Back to This Week's Parsha | Previous Issues
Torah Attitude: Parashas Nasso/Shavuous: Torah & cheesecake
There is a widespread custom to eat cheesecake and other dairy foods on Shavuous. A few places have the custom to eat milk and honey. You can never give over to another person the taste of a food item. Only when one becomes personally involved and experiences the sweetness and satisfaction of a Torah lifestyle does one "taste" how much more is gained rather than lost. This week's Torah portion alludes to the fact that the Ten Commandments were "filled" with the 613 commandments. The simplest, quickest foods the Jews could serve when they returned to their tents after receiving the Torah were all milk dishes. Every time we study Torah, we experience a new "taste" and understanding of the depths of the Torah.
There is a widespread custom to eat cheesecake and other dairy foods on Shavuous. This custom is mentioned in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 494:3) where it says that there are some places where they have the custom to eat dairy on Shavuous. The Shulchan Aruch explains that the reason may be similar to the two roasted foods found on the Seder plate on Pesach night. Just like at the Seder we have the shank bone and the egg to commemorate the Pesach-lamb and the Chagigah offerings, in the same way on Shavuous, some first eat diary and in the same meal afterwards eat meat. As the Halacha does not permit to use the same loaf of bread eaten with diary foods and meat, in case something spills on the bread, one will have to use two loaves in this meal. This reminds us of the two loaves that were brought on the Festival of Shavuous at the Temple.
Milk and honey
The commentaries on Shulchan Aruch advise that there are a few places that have the custom to eat milk and honey because on this day when the Torah was given we should eat foods that the Torah is compared to. As it says, "Sweetness [of Torah learning] drops from your lips, O bride, as honey and milk it is under your tongue" (Shir HaShirim 4:11). Similarly, it says even more in Tehillim (19:11): "The words of Torah are more desirable and sweeter than honey."
Taste of food
Many people wonder what is so sweet about learning and studying the words of Torah. Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian once answered this with an insight based on another verse in Tehillim (24:9): "Taste and you will see that G'd is good." Says Rabbi Lopian, you can never give over to another person the taste of a food item no matter how hard you try to explain the ingredients, the chemical formula, the nutrients, or provide any other details describing the food. The other person will never know what the food tastes like until he actually puts the food on his own palate and tastes it for himself.
In the same way, it is difficult to give over to another person the sweetness of studying Torah and living a Torah life. For the uninitiated, the Torah lifestyle looks restricting and difficult. Only when one becomes personally involved and experiences the sweetness and satisfaction of a Torah lifestyle does one "taste" how much more is gained rather than lost by fulfilling the commandments. This is what the Mishnah says in Pirkei Avos (2:1): "Calculate what one looses by fulfilling a mitzvah against its benefit." It is no secret how the family laws preserves and enhances a marriage. Similarly, the observance of Shabbos and Festivals brings together families and creates a bond between parents and children that is so lacking in the secular society around us. Every restriction is really a protection from harmful influences and is there only to help and guide us to a happy and fulfilled lifestyle.
The Chofetz Chaim, in his commentary on Shulchan Aruch (Mishneh Berurah), brings additional reasons for eating dairy foods on Shavuous. Although it appears that the Jews at Mount Sinai were only given Ten Commandments at the time, our sages explain that in the Ten Commandments there is an allusion to all 613 commandments, as Rav Saadia Gaon explains in detail. We actually find a hint to this at the end of this week's Torah portion where it refers to the sacrifices brought by the leaders of the twelve tribes at the inauguration of the Tabernacle. The Torah goes into great detail to enumerate the sacrifices brought by each leader. Despite that in general the Torah is very short in its description of events, the Torah here repeats the identical sacrifices brought by each of the twelve leaders in full. One of the reasons for this repetition is that each leader had his own purpose for bringing his sacrifice. Rashi quotes from Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan concerning some of the reasons behind these sacrifices. One of the sacrifices was one golden spoon that weighed ten shekels filled with incense. The one spoon alludes to the "one" Torah; the ten shekels alludes to the Ten Commandments; and, as Rashi explains, the Hebrew word for incense, "ketores", has the numerical value of 613. In other words, this sacrifice alludes to the fact that the Ten Commandments were "filled" with the 613 commandments.
No time for meat
After the revelation at Mount Sinai, when the Jews returned to their tents, they had to start a new lifestyle with the obligation to follow the 613 commandments. As part of the commandments came all the rules and regulations of the dietary laws, including the prohibition of eating milk with meat, using a special knife to slaughter the animal, salting the meat to remove the blood, and using new vessels for cooking the meat. All these requirements to prepare the meat required a considerable amount of time. The simplest, quickest foods they could serve when they returned to their tents after receiving the Torah were all milk dishes. To commemorate this event, we also partake of dairy dishes on Shavuous.
New taste every time
As with every law and custom the reasons behind it are manifold. This is part of the beauty and sweetness of a Torah life and may be an additional reason to have milk and dairy products on the day we received the Torah. As King David says, (Tehillim 131:2) "I am like a suckling child at his mother's side." The Talmud (Eruvin 54b) explains that just like a child who suckles every time finds that there is milk, so too every time we study Torah, we experience a new "taste" and understanding of the depths of the Torah.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network