A universally accepted minhag associated with the Yom Tov of Shavuos is to eat dairy food. As we count the last days of the Omer leading up to the forthcoming Chag, the aroma of various milchig delicacies fills the air. The details of this custom vary from community to community and family to family. Some begin the Yom Tov meal with dairy, following onto meat, whilst others eat dairy for the entire seuda. Some communities have dairy at the evening meal, whilst others by the Yom Tov day "brunch". Still others fulfil their duty merely with a dairy snack, for example, a piece of cheesecake, and some have two complete meals, dairy followed by meat. There are many reasons cited for this minhag1 and it is beyond the scope of this essay to enumerate them all. However we will review a few and also present a timely examination of the requirements for separating between meat and dairy meals as they pertain to the Shavuos seudos.
The Two Breads
In addition to the Korban Mussaf sacrifice brought onto the Mizbeach on Shavuos, was the Shtei Halechem, the two breads. These were brought from the new wheat crop and were baked to the dimensions of seven hand-breadths long, four and a half hand breadths wide and four 'fingers' high. After performing the required tenufos "wavings", one of the breads was eaten by the Kohen Gadol and the other was divided and eaten by the twenty-four Mishmaros.
Since the destruction of the Second Temple, we are unfortunately not able to offer any sacrifices. However, as with other Yomim Tovim, certain minhagim have developed as a reminder of the sacrifices that were brought in days of old. The Rema2 and the Mateh Moshe3 connect the custom of eating dairy on Shavuos to the Shtei Halechem. Since bread used with a dairy meal may not be eaten with a meat meal, eating meals of both dairy and meat on Shavuos necessitates two breads. Accordingly, one could either begin the meal with dairy and then switch to meat, bringing to the table a second loaf of bread as required (plus changing the tablecloth and settings), or commemorate the Shtei Halechem with two separate meals, the first dairy and the second meat.
The Angels ate dairy and meat
When Moshe Rabbeinu appeared in Shamayim to receive the Torah on behalf of the Bnei Yisroel, the Midrash tells us that the angels said before Hashem "Such a precious treasure which you have stored beneath your Holy Throne for nine hundred and twenty four generations, why do you intend giving it to mere mortals of flesh and blood?" Hashem replied to them: "You are not worthy of receiving the Torah because you ate Basar Bechalav in Avraham Avinu's tent when you were served cream, milk and meat. Yet even a child of the Bnei Yisroel who arrives home from school and is served dairy followed by meat makes sure to wash his hands in between."4
The Be'er Heiteiv in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch5 cites this Midrash as another reason for eating dairy on Shavuos. We see that Bnei Yisroel were worthy of receiving the Torah because of their scrupulous attention to the mitzvah of Basar Bechalav. Therefore on Shavuos, the Yom Tov of receiving the Torah, we customarily show the distinction between dairy and meat. According to this line of reasoning, it would not be necessary to have a special dairy bread meal or to begin a bread meal with dairy. Rather, an act which demonstrates the separation between dairy and meat would suffice. One might eat a dairy snack, rinse and clean one's mouth, wash one's hands (as detailed in the following section) and according to some Poskim (also detailed below) recite a beracha achrona or Birchas Hamazon and then commence a meat meal.
Requirements between dairy and meat
Having now considered two reasons for eating dairy and then meat at our Shavuos seudos, it is fitting at this point to review and examine the halachos that govern our conduct when eating these two types of foods consecutively.
Many have the custom of waiting half an hour after eating dairy foods (other than hard cheese which has the same stringency as meat) before eating meat. This minhag is based on a Zohar, which prohibits consuming milk and meat within the same hour and assumes that the hour mentioned is an approximation6. Although the commentators on the Shulchan Aruch note this minhag and consider it praiseworthy, there is no direct reference to this custom in either the Talmud or the Shulchan Aruch. On the contrary, the Shulchan Aruch7 states that one may eat meat straight after dairy provided that one is careful to perform the following actions:
a) Rinsing one's mouth - one may not eat meat after dairy without rinsing one's mouth in between to wash away any dairy residue.
b) Cleansing one's mouth - one may not eat meat after dairy without first cleansing one's mouth by eating a bulky food, e.g. a fruit or a cracker, with the exception of flour, dates and green vegetables.
c) Washing one's hands - one who eats cheese or other dairy food must check or preferably wash his hands before eating meat, to cleanse them of any cheese or food adhering to them.
(Concerning one who ate using cutlery or drank a cup of milk, ie. his hands did not come into contact with the food, the Badei Hashulchan8 cites a dispute among the Poskim and concludes that one should preferably abide by the more stringent view and wash their hands).
