God's Dairy Restaurant: Thoughts for Shavuot

by Rich Robinson

Among the many customs associated with Shavuot, eating dairy meals is one of the most popular — a time to get the finest cheesecake from Junior's  in Brooklyn, or to make your own. (Dairy in Jewish culture refers to non-meat meals, not only to milk products. The nearly defunct "dairy restaurant" was a popular destination for blintzes, salads, tuna and the like.)

Jewish tradition loves to offer a multitude of explanations for customs, most of which have nothing to the do with the actual origin of the customs but which range from giving ethical insight to directing attention to the text of the Bible to downright entertainment. Among the various reasons we have heard for why dairy food is eaten on Shavuot, these ten stand out (as you read them, remember that Shavuot is traditionally held to be the day on which God gave the Torah to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai.)
  1. When Israel received the Torah at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19), they did not have the proper utensils for preparing kosher meat, so they ate dairy products instead, which do not require the same kind of stringent preparation.
  2. Exodus 23:19 places these two laws next to one another:
    • Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.
    • Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk.
    • Jewish tradition often found significance in juxtaposed items, so it connected Shavuot, which involves firstfruits, with eating dairy, which involves milk.
  3. Numbers 28:26 says, "...when you present to the Lord an offering of new grain during the Feast of Weeks"... "The Hebrew phrase is literally, "a new offering to the Lord in your weeks," which forms an acrostic me-chalav, "from milk."
  4. In Jewish mysticism, the numeric equivalent of chalav (milk) is 40, the same number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai.
  5. In Psalm 68, Mount Sinai is called Har Gavnunim, (mountain of peaks or rugged mountain), which sounds like gevinah, the Hebrew word for cheese.
  6. Shavuot occurred during the season when lambs and calves are suckling, so dairy was readily available.
  7. The Jewish people spent so long at Mt. Sinai that their milk turned into cheese. (My favorite explanation!)
  8. The land of Israel is described as a land flowing with "milk and honey."
  9. Receiving the Torah was like a rebirth, so we eat milk, which is "baby food."
  10. The Torah is likened to milk and honey in these biblical verses:
Song of Songs 4:11 (according to some interpretations)
Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride;

milk and honey are under your tongue.

The fragrance of your garments is like that of Lebanon.

Psalm 19:9-10

. . . The ordinances of the LORD are sure

and altogether righteous.

They are more precious than gold,

than much pure gold;

they are sweeter than honey,

than honey from the comb.
The eighth explanation invokes the well-known phrase concerning the biblical land of Israel as a land "flowing with milk and honey." This expression has made its way into popular culture as the name of a Broadway musical, an Israeli band, and even an album by John and Yoko.

Less known perhaps is that following the exodus from Egypt, we embarked on forty years of kvetching in the desert, including this gem of a complaint found in Numbers 16:13: "Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert?" Note well: our complaint was that Egypt was the land of milk and honey!

But more than referencing geography, the prophet Isaiah, reminiscent of the final explanation above, invited the Jewish people to listen to what God had to say, and couched the invitation in terms of drinking milk (as well as in terms of water, wine, and bread).
Come, all you who are thirsty,

come to the waters;

and you who have no money,

come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

(Isaiah 55:1-2)
In the New Testament, the image is taken up again in a communication to new followers of Jesus.  This is in reference to learning from God / listening to God / growing spiritually, and reminiscent of explanation #9 above:
Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.

(1 Peter 2:2-3)
The land of Israel was, and is, a land flowing with milk and honey. But it was so only because God dwelt there and spoke his word to Israel in that place—a word which eventually spread to the rest of the world.

Which means that the Bible, in essence, is — God's dairy restaurant.

Despite the disappearance of such culinary icons from the Jewish cultural scene, “God's dairy restaurant” remains open in the pages of the Bible. Let Genesis be your blintz, Jeremiah your whitefish, Matthew your mushroom soup. The menu is full, the price is great, the taste is superb!

2 comments:

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Elim said...

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Thanks