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In honor of Shavuot, this week’s Devar Torah focuses on the following custom:

Rama writes in Chapter 494 of Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim: “We have a custom everywhere to eat dairy food on the first day of Shavuot.”

The exact reasoning for this particular custom is apparently obscure; within the broader halakhic commentaries one can find roughly 10 reasons given for this now *very* popular practice. It behooves us to try and trace the development of this ancient tradition. [This custom is already mentioned by the Rishonim, long before Rama codified it].

Interestingly, when reading the words of the Rama, it seems clear that the primary custom was not to eat a totally dairy meal on Shavuot, rather first dairy was eaten with its own loaf of bread, and then the attendees of the meal would switch to meat dishes with a separate loaf of bread. [Some commentaries say that one should say Birchat Hamazon in between the two courses, however that does not appear to be required according to the strict letter of the law]. The common custom nowadays to have a purely dairy meal would seem to be a more recent halakhic development, and does come with certain halakhic difficulties [primarily, the fulfillment of the obligation to have a joyous meal on a Yom Tov\Jewish holiday is traditionally associated with eating meat, not dairy].

It would seem that this fascinating ancient practice needs great explanation; why would custom on Shavuot have us beginning the meal with dairy dishes and then switch to meat products?

It would seem that the most straightforward answer is rooted in a mysterious conversation that Moshe Rabbeinu had with G-d when writing the Torah. Generally speaking, the Torah is meant to be understood as literally as possible–very rarely does the actual literal meaning of the Torah’s words not pan out as the fullest interpretation of the words [see for example Shabbat 54B where the Talmud records that certain sins written in the Torah are not meant to be understood totally as written]. That being the case, the verse [Shemot 34’ 26’], “Lo tivashel gedi bacheleiv imo,” stands as one of the few exceptions to this concept, as the great commentary Onkelos does not translate the Possuk literally—as in, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” rather, he writes that the thrust of the commandment is, “You shall not EAT meat and milk together.

Rokeach [written by one of the great Rishonim, written around the year 1300 C.E.] writes [ad. loc.] that this seemed to vex Moshe, and he begged G-d to let him write the verse in its simplest fashion–”Lo tochal gedi bacheleiv imo\\Do not eat meat and milk.” G-d responded, that there will come a time when the Written Torah will be translated into the secular tongues, and the nations of the world will claim, once they have access to the written Torah, that, in fact, they received the Torah from G-d and are the chosen religion. The Jewish response to prove the veracity of our claim as the one true Religion will be that we have the Oral Torah–the Talmud and the Mishnah that contain the deeper understandings of the written Torah. [Astoundingly, while the Oral Torah did, in fact, have to be written down lest it be forgotten, we have not seen any particular religion move to commandeer its contents, as opposed to the Chumash, which has certainly been co-opted by the other religions of the world]. As such, G-d tells Moshe, the Oral Torah binds the Jewish destiny to eternity, and therefore the verse, “Lo tivashel gedi bacheleiv imo,” should remain as is, with the tradition of the Oral Torah teaching that the exact translation of the words is not “Do not COOK a goat in its mother’s milk,” but rather is “Do not EAT a goat with its mother’s milk.”

Moshe, in response to this revelation, queries that perhaps over the millennia of exiles and suffering the Jews will forget the Oral Torah, and hence lose their connection and claim to being the one true religion! G-d responds [Shemot 34’ 27’]: “And G-d said to Moses: Write down these words, for in accordance with these words–[THE ORAL TORAH]--do I make an eternal covenant with you and with Israel.”

Hence, G-d promises that the Oral Torah will never be forgotten from the Jews, and though the exile will be long, and the suffering great, the eternity of Israel does not lie.

It seems, that since the whole guarantee of Jewish survival is rooted in the Oral Torah, and that is most clearly demonstrated by the conversation between Moshe and G-d concerning the verse that prohibits the mixing of meat and milk, where the Oral Torah expands the definition of the prohibition beyond the literal scope of the verse to include not just cooking but eating as well, that Jewish tradition has been to highlight on Shavuot, the day we received the written Torah from G-d, that the true secret to our eternity is the Oral Torah–and the way to do this is by separating the eating of milk and meat by the Shavuot meal, which demonstrates that the Oral Torah’s explanation of the verse reigns supreme, and with it, our claim as the one true religion is vindicated.

Dedicated in memory of Refael Ben Tirtza, HY”D.