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rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  ( has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.

Eating a dairy meal on Shavuot has become an enduring tradition. But what's the source for this? An old friend of mine, R. Shraga Simmons, did some research on the subject and here are seven reasons he found:

Reason #1

When the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai, included were special instructions for how to slaughter and prepare meat for eating. Until then, the Jews had not followed these laws, thus all their meat – plus the cooking pots – were now considered "not kosher." The only alternative was to eat dairy, which requires no advance preparation (Mishnah Berurah 494:12; Talmud – Bechorot 6b).

Reason #2                                                                                                                                                           

Torah is likened to milk, as the verse says, "Like honey and milk [the Torah] lies under your tongue," (Song of Songs 4:11). Just as milk has the ability to fully sustain the body of a human being (i.e. a nursing baby), so too, the Torah provides all the “spiritual nourishment” necessary for the human soul (Rabbi Meir of Dzikov – Imrei Noam).

Reason #3    

The gematria (numerical value) of the Hebrew word for milk, chalav, is 40. We eat dairy foods on Shavuot to commemorate the 40 days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving instruction in the entire Torah (Deut. 10:10; Rav Menachem Mendel of Ropshitz).

Reason #4                                                                                                                                          

According to the Zohar, each one of the 365 days of the year corresponds to a specific one of the Torah's 365 negative commandments. Which mitzvah corresponds to the day of Shavuot?

The Torah says: "Bring Bikkurim (first fruits) to the God's Holy Temple; don't cook a kid in its mother's milk," (Exodus 34:26). Since the first day for bringing Bikkurim is on Shavuot (in fact, the Torah calls Shavuot "the holiday of Bikkurim"), the second half of that verse – referring to milk and meat – is the negative commandment corresponding to Shavuot day. Thus, on Shavuot we eat two meals, one of milk and one of meat, taking care not to mix the two (Talmud – Makkot 23b; Chidushei HaRim; Rema OC 494:3, YD 88:2).

Reason #5                                                                                                                                            

An alternative name for Mount Sinai is Har Gav'nunim, the mountain of majestic peaks. The Hebrew word for cheese is gevina, etymologically related to Har Gav'nunim. Further, the gematria of gevina (cheese) is 70, corresponding to the "70 faces of Torah" (Psalms 68:16; Midrash – Bamidbar Rabba 13:15).

Reason #6                                                                                                                                  

Moses was born on the seventh day of Adar, and stayed at home for three months with his family before being placed in the Nile River on the sixth of Sivan. Moses was rescued by Pharaoh's daughter, who adopted Moses and took him to live in Pharaoh's palace. But right away a problem arose: what to feed the baby. In those days, there was no bottled baby formula, so when the birth mother wasn't available, the caretaker would have to hire a wet nurse. In the case of Moses, he kept refusing to nurse from Egyptian women. The Talmud explains that his mouth needed to be kept totally pure, as it would one day communicate directly with G-d. Finally Pharaoh's daughter found one woman who Moses agreed to nurse from – Yocheved, Moses' biological mother!

The eating of dairy foods on Shavuot commemorates this phenomenon in the early life of Moses, which occurred on the sixth of Sivan, the day on which Shavuot falls (Talmud – Sotah 12b; Yalkut Yitzchak).

Reason #7                                                                                                                                             

According to one commentator, that day at Sinai was the first time the Jews ate dairy products. There is a general prohibition of "eating a limb from a live animal" (ever min hachai), which logically should also include milk, the product of a live animal. Ever min hachai is actually one of the Seven Noahide Laws which the Jews observed prior to Sinai (and which has applied to all humanity since the days of Noah).

However, upon receiving the Torah, which refers to the Land of Israel as "flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:18), dairy products became permitted to the Jews. In other words, at the same moment that their meat became prohibited, dairy became permitted. They ate dairy on that original Shavuot, and we do today too (Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (HaElef Lecha Shlomo – YD 322).