Why Dairy?

One of the minhagim that many in Klal Yisrael perform on Shavuos is that they are careful to eat a Yom Tov meal that is dairy. At first glance, this would seem to be an unusual custom. What is its deeper significance, and why is it a custom that is specifically in tune with the concept of Shavuos?

Before we can understand this, we need to ask another important question about Shavuos. What is the significance of the fact that Shavuos is specifically referred to as the time of the giving of the Torah? This seems to speak only from the perspective of Hashem, the Giver, and not from our perspective as receivers of the Torah. What is the deeper meaning of this description?

The fact that we specifically refer to the giving of the Torah would seem to indicate that the focus of the relationship that is being forged when the Torah is given is specifically from the side of the giver. This hints to the fact that in a relationship between a giver and a receiver, the most energy is invested by the one who is giving, as opposed to the one who is receiving. Not only that, but the giver is the one who experiences a greater sense of satisfaction in the relationship. This is something we can sense intuitively if we think about our relationships with our children, as opposed to our relationships with our parents. The relationship is always viewed in a more intense way by the one who is giving in the relationship.

This idea is reflected in a statement of our chazal. “More than the calf wants to suckle, the mother cow wants to give milk.” This is an analogy for the fact that the greatest satisfaction comes to one who is focused outwards, focused on giving, as opposed to being focused on receiving. This very analogy is used to speak of the one who is teaching Torah. The teacher who is overflowing with wisdom has a greater drive to give than his very students who thirst for the words of their teacher. The teacher also experiences a greater sense of satisfaction and feels a deeper bond with his students than they will feel.

With this in mind, we can understand why Shavuos is referred to as the day when the Torah was given. When it comes to our relationship with Hashem and our relationship with the Torah, we must always be aware that if we approach that relationship exclusively as a receiver, we will never experience the true satisfaction that is inherent in the relationship. The only approach that will gain us a true relationship with Hashem and His Torah is one where our approach is one of giving of the Torah as well.

This idea is complemented by an insight I heard from Rabbi Yechiel Perr, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway. In the tefillah of Ahava Rabba, which we say before Shema each morning, we describe the great love of Hashem for His people that culminated in the giving of the Torah. We ask Hashem to help us to understand his Torah, to learn, to teach and to fulfill all of its laws. It is interesting that even before we ask to be able to fulfill the laws, which would be a natural outgrowth of learning, we first ask to be able to teach what we have learned. Intrinsic to being able to receive the Torah is the necessity to be ready to give the Torah to others.

Now we can understand the custom to eat milk products as part of our celebration of Shavuos. Milk is something that represents the loving relationship between a mother and her child. It serves to remind us of the statement of chazal that the greater satisfaction in the relationship is experienced by the mother, who is giving the milk. It therefore also has the potential to remind us of the proper focus we must try to engender in our approach to Torah – to focus not only on what we will receive from the Torah, but how we can give the Torah to others as well, so it can truly be called a חג מתן תורתינו, a holiday which celebrates our giving of the Torah.

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