Consider the festival of Shavuot, fast approaching on exit 49 of the Omer Freeway — the anniversary of the Torah covenant on Sinai, and arguably the most central of our festivals. Yet, of all the celebrations of the Jewish year, it most perfectly embodies the Mishnah’s confession that some prominent Jewish practices “hang like mountains by a thread, with little Scripture and a host of halachic rules.” (Hagigah 1:8).
For starters, note the tricky question of the historical meaning of Shavuot. The Torah teaches that Israel received the Commandments on “the third month” (i.e., Sivan, Ex. 19:1). But it makes no mention of any celebratory anniversary festival. Compared to Pesach, explicitly commanded as an annual recounting of the Exodus miracles, the event of Revelation is chopped liver?
Throughout the Torah’s festival calendars, Shavuot is linked to agricultural milestones, such as the Festival of Ingathering, the First Fruits Offering (Ex.23:16-19) or the culmination of the seven weeks (shavuot) of Omer offerings between the wheat harvest of Pesach and the barley harvest (Lv.23:15; cf. Ex.34:22-26; Nu. 28:26, Dt. 16:10).
But not a whisper that Shavuot is the very anniversary of the Covenant-pact at Sinai! What gives?
Confronting such puzzles, the rabbis normally appeal to the “halachah transmitted to Moshe at Sinai.” Where the written Torah is silent, the oral Torah speaks with the authority of Torah.
As it happens, in the case of the meaning of Shavuot, the sages do indeed have firm, documented tradition behind them. But it comes with an embarrassing yichus.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the identification of Shavuot as the anniversary of the Sinai Covenant first enters the record in the works of heretics!
Sometime after 200 BCE, an unknown Judean scribe compiled a book titled The Book of Jubilees. A bestseller among Qumran’s sectarians, Jubilees claims to be the real version of what Moses wrote down in the 40 days and nights on Sinai. Among its new “revelations” is the assertion that Shavuot is the divinely appointed occasion to “renew the covenant year by year” (Jubilees 6:18).
Enter now the first Jewish followers of Jesus of Nazareth and their disciples! Why do you suppose they chose Shavuot (in Greek, Pentecost) to celebrate the outbreak of prophetic glossolalia that confirmed the Church’s self-understanding as a covenant community (Acts of the Apostles 2:1-13)? In the emerging Christian view, Shavuot simply anticipates the revelation of the New Torah that descends from heaven on the Pentecost of the risen Messiah!
“Okay,” you say. “So the oral Torah has some embarrassing echoes among the sinners of Israel! But, let’s face it, yontif is yontif and a Yid’s gotta eat, right?”
Sure! But what is this, anyway, with eating blintzes, bourekas, cheesecake, and all things heart-stoppingly dairy on Shavuot? It’s yontif, so the lactose-intolerant need not apply?
Don’t look for an explanation of this custom in the Torah or the Talmud — it ain’t there. The Geonim? Not a trace! Strangely enough, the most widely known explanation is also among the most recent. Look it up in the great early 20th-century commentary of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan on the Shulchan Aruch (Mishnah Berurah, ‘Oreh Hayyim, 494). There (n. 12) the Mishnah Berurah offers the opinion that has become the Official Judaica Web site version:
“I have heard a correct explanation from a great scholar, namely, that when Israel…returned from the Mount, they found nothing at hand to eat but dairy, for meat required extensive preparations — to slaughter with an examined knife, to remove forbidden fats and blood, to rinse and salt, and to cook in new utensils that had not held dairy, etc. Therefore they chose to eat dairy foods as a temporary measure. And we do this in commemoration.”
Interesting! But the skeptic might still wonder: “If they were eating mannah in the wilderness, and mannah is parve, why bother?
Well, MB is all over that objection! In his very next comment he mentions another custom that he seems to recommend:
“In some locations it is customary to eat milk and honey, for the Torah is allegorically likened to milk and honey, as is written: ‘Honey and milk are under Your tongue’” (Song of Songs 4:11). Here the Mishnah Berurah reaches into the historical mists as far as he can, quoting nearly verbatim an explanation that first enters the halachic literature (as far as Prof. Google tells me) in the 13th-century work of Rabbi Aharon b. Yaakov haKohen of Provence, the ‘Orhot Hayyim’ (172:13).
Now, Rabbi Aharon offers no source for the custom or its meaning. Perhaps it was local Provençal custom inspired by Kabbalistic reflections on the supernal conjoining of the Blessed Holy One and His bride through the medium of the honeyed milk of Torah? After all, Provence was a Kabbalistic hotbed in those pre-bikini days, when the term “topless” applied only to Catholics convicted of heresies.
But, wherever it came from, this custom had legs. From Provence, the tradition was carried primarily into Ashkenazic lands, where it was enshrined as “a custom in our countries” by Rabbi Moshe Isserles — the Rema — in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch.
There, in addition to the meal of honeyed milk, the Rema records a custom inspired by “the two cooked dishes of Pesach eve, commemorating the Pesach offering and the festival sacrifice. So too on Shavuot we eat first a dairy dish and afterward a meat dish.”
Today you will still find Jewish homes in which the morning meal of Shavuot consists of cheese blintzes followed — after birkat hamazon, and a brief shpatzier or other break in the action — by a hearty meat meal. But, however you observe the many versions of this “ancestral custom in our hands,” and whatever historical kernel you may find in it, the key is to recall its point.
Torah isn’t ancient history and it isn’t just words. It’s food — sweet as honey and nourishing as milk, feeding both the Jewish body and the Jewish soul.
A freylichn un a milchign yontif eich!! A joyous and — above all — milchig festival to you all!