Like clockwork, the passing of Lag B’Omer awakens the telltale harbingers of Shavuot throughout the world of social media. One need only scroll down a few posts before running into a slew of cheesecake recipes, blintz recipes, and all other manner of dairy-centric concoctions.
While the die hard carnivores among my group of friends are quick to point out that the eating of dairy on Shavuot is not a requirement, they are almost certainly at odds with the dairy traditionalists. It’s a hotly debated topic in which both opinions are completely valid, however, there’s no denying that, as far as Jewish traditions go, eating dairy on Shavuot is about as universal as they come.
Almost every culture in world Jewry, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or “Other,” has a traditional dairy item made specifically for Shavuot. So, what’s the deal with Shavuot and the dairy products?
Of course, there are many explanations for this tradition, and you probably know a few.
None of them, however, are based in any first hand accounts or Torah, which really leaves us with a nice collection of Midrashhic folklore and a lot of speculation.
One account tells us that this tradition came about because, while we were waiting to receive the Torah, we weren’t sure which foods would be allowed or disallowed (which begs the question, how were we so sure dairy would be allowed? Also, why not just eat the manna Hashem gave us each morning?).
A similar account is more specific, stating that we needed to learn how to ritually slaughter meat and kasher dishes. Gematria attributes the number 40 to milk, which is how many days Moshe spent on Mount Sinai…however, what other foodstuffs have this numerical value?
While these explanations attempt to address the practical or theoretical issues, others take a more literal approach: The Torah is described on multiple occasions as “milk and honey,” so why not have cheesecake in remembrance of that?
This is an excellent point, except for most dairy recipes for Shavuot are very noticeably honey-deficient (Greece being a notable exception). The most recent explanation I’ve heard from Meir Soloveichik, was that milk is used to represent the Torah because it is taken for granted and–as the old “Got Milk?” commercials of the 90’s point out–is not truly missed until it is gone. Although it’s possible to argue this point, as foreboding as it may be, it still doesn’t address the honey analogy.
As a woman, I prefer a more feminist approach over these very pragmatic and literal interpretations. I prefer to think of the milk analogy as that of the soul-nurturing properties of the Torah.
As mothers give milk to sustain newborn babies, Hashem gave us, a new nation, the Torah, to nourish and sustain our souls. Some of us may find that they need it less as we grow older, some realize they need it more. It gives us strength when we are weak, and hope when we feel alone, for its availability and abundance assures us that we will become strong, and that we indeed are not lone warriors.
Again, a nice analogy, but what’s the connection to honey?
The honey referred to in the Torah is actually date honey, a product made from refining the sugar dates plentiful in the region. This is a product of human labor, something made specifically from nature and hard work, unlike milk, which is automatically produced.
As Hashem gives us the milk of the Torah, we are responsible for producing the honey. We have a responsibility to use our spiritual nourishment to create something sweet, something wonderful, something accessible for others, something that invigorates. We have the ability to make just about anything we desire, given the resources, the technology, and the aptitude.
However, given the choice, we must make honey. We must speak with sweet words, we must act kindly when dealing with others, we must make the world a better place.
While it’s true these behaviors can be attributed to personal choices, I think the implication might be a little bit more far reaching; that ingesting the “milk” of Torah results in the production of kindness. Perhaps this is how the words of Torah become “sweet on our tongue(s).”
Whether you celebrate this momentous occasion of receiving the Torah with a grilled steak or a grilled cheese, may we all produce an abundance of honey this year, and in the years to come.
Allaya is a foodie and world traveler who unifies her life experiences, diverse friendships, and family history through food. Originally from Thailand, her stays and travels took her through Germany, France, England, Barbados, Nepal, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, and finally to the United States, among other places. She currently lives in Manhattan with her husband and children.