The question arises as to whether these procedures are necessary when one adheres to the custom of waiting half an hour after dairy before eating meat. Let us first examine the halacha in the converse case of eating milk after meat. The Poskim agree that when one has the minhag to wait six hours between meat and milk (as is the custom of the majority of Ashkenazic Jewry nowadays), he is not required to rinse and cleanse his mouth nor wash his hands in between. However, we find a dispute concerning those communities, mainly of Dutch origin, who continue to follow the lenient opinion mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch9 of reciting a beracha achrona after eating meat and then waiting one hour before eating milk10. Contemporary Halachic authorities seem to follow the more stringent view and require the rinsing, cleansing and washing11. However, in the case of those who wait half an hour after dairy before eating meat, the Poskim12 are more lenient (if one ate milk or soft cheese, eg., cottage cheese) in this respect unless one knows of any milk residue in his mouth or on his hands.
There is another issue that arises particularly on Shavuos when one eats dairy and meat meals consecutively. Again, examining the converse case first, when one wants to eat a dairy meal after a meat meal, besides waiting the necessary time, one is required to make a beracha achrona that separates the two acts of eating into distinct meals. But when the milk meal comes before the meat, even though there is no requirement to wait in between (although as we have mentioned, some wait half an hour) the Poskim dispute the necessity of separating the meals with a beracha achrona. In light of this dispute we find the two customs mentioned at the outset: - Presumably those who eat two complete meals on Shavuos and bentch in between, hold that a beracha achrona is indeed required to separate the milk meal from the ensuing meat meal. But those who begin with dairy and then continue the meal with meat without an intervening beracha achrona evidently hold otherwise13.
Bnei Yisroel were unable to eat meat
Of course, the need to separate between milk and meat on Shavuos is completely circumvented by those who celebrate with a dairy-only meal. What then is their motivation?
Rav Sadya Gaon14 writes that the Ten Commandments given to Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai, contained within them all 613 commandments. In effect, the Bnei Yisroel of that generation, upon receiving the Ten Commandments, were obligated in all of the mitzvos, both positive and negative. Among the 365 prohibitions, are the many mitzvos to do with kashrus. For example, one is forbidden to eat part of an animal that was not slaughtered or to partake of the flesh of an animal whose blood was not drained from it. Cooking kosher food in utensils that have previously been infused with non-kosher flavour, is also forbidden. After Matan Torah, Bnei Yisroel could not have eaten the meat they possessed because it was not suitably prepared to their new standards. To prepare kosher meat requires checking the knife, slaughtering, removing the fats, soaking, salting and acquiring new utensils for the cooking process. All this would have taken much time. Thus it is understood that they ate dairy. So too, many have the minhag to commemorate Matan Torah by eating a completely dairy meal as our ancestors did15.
The commentators voice a further concern in relation to the dairy-only custom. We know that a custom cannot and may not override a halacha. One of the halachos related to the mitzva of Simchas Yom Tov is the requirement to eat meat during the Yom Tov Seuda16. However, the Shaagos Aryeh17 concludes that there is no mitzva of Simchas Yom Tov on the first night of Yom Tov. Thus even though the Bnei Yisroel were still allowed to partake of their "former" food at night, and a dairy-only meal by day would seem a more accurate commemoration of their conduct, the ruling of the Shaagos Aryeh may be the factor motivating those who eat a dairy-only meal on the first night.
Milk and Torah
In conclusion, we mention a final reason pertaining to the custom of eating dairy on Shavuos. Just as a human being cannot physically survive without food, likewise the soul of every person needs to be continually nourished - not with material supplies, but with Torah. Torah is the "mazon ruchni" spiritual food, for the neshama. Torah is also the essential ingredient to conquer the evil inclination as the Gemara18 states:
"I created the Yetzer Hora and I created the antidote to be able to tackle and overpower one's Yetzer Hora."19
When a child is born, its sole source of nourishment is milk. We also find that Torah is compared to milk as the possuk states in Shir HaShirim20 "Honey and Milk beneath your tongue"21. Says the Elya Rabba, on Shavuos we eat milchig to remind us that in the same way that a child cannot survive and grow without milk, so too every person must realise that he cannot exist without Torah.
We say each evening in the beracha preceding Krias Shema: ו?ייח םה יכ" "ו?ימי ךרואו - "For they are our life and our length of days" - "our life" in this world in our day to day growth, refinement of character and battle with the Yetzer Hora - "and our length of days" in the world to come where our nourished neshama reaps the reward. This is the message one should contemplate while dining on those cheese blintzes.
1. See Mekadesh Yisroel No. 70, Ner L'Meah on Chag HaShavuos.
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