Shavuos: The Milky Way


What is the festival of Shavuos? In our prayers, Shavuos is referred to as Zman Matan Toraseinu, the time of the giving of our Torah. In the Torah, the festival is referred to as Chag HaShavuos, the festival of weeks. Clearly the Torah associates this festival with the counting of the Omer, where we count forty-nine days from the time of the bringing of the Omer. This explains the title of Chag HaKatzir, the Festival of Harvest. Shavuos is also referred to in the Torah as Chag HaBikkurim, the Festival of the First Fruits. The Gemara (Rosh HaShanah 16a) states that on Rosh HaShanah we are judged on the fruits of the tree. The Chachamim refer to this festival as Atzeres, literally meaning holding back or ingathering. How are we to understand these divergent ideas regarding the festival of Shavuos?

When faced with an enigma, it is prudent to search in the customs of the festival for a solution. There are two customs that stand out on this mysterious day of Shavuos. One custom is that we are enjoined to remain awake the entire night of Shavuos studying Torah. The second custom is that many Jews eat dairy products on Shavuos. Regarding remaining awake the entire night of Shavuos, the Magen Avraham writes that this custom is based on the Medrash that states that HaShem came to give the Torah to the Jewish People and He found them sleeping. To atone for this lack of zealousness, we remain awake the entire night studying Torah. It is noteworthy that cheese appears to cause drowsiness (See Ralbag Shoftim 4:14) and yet there is a time-honored custom to eat dairy on Shavuos night. This would seem to contradict the idea of staying awake studying Torah.

There are numerous reasons offered for the custom of eating dairy on Shavuos night. One reason mentioned is that the word for milk is chalav, which is in gematria forty, corresponding to the days that Moshe remained in heaven to study and receive the Torah.

Another reason offered by the Mishnah Berurah is is that upon receiving the Torah, the Jewish People could not use their meat utensils, so they opted to eat dairy foods. Yet a third reason that is offered is that there is a concept that when a woman becomes pregnant, her blood is transformed to milk. The Zohar states that the days of Sefirah are akin to the woman, as the Jewish People left Egypt and were in the forty-ninth level of impurity, and they ascended to the fiftieth level of purity. Thus, the blood, i.e. their impurity, was transformed to milk, i.e. the whiteness, which symbolizes purity.
The Rema cites another reason for the custom of eating dairy, based on the idea that on Shavuos the shtei halechem, the two loaves, were offered. On Pesach we eat two foods, the egg and the shank bone, so on Shavuos we adopt this idea by eating two loaves, and one is eaten with dairy and one is eaten with meat.
The Kol Bo writes that it is customary to eat both milk and honey, as the Torah is compared to milk and honey, as it is said (Shir HaShirim 4:111) devash vichalav tachas lishoneich, honey and milk are under your tongue. There are many more reasons offered by the commentators. (See here http://www.innernet.org.il/article.php?aid=88 .)

Perhaps there is another allusion in this custom of eating dairy. The word chalav, meaning milk, can also be read as halev, the heart, using the principle that the letters ches and hey are interchangeable. When the Jewish People arrived at Mount Sinai, it is said (Shemos 19:2) vayichan sham Yisroel neged hahar, and Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain. Rashi writes that the word vayichan is written in the singular form, to teach us that although all the other journeys throughout the Wilderness were accompanied by strife, this encampment was peaceful, as the Jewish People united like one man with one heart. This teaching is profound, as this essentially defines the receiving of the Torah. We refer to Shavuos as Matan Toraseinu, the giving of our Torah, because we are all together in the study and fulfillment of Torah. One person cannot study Torah alone, as the Gemara (Makkos 10a) teaches us that one who studies alone will become foolish. Choni Hamagal understood this precept well, as upon his return to civilization after sleeping for seventy years, he observed that no one recognized him anymore. He thus requested that he die, and regarding him it was said, “give me a partner or give me death” (Taanis 23a). Rabbi Akiva had twenty-four thousand students, and they all died a horrible death between Pesach and Shavuos because they did not show proper respect to each other (Yevamos 62b).

It is not enough to study Torah. One must also help other study Torah and one must respect his fellow Jew. It is specifically for this reason that Rabbi Akiva taught that the words (Vayikra 19:18) viahavta lireiacha kamocha, you shall love your fellow as yourself, is a general rule in Torah. (Rashi, citing Toras Kohanim Ibid.) Furthermore, Rashi writes (Vayikra 19:2) that the parashah of Kedoshim was said by Hakhel, when all the Jewish People gathered at the end of the shemittah year on Sukkos, because Kedoshim is a parashah that most of the precepts of the Torah are dependent on. In the parashah of Kedoshim it is stated the mitzvah of loving a fellow Jew. This is the message of Shavuos. Unlike the other festivals where we eat matzah, shake the lulav and sit in the Sukkah, Shavuos is a time when the Jewish People all the world over join together in brotherhood and friendship and study Torah together.

It is noteworthy that regarding the tribe of Yehudah, who were the teachers of Torah, it is said (Bereishis 49:12) chachlili einayim miyayin uleven shinayim meicholov, red eyed from wine, and white toothed from milk. Rashi writes that this verse is interpreted to mean that it is preferred to smile at someone than to give him a cup of milk. In an abstract manner, we learn from here that cholov should be read haleiv, as friendship is more important than giving one a drink. When two people are in the desert and there is only enough water for one to remain alive, the one who has the water in his possession must drink it, as his life supersedes his friend’s life (Bava Metzia 62a). Yet, one who does not have a study partner and a friend is better off dead.

On Shavuos, we read the book of Rus, and the Medrash refers to this book as Toras chesed, the Torah of kindness. Torah is not merely intellectual stimulation and a study reserved for academia. Rather, Torah is a way of life, where we are enjoined to love each other, similar to the love that HaShem displays towards the Jewish People, as Yisroel, Torah and HaShem are all one. We can now better understand the various titles that are conferred on this mysterious holiday. Shavuos is a time of harvesting, i.e. it is a time when we are enjoined to give to others, by leaving produce in the fields for the less fortunate, as is evidenced from the story of Rus and Boaz. Rus was gathering grain in the fields of Boaz, and subsequently Rus married Boaz and from this union descended Dovid HaMelech, the forefather of Moshiach, our redeemer.

On Shavuos we are judged on the fruits of the tree. The tree is an allusion to Torah, as it is said (Mishlei 3:18) eitz chaim hi lamachazikim bah, it is a tree of life for those who grasp it. The fruits are an allusion to our good deeds that we perform with others, as this is the true measure that we have studied Torah and applied its teachings properly. Shavuos is also referred to as Atzeres¸ a time when we take stock of our situation, and we appraise the needs of others. Thus, through the two customs that we practice on Shavuos, remaining awake all night to study together, and eating dairy products, we merit receiving the Torah as one unit. For this reason the festival is referred to as Zman Matan Toraseinu, because it is the time when we receive “our” Torah, i.e. we all study and practice the teachings of the Torah together. May it be HaShem’s will that this Shavuos we receive the Torah and the message contained within, that it is a time to harvest the fruits of our Torah study, by sharing with others and atoning for the sin of Rabbi Akiva’s students. With this perspective in mind, we will merit a true Kabbalas HaTorah and the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, speedily, in our days.
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