Shavuot is easily my favorite food holiday. All the Jewish holidays have a food component. Rosh Hashanah: apples dipped in honey. Yom Kippur: NO food. (Ok, there is the pre-fast meal and the break-fast). Sukkot: Not what you eat, but where you eat. Tu B’Shvat: the special foods of Israel. Purim: hamentaschen and libation. Pesach: wine and matzah. You get the point.
However, the Shavuot food component is actually not a biblically mandated requirement. The Torah tells us to count 49 days; and seven weeks from the “morrow of Passover” and on the 50th day, celebrate the holiday. Shavuot means weeks, referring to the seven weeks of counting.
However, when we sit down to a meal, of eggplant Parmesan (my favorite) and stuffed shells, penne vodka, lasagna, followed by cheesecake and coffee, no only is the palate whetted, but the mind as well.
What is this holiday that is not so known or observed? Why is it so special, and what about it makes us test even the most lactose tolerant?
Here is the short version that will hopefully encourage you to delve deeper on your own and learn more about this holiday, so central to Judaism.
On a surface level, it is an agricultural celebration. We start the count with omer/barley reaping and offering in the Beit Hamikdash – the Temple in Jerusalem – and conclude it with a wheat offering 50 days later on Shavuot. It is also when the “first fruits” or Bikkurim were redeemed in Jerusalem and the farmers were able to enjoy the fruits of their labor (pun intended).
So what does this have to do with dairy, and why is this holiday loved by all, but particularly by Chabadniks?
To appreciate this, we need to unveil the essence of the holiday. Over 3,300 years ago, the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, to all Jewish souls of all times. While our bodies – today – may not have been there, our souls were. We witnessed G-d giving the Ten Commandments and Moses bringing them to us, followed by the Torah that was transmitted over the course of the Jewish people’s sojourn through the desert.
Each year, we celebrate and commemorate that event when we went from a people to G-d’s people by receiving and accepting the mandate of the Decalogue.
We went from a newly freed nation to a nation of meaning and purpose, a nation with a mission to be a light unto all the other nations. We were not only no longer enslaved and being told what we cannot do, but we were now given the tools how to live and a raison d’être, being told what we could and should do.
This is an event worth celebrating. A party worth making sure all are present. Since children are the future, and according to the Midrash, the guarantors of the future of the Torah. When G-d wanted a guarantor, the patriarchs and the prophets were not sufficient. It was the Jewish children that got the Torah released from the heavenly realms. We now lure (shamelessly) all children to the shul to hear the Ten Commandments with promises of ice cream sundaes on Sunday and a dairy buffet luncheon to ensure that the guarantors are well fed physically, and know the job that they have. We ensure the continuity of Judaism.
This is also why we eat dairy. Prior to Sinai, we ate whatever we wanted. Now suddenly there were rules of Kashrut, ritual slaughter, and more. Suddenly a few million people found themselves with a treif kitchen and nothing to eat. Slaughter was forbidden on the holiday, and all their vessels being unkosher, what was the nation to do?
Answer: Eat dairy. Dairy from a kosher animal was still kosher, and since it was typically eaten cold it was allowed (by strict, technical Halachic rules) to be eaten on any vessels.
Of course with time, we’ve improved on the basic dairy diet and now we can do better than a bit of butter on matzah, hence the smorgasbord discussed above.
However, as you sink your teeth into the delicious dairy delicacy, let more than your taste buds salivate. Realize you are sinking your teeth into our past, our present, and our future.
Shavuot is the promise of a Jewish future.
Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman leads Chabad of Peabody.