There is a precious custom dating back to the era of the Rishonim (1100 -1500), to eat foods made out of milk and honey on Shavuot. The source of this custom stems from communities in Ashkenaz and France, and from, there spread to many Jewish communities throughout the world. Nevertheless, there are Jews who do not practice this custom, such as many immigrants from Yemen, Libya, Djerba, Bukhara, and Persia.
The foundation of the custom stems from Divrei Chachamim (words of the Sages) who said that the Torah is compared to milk and honey, as the verse in Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) says: “Milk and honey are under your tongue,” and our Sages said: “As the Jewish nation stood before Mount Sinai and said: ‘All that the Lord spoke, we will do and listen (‘na’aseh ve’nishma’), at that same time, God said to them: ‘Honey and milk are under your tongue.” In other words, in the merit of Israel’s agreement to accept the Torah without doubt, the words of Torah would be sweet like milk and honey in their mouths.
Rabbi Kook further explained that milk and honey are two foods both produced from impure sources. Honey is produced from bees which are impure insects, and milk is produced from blood which is forbidden to be eaten. Precisely because they are transformed from impure to pure, they possess a unique taste, alluding to ‘tikun olam’ (perfecting the world).
This is the virtue of Torah, which perfects the negative sides of the world, and turns them into good, as our Sages said: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: ‘My children! I created the yetzer ha’ra (the evil inclination), but I also created the Torah as its antidote; if you occupy yourselves with the Torah, you will not be delivered into its hand.” In other words, the Torah does not eliminate the yetzer ha’ra, rather, it adds flavor to it, until it is transformed into good.
The main virtue of milk and honey, of course, is related to the Land of Israel, which, fifteen times in the Torah, is called "the land of milk and honey," because by means of the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz (the settlement of the Land) it sanctifies the secular and earthly, and in doing so, also turns the ‘bad’ into an especially sweet ‘good’, similar to milk and honey which are pure, but created from the impure.
Torah and Israel
This segulah (unique virtue) of Torah to turn bad into good depends, of course, on Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), who study Torah and perfect the world in its Light. Moreover, if Israel had not accepted the Torah, it would be empty of content to keep it in existence, and it would return to emptiness and formlessness, as our Sages said (Shabbat 88a): "The Holy One, blessed be He, stipulated with the Works of Creation and said to them: ‘If Israel accepts the Torah, you will exist; but if not, I will turn you back into emptiness and formlessness.”
Similarly, our Sages said (Vayikra Rabbah 23:3): "God saw a single rose-colored flower, to wit, Israel. God took it and smelled it when God gave them the Ten Commandments, and God's spirits were calmed when they said, na’aseh ve’ nishma, God said, "The orchard shall be saved on account of this flower. For the sake of the Torah and of Israel, the world shall be saved."
The revelation of the Torah and Israel's segulah depends on Am Yisrael inheriting and settling its Land, because all the mitzvot were given in order for us to fulfill them Eretz Yisrael in a national and governmental framework. And even though outside of Eretz Yisrael we must fulfill the individual mitzvot that are not dependent on the Land, all of their obligatory status abroad is so that we know how to fulfill them properly when we return (Jerusalem Talmud, Shevi’it 6:1; Kiddushin 1:8; Bavli Kiddushin, 37a; Sifre 43-44).
One of the manifestations of the connection between the Nation and the Land to Torah, is that Chag Shavuot –‘ Z’man Torateinu’, does not have its own date, rather, its date depends on Chag Pesach. On Chag Pesach, the purpose of the Nation and the Land were revealed, for God chose His nation, and took us out in order to give us the Land of Israel, as it is written (Exodus 3:7-8): "God said, 'I have indeed seen the suffering of My people in Egypt… I have come down to rescue them from Egypt's power. I will bring them out of that land, to a good, spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey…"(also in Exodus 6:4-8; 13:3-5; 13:11). And this is the intention of Sefirat HaOmer (the Counting of the Omer), to connect between Chag Pesach and Chag Shavuot; to connect the value of the Nation and the Land, to the value of Torah, for there is no Israel without Torah, and no Torah without Israel.
And although these two values are interrelated and interdependent, it is imperative that each of them be expressed in its own right, so that they do not blur each other. Therefore, we have two separate holidays, one for the idea of Am Yisrael, and the other, for the Torah.
And thus, we find in Tanna De’bei Eliyahu (Parsha 15): "I was once going from one place to another, when an elderly man came to me and asked about matters in the Torah. He said to me: Rabbi, I have two things in my heart, and I love them both dearly: the Torah and Israel. But I don’t know which one comes first. I said to him: People say that the Torah precedes everything, but I would say the holy of Israel come first..."
