblical exegesis, the effort to interpret customs (ta'ame ha-minhagim) utilizes the full range of exegetical methods, from peshat to mystical symbolism.

Eating dairy on Shavuot is an example of a near-universal practice whose meaning remains far from obvious.  Indeed, when mentioned in the halakhic literature, an often strained attempt to offer one or more te'amim normally follows.  Given that dairy is absent from the list of biblical and rabbinic Shavuot themes -- first fruits, the wheat harvest, the offering of the two loaves, and the revelation on Mount Sinai -- this is not too surprising.  The dairy custom is not mentioned in the Talmud or the Geonim.  Compare this, for example, to symbolic foods on Rosh Hashana, a practice which has a Talmudic source and where the connection between it and the holiday is easier to grasp.

In the words of the Magen Avraham (Orah Hayyim 494:3, n. 6), "there are numerous reasons" for eating dairy on Shavuot.  But few, if any, are satisfying.  In this essay, I will discuss some of the traditional reasons, and add my own thoughts on the topic.  

The Rema in the Shulhan Arukh provides the following explanation: 

:רמ"א או"ח תצ"ד:ג

ונוהגין בכמה מקומות לאכול מאכלי חלב ביום ראשון של שבועות ונ״ל הטעם שהוא כמו השני תבשילין שלוקחים בליל פסח זכר לפסח וזכר לחגיגה כן אוכלים מאכל חלב ואח״כ מאכל בשר וצריכין להביא עמהם ב׳ לחם על השלחן שהוא במקום המזבח ויש בזה זכרון לב׳ הלחם שהיו מקריבין ביום הבכורים

In this completely original "halakhic midrash," Rema ties the custom of eating dairy to minhat bikurim, the two loaves of wheat bread offered in the Temple on Shavuot.  When eating a dairy meal followed by a meat meal, one will presumably use two separate loaves of bread.  Eating an additional dairy meal on Shavuot thus helps recall shete ha-lehem.

Another explanation for having dairy on Shavuot associates dairy with the revelation at Sinai.  It is the most familiar explanation, both in the minhagim literature and in popular imagination.  There are a couple of variations, but its gist is as follows: The kashrut laws received at Sinai required the Israelites to abandon their now-treif vessels, and to practice vegetarianism (for a day) until their meat utensils could be kashered.  This explanation is cited and endorsed by the Mishnah Berurah which, no doubt, is a major factor in its current popularity:

משנה ברורה הלכות פסח סימן תצד ,סקי"ב:

עיין מ״א. ואני שמעתי עוד בשם גדול אחד שאמר טעם נכון לזה, כי בעת שעמדו על הר סיני וקבלו התורה [כי בעשרת הדברות נתגלה להם עי״ז כל חלקי התורה כמו שכתב רב סעדיה גאון שבעשרת הדברות כלולה כל התורה] וירדו מן ההר לביתם לא מצאו מה לאכול תיכף כ״א מאכלי חלב, כי לבשר צריך הכנה רבה לשחוט בסכין בדוק כאשר צוה ה׳ ולנקר חוטי החלב והדם ולהדיח ולמלוח ולבשל בכלים חדשים, כי הכלים שהיו להם מקודם שבישלו בהם באותו מעל״ע נאסרו להם ע״כ בחרו להם לפי שעה מאכלי חלב ואנו עושין זכר לזה 

In similar fashion to the Rema, this novel halakha-based "midrash" links dairy with the revelation at Sinairecognizable and essential feature of Shavuot.  

The chiddush of the anonymous "גדול אחד" cited by the Mishna Berura was apparently popular in early Hasidic circles.  It is recorded in Geulat Yisrael, an anthology of commentaries attributed to first and second-generation Hasidic masters, first published in 1821 (and cited in this context in Abraham Y. Sperling's Ta'ame Ha-Minhagim u-Mekore ha-Dinim, Jerusalem, 1957, p. 281).  After listing some of the prevalent reasons for eating dairy, and noting the flaws of each, the author of Geulat Yisrael offers the original ta'am quoted by the Mishna Berura.  (Geulat Yisrael is accessible on; the relevant passage can be viewed here).

Although widely cited, the non-kosher-dishes theory is a relatively late explanation for a much older custom.  In addition, it leaves the distinct impression of a forced, if creative, anachronism.  Issachar Jacobson calls it "weak" (rofef), noting that the Israelites ate manna, rather than meat, before arriving at Mt. Sinai (Netiv Bina, vol. 4, Tel Aviv, 1978, p. 154; note that Jacobson quotes the ta'am in the name Sperling and Geulat Yisrael, rather than the Mishna Berura).  

As mentioned, there is no reference to dairy on Shavuot in the literature of Hazal.  It appears, rather, to be medieval in origin.  Avigdor Ha-Zarefati, a late Tosafist of the twelfth-century, is so far the earliest authority we know of to mention it (Perushim u-Pesakim al Ha-Torah, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 478.  Thanks go to Marc B. Shapiro for this reference). 

