Why We Eat Dairy on Shavu’ot
The menu for the first day of Shavuot is customarily restricted to dairy dishes. While a plethora of explanations has been generated to account for the practice, I prefer the most serious one. Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the governing covenant between God and Israel, the constitution of the Jewish polity. The event marks the adoption of a religious regimen that would henceforth define the borders of individual and group behavior. That to which the Israelites were formerly entitled is no longer permitted.
In the spirit of that curtailment, we forgo the pleasures of a meat meal. Our menu becomes a symbol for the meaning of the day. A dinner of succulent steak would mock the quest for the simple life which is the Torah’s ideal. At the outset of creation, God had intended that Adam and Eve’s children live as vegetarians. The consumption of meat was not granted till after the flood, a mid-course correction dictated by human depravity. God had set the bar too high. On Shavuot, as we accept a roadmap to holiness, we remind ourselves of the ideal. To satisfy our hunger without the taking of animal life ennobles our shared existence.
The essence of the Torah is to eschew doing everything of which we are capable. As the Rabbis put it, we hallow our lives by giving up a measure of our freedom to act (BT Yevamot 20a). That is, an effort at self-denial becomes a form of self- enhancement. A life of excess leads neither to virtue nor holiness. For the Rabbis, the biblical injunction “You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19:2) means to live apart (perushim tiheyu). A degree of separation from the allurements that engulf us helps to focus the mind on matters of ultimate consequence. Thus we rest one day out of seven for the spiritual renewal that sustains us for the other six. Or we deny ourselves many of God’s creatures to impress upon us the right of all animals to inhabit the planet. Nature surely does not exist solely to gratify human need or greed. Reverence for land and life is the attitude that the Torah seeks to engender within us.
An everyday example of this world view that less is more is encapsulated in the rabbinic epigram that “the salt of wealth is its depletion” (BT Ketuvot 66b). Counterintuitive, the proposition holds that the way to husband our wealth is not to amass ever more but to share some of it with the unfortunate. Doing well is doing good. And in return, the principal will continue to grow. I have yet to meet a philanthropist impoverished by giving. More generally, Judaism demands of us delayed gratification.
In his final book, Moses and Monotheism, published just three months before the outbreak of World War II, Sigmund Freud offered a paean to Judaism as the most spiritual of religions known. The key to that achievement lay in its rejection of immediate gratification.
The religion that began with the prohibition against making an image of its
God has developed in the course of centuries more and more into a
religion of instinctual renunciation. Not that it demands sexual abstinence; it is
content with a considerable restriction of sexual freedom. God, however,
becomes completely withdrawn from sexuality and raised to an ideal of ethical
perfection. Ethics, however, means restriction of Instinctual gratification. The
Prophets did not tire of maintaining that God demands nothing else from his
people but a just and virtuous life – that is to say, abstention from the
gratification from all impulses that, according to our present-day moral
standards, are to be condemned as vicious. And even the exhortation to believe
in God seems to recede in comparison with the seriousness of these ethical
demands. (Vintage Books, N.Y.: 1959, p. 152).
Thus while Freud dismissed God as an illusion, he could celebrate a religious regimen that sought to elevate the faithful above their senses and lusts. Indeed, sublimation, the art of rerouting our passions for good, was a Jewish discovery. Freud’s own highly disciplined lifestyle embodied the ethos, if not the specifics, he attributed to Judaism.
In short, our self-imposed restrictions set us free. To scale the heights we need to focus our energies. The awesome prowess of a world class pianist or tennis player comes only with years of self-denial. Even God, according to Lurianic Kabbalah, before creating the cosmos needed to contract within God’s own self. The intensity that flowed from such concentration filled the void left by God’s withdrawal.
Even as we scale down our diet on Shavuot to ready ourselves for the Torah, we also go without sleep. On the first evening of the festival we gather in small groups to study throughout the night. The moment that commemorates God’s revelation finds us weary but saturated with Torah. Again the ritual calls for an act that takes us beyond ourselves. To do without attunes us to a quest for holiness predicated on self-transcendence.
And as we ascend, we are met more than halfway by an infusion of holiness from above. Holiness is a reciprocal relationship. According to the Talmud, if we strive to hallow our lives here on earth, we will be bathed with a burst of holiness from above (BT Yoma 39a). A world awash in holiness awaits us, if we but dare to approach it. That supersensory reality is what Heschel meant to convey in the title to his theological classic God in Search of Man.
Hag sameah ve-shabbat shalom,