At times, I am amazed to read Haredi journalists and rabbis who speak disdainfully about the value of nationalism, claiming that those in the National Religious public err, in that they give it too much importance. It is incredible how people accustomed to reading the Torah can be so ignorant that they do not understand the value of Israeli nationalism. Apparently, this is the deep meaning of the words of our Sages (Chagigah 5b): "There is no greater bitul Torah (abrogation of the Torah) than when the Jews were exiled from their place."
This does not imply that they didn’t diligently study Torah in exile, rather, the meaning is that, as a result of the galut (exile), they do not comprehend the Torah properly, and all the mitzvot, instructions and ideas mentioned about Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael are understood in katnut (smallness of mind), and consequently, they do not understand that it is the main point of the Torah - to instruct Am Yisrael how to reveal the word of God in the life of the Clal (all of Israel) and the prat (individual Jews), within a national framework in Eretz Yisrael.
When it was very difficult to immigrate to Israel, Jews who lived abroad could have been given benefit of the doubt. Today, however, it is hard to judge favorably those who insist on continuing making the same mistake. And the more of a baki (skilled) and palpalan (hairsplitter) such a person is in Torah, his lack of understanding is worse.
While it is clear that the challenge of fulfilling Torah within a national framework in Eretz Yisrael is accompanied by great complications, as we have learned in the Torah regarding the Sin of the Golden Calf and the Sin of the Spies, and as we have learned in the Prophets about all the complications that accompanied the Kingdom of Israel, the Mishkan, and the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple). Nevertheless, this is the manner in which the Torah determined we reveal the Word of God to the world.
May it be that out of the joy of Chag Pesach and Chag Ha’Atzmaut, we merit receiving the Torah on Chag Shavuot once again, and in doing so, its words will be pleasurable for us like milk and honey, and through its instructions, merit to sanctify the secular, and turn the bad into good.
Chag Shavuot This Year
This year, we are fortunate to have Chag Shavuot fall out on Friday, followed by Shabbat. This is a special occasion, for according to the accepted opinion, it was the same way in the year we left Egypt. The exodus from Egypt occurred on Thursday, and on Friday the 6th of Sivan, the 50th day arrived, the day intended for the Giving of Torah. However, Moshe Rabbeinu requested to add an additional day for preparing to receive the Torah, and HaKadosh Baruch Hu agreed with him, and postponed it to Shabbat, the fifty-first day of Sefirat HaOmer (Shabbat 86b- 87a).
Out of this amazing fact, we learned about the significance of Torah She-be’al Peh (the Oral Torah), that the Torah She-b’chtav (the Written Torah) cannot be revealed without it, and thus, even Matan Torah was postponed by a day in accordance with Torah She-be’al Peh, namely, according to Moshe Rabbeinu’s interpretation.
However, this would seem to present us with a difficulty. As Shulḥan Arukh (494:1) states, we refer to Shavuot as “Zeman matan Torateinu” (the season of the giving of our Torah). Why do we call it that if Shavuot is not actually the day the Torah was given? Shavuot takes place on the fiftieth day of the Omer, whereas we received the Torah on the fifty-first day! The answer is that in truth, from the heavenly point of view, right after the completion of Sefirat HaOmer the sacred day of the giving of the Torah arrived, and God blessed us with the Torah (in potential). It was only from the human point of view that we needed an additional day before we were capable of receiving it in actuality. Nevertheless, for future generations, the giving of the Torah is commemorated on the day that God had originally ordained and sanctified, when the Torah was given to us in potentiality (Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael ch. 27).
When Chag Shavuot falls on Friday, it turns out we celebrate two sacred days – first, Shavuot, which is the day when God had already given us the Torah in Heaven, and we continue celebrating on Shabbat, which is the day we actually received the Torah. It is especially important on this Shabbat to dedicate half of it to the Beit Midrash (a minimum of six hours of Torah study).
When Yom Tov is followed by Shabbat, it is a mitzvah to set aside an eruv tavshilin before Yom Tov. Doing so makes it permissible to cook and bake on Yom Tov for Shabbat. The eruv consists of food that is prepared before Yom Tov for Shabbat. It is called an eruv (literally “merging”) because it merges or joins together the food of Yom Tov and the food of Shabbat. Once the eruv has been set aside, then just as it is permissible to bake and cook on Yom Tov for Yom Tov purposes, it becomes permissible to bake and cook on Yom Tov for Shabbat purposes as well. True, on the Torah level it is permitted to cook on Yom Tov for Shabbat even without an eruv, but our Sages prohibited doing so, in order to preserve the honor and dignity of both Yom Tov and Shabbat (Beitza 15b).
The following is the procedure for setting aside an eruv tavshilin. Taking the cooked food and the bread, one recites the following berakha: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us concerning the mitzvah of eruv” (“asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu al mitzvat eruv”). Afterward, he should recite: “With this eruv it shall be permitted to us to bake, cook, light a flame, and do everything necessary on Yom Tov for the sake of Shabbat.”
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.