There are many reasons given for eating dairy on Shavuot, but most leave the intellectual appetite unsatisfied.
The custom is recorded in the halachic literature as early as the 12th century, and it is widely observed by both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. But despite being a longstanding and widespread tradition, its meaning remains obscure.
Many of the authors who refer to the practice seem strained to provide multiple explanations, and for good reason: Dairy simply is absent from the list of Shavuot themes mentioned in biblical and early rabbinic sources. There is no clear connection between dairy and the wheat harvest, the offering of two wheat-bread loaves and first fruits in the Temple, and the revelation on Mount Sinai. Symbolic foods abound in Jewish holiday traditions, but unlike those we eat on Passover and Rosh Hashanah, nowhere in the Torah or Talmud do we find anything about dairy on Shavuot.
In the absence of any obvious link to the holiday, several have been proposed. Perhaps the most popular reason – the one many of us heard as children – goes as follows:
After Moses received and delivered the law at Sinai, including the mandate to observe kashrut, the Israelites were forced to abandon their now-treif meat vessels, and to observe short-term vegetarianism until those dishes could be rendered kosher. We thus commemorate the acceptance of the Torah by eating dairy.
The merit of this explanation is that it ties the dairy custom to the acceptance of the Torah, the most prominent feature of Shavuot. While the Bible calls Shavuot “the festival of reaping,” on our religious calendar we celebrate Shavuot as the anniversary of the covenant between God and Israel. In the Shavuot prayers, for example, the holiday is nicknamed “the time of the giving of our Torah.”
Its popularity notwithstanding, the treif-dishes theory is far-fetched and unconvincing. In fact, it is a relatively recent explanation; it first appears in print only in 1821, in a chasidic anthology titled “Geulat Yisrael,” several centuries after the earliest sources mention the practice.
Indeed, the key to understanding the custom may lie in earlier medieval sources, which refer not only to milk, but to milk and honey.
The fourteenth-century “Kol Bo,” for example, provides the following reason for dairy: “It is also customary to eat honey and milk on Shavuot because the Torah is compared to honey and milk. As it is written, ‘Honey and milk are under your tongue’ (Song of Songs 4:11).”
This interpretation is based on an allegorical reading of the Song of Songs, a ubiquitous theme in Jewish tradition. The Sages took the “tongue” of the Song’s beloved woman as a symbol of the Israelites’ faithful declaration regarding the law, to “obey (first) and (then) understand,” and as a metaphor for the sweetness of Torah study among their descendants. Thus, the “Kol Bo” links the custom of eating milk products – more precisely, foods made with milk and honey – to the giving of the Torah, the holiday’s central religious motif.
But milk and honey carries additional symbolic meaning in Jewish tradition. It is, of course, a biblical expression for the Land of Israel’s agricultural bounty. Throughout the Bible, the phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey” appears many times as the “motto” of the Land of Israel.
In fact, Deuteronomy 26:9-10 highlights milk and honey at the conclusion of the first fruits “confession” in the Temple: “He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” The offering of first fruits naturally elicits praise and thanksgiving by the donor for the land and its produce. Shavuot is the season to celebrate the Land of Israel and its many gifts.
Both aspects of “milk and honey,” then, animate Shavuot. Just like the two other major festivals on the Jewish calendar – Passover and Sukkot – Shavuot has both agricultural and religious-historical significance. Passover is the Festival of Freedom, but it also celebrates the beginning of the grain harvest. Sukkot marks the joyous end of the fruit-gathering season (especially for grapes) but also commemorates God’s sheltering the Jewish people after the Exodus and throughout their sojourn in the desert. Likewise, on Shavuot we celebrate the two most precious gifts received by the Jewish people – the Torah and the Land of Israel.
The origin and meaning of the Shavuot dairy custom, I believe, lies in the deep connection – both natural and symbolic – between milk, honey, the Land of Israel, and the Torah.
Why we no longer eat honey with milk on Shavuot remains an open question, and we can only speculate about the answer. In certain parts of Europe, perhaps, honey was more readily available than milk. Dairy would have stood out as the distinguishing feature of the festive meal. Of course, it is impossible to be certain.
In any event, on many levels, the dairy custom remains a beautiful and meaningful feature of Shavuot and possibly less obscure than it may appear.