When I think of Shavuot, the first thing that comes to mind is cheesecake. For me, as for many people, it was the epitome of the Shavuot experience. But why are dairy meals traditionally eaten on Shavuot? Why do we usually consume chicken and meat for all other yamim tovim, but not Shavuot?
The Rama writes in his commentary on Shulchan Aruch that the custom is to eat dairy on Shavuot (Orach Chaim 494:3). He goes on to explain that this is because the of the Torah commandment to eat the “shtei halechem” (two breads) that were brought to the altar in the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) during Shavuot. As a remembrance of this tradition, we serve a dairy meal followed by a meat meal in order to eat two loaves of bread, as halachically, one may not eat both dairy and meat with the same of chalah.
The Chafetz Chaim in the Mishnah Berurah offers another explanation. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. When we were given the Torah, we found out that none of our utensils were kosher, and as a result, we had to eat cold dairy food only.
According to many halachic decisors, one does not fulfil one’s obligation of simchat yom tov (happiness on the holiday) without eating a meat meal. However, according to the Mishnah Berurah, the mitzvah of simchat yom tov is fulfilled by eating a dairy meal if one enjoys it.
Nowadays, the prevailing custom among many people is to eat a small dairy meal, say birchat hamazon, and then eat a meat meal. There are many others who simply eat dairy throughout Shavuot, and as we see, this is perfectly acceptable.
This year, there’s the added fact that the second day of Shavuot is also Shabbat.
There is a halachic rule that states: “Tadir v’sheino tadir, tadir kodem.” This literally means that when observing a mitzvah that occurs frequently, simultaneously with one that does not occur frequently, the frequent mitzvah wins out. Most halachic opinions say that eating meat on Shabbat is proper, and that since Shabbat occurs more frequently than Shavuot, one should certainly partake of meat meals when the two coincide.
Shavuot celebrates our receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. The Kolbo in his commentary on Parshat Pinchas, quotes Shir Hashirim 4:11 (Song of Songs), which says that like milk and honey, the Torah lies under our tongues. Since the Tanach compares the Torah to dairy, it’s proper to eat dairy on the day the Torah was given.
The Rebbe of Ostropole pointed out that in Tehillim (Psalms), King David referred to Mount Sinai as Har Gavnunim, the mountain of majestic hills (68:15). In a play on the word Gavnunim, he wrote that on Shavuot, we should eat gevinah (cheese). With this in mind, enjoy an extra piece of cheesecake this yom tov, and have a chag samayach!