The anonymous Kol Bo, authored according to current consensus by Aharon ha-Kohen of Lunel in the early fourteenth century, is one of the oldest printed sources for the custom.  The author, who also wrote the Orhot Hayyim, was exiled from France in the expulsion of 1306 and emigrated to Majorca, off the coast of northern Spain.  Kol Bo records the custom of eating both milk and honey on Shavuot: 

:ספר כלבו סימן נב

גם נהגו לאכול דבש וחלב בחג שבועות מפני התורה שנמשלה לדבש וחלב כמו שכתוב (שיר השירים ד, יא) דבש וחלב תחת לשונך

In Hazal's allegorical reading, the phrase דבש וחלב תחת לשונך (Song of Songs 4:11) is a metaphor either for Torah study, or for Israel's unconditional acceptance of the Torah at Sinai.  See, for example, the passage below from Tanhuma (ed. Buber, Ki Tisa, 9):  

דבש וחלב תחת לשונך, אימתי? בשעה שאת עסוקה בתורה. ד״א דבש וחלב תחת לשונך, בשעה שעמדו לפני הר סיני ואמרו כל אשר דבר ה׳ נעשה ונשמע (שמות כד ז), באותה שעה אמר להם הקב״ה דבש וחלב תחת לשונך

Another fourteenth-century work, Tzeda La-Derekh (Warsaw, 1880, p. 215), refers to both milk and honey, and it too cites the verse above from the Song of Songs as the reason for the custom.  The author, Menahem ben Zerah, was from a family of refugees from the French expulsion of 1306, and lived in various Spanish communities.  Note that Avigdor Ha-Zarefati mentions only dairy; so, although it is possible, I am not suggesting that the earliest custom necessarily included both milk and honey.  But there is enough evidence to say that milk-and-honey, as a unit, was popular in parts of France and Spain during the very early history of this custom.

Taking milk and honey together, I would like to offer two new peshat-oriented explanations:

1. A ta'am based on Scripture can be found in the context of bikurim, a central biblical feature of Shavuot.  The mikra bikurim at the beginning of Parashat Ki Tavo concludes with the following words (Deut. 26:9-10):

וַיְבִאֵנוּ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ: וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי ה’

I do not know of any source which cites this verse in the context of the Shavuot custom, but I believe it is a natural fit.  Shavuot was associated with the wheat harvest and was the first opportunity on the calendar to offer first fruits in the Temple.  Shavuot is therefore the appropriate time to praise God for the land and its produce.  It is possible that the expression  אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ  -- used here and elsewhere in Tanakh as a motto for the Land of Israel -- gave rise to a custom of eating both milk and honey to recall Shavuot as the holiday of the first fruits of Eretz Yisrael.

We could take this idea a bit further, though we would be entering the realm of midrash.  Recall that the verses above from mikra bikurim immediately follow the verses at the core of the maggid in the Passover Haggada.  Taking Shavuot as the final phase of Passover, one could argue that on Shavuot we "complete" the maggid by "reading" the very next verse in mikra bikurim, i.e., by eating milk and honey (the Sages called Shavuot עצרת and sometimes more explicitly עצרת של פסח, i.e., the conclusion of Passover, in parallel to עצרת של חג; see Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba 7:2; Nahmanides and Seforno on Lev. 23:36).  

Note as well that the words וַיְבִאֵנוּ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה recall the phrase וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם אֶל-הָאָרֶץ (Ex. 6:8), the “fifth expression of redemption.”  The settlement and cultivation of the Land of Israel and the offering of first fruits represent the completion of the exodus.

2. As mentioned, the Midrash reads "honey and milk" in the Song of Songs as a metaphor for Torah study.   More specifically, Hazal apply this expression to a particular branch of Torah study, which is the "hidden" Torah, i.e., ma'aseh merkava, the mystical tradition based on Ezekiel's vision of the heavenly chariot.  In a famous passage, the Talmud (Hagigah 13a) cites the very same verse to support the prohibition against publicizing such esoteric knowledge: 

 תנינא בהו (שיר השירים ד׳) דבש וחלב תחת לשונך ־ דברים המתוקין מדבש וחלב יהו תחת לשונך

Shavuot celebrates the revelation of the Torah at Sinai, normally thought to apply only to the "revealed" or "outer" layer of the Torah, which is accessible to all.  To mystics, however, perhaps as far back as the period of Hazal, Shavuot may also have been known as the occasion of receiving the "hidden" Torah (and this idea may be connected to the practice of publicly reading Ezekiel's vision on the first day of Shavuot).  I suggest -- and I admit to speculation -- that to students of the kabbalah school which originated in Southern France and Northern Spain in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, honey-and-milk represented ma'aseh merkava and possibly kabbalah as a whole.  Perhaps by including these two foods in the Shavuot meal, mystics could quietly commemorate the revelation of a parallel, esoteric Torah -- Matan Torat Ha-Nistar -- when hidden knowledge was given, not to an entire nation, but to a select few.

    1 comment:

    1. Milk and honey and to paraphrase Ruth - your home shall be my home, and your people, my people. May God bless you indeed.