Illustration: Vegan Cheesecake (Image credit: Pexels [CC0, Public Domain])
The holiday of Shavuot (weeks), determined by the counting of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, is called “the festival of first fruits” or “the festival of harvest” in the Torah. This indicates the obligation to bring a plant sacrifice to the Temple from the first fruits of the land: “The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the Lord your G-d" (Ex. 23:19).
Those first fruits are selected from the Seven Species which were the first to ripen. Others say that the mitzvah is to bring a sacrifice of “two breads” since that would be a first sacrifice made from the new wheat — in either case it is a plant sacrifice.
So how did we get from that to celebrating with dairy products? The answer: customs.
It is important to clarify that customs are not halacha (Jewish law) and there’s no obligation to uphold them. In the past there used to be a custom of decorating synagogues with trees on Shavuot which the Gra, the Gaon of Vilna, cancelled because other nations were doing the same thing on their holiday (Chayei Adam 131:13).
This is the nature of a custom: it comes and goes based on the time, place, and instruction. We know there are different customs between the different Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities. For example, Yemenite Jews never used to eat dairy products on Shavuot at all. The custom comes from Ashkenazi and French Jews in the 14th century C.E.
Another reason for this custom stems from the time when the Jews received the laws of Kashrut and found their dishes were unusable; they resorted to eating dairy until they kashered their dishes. There are dozens of other reasons, but the connecting link between all of them is that you should not follow a custom which breaks halacha.
At the time this custom came to be there was no animal industry; people had cows in their yard and would take some milk while the calf was still a suckling. In our days, when dairy products are derived amid serious sins which are the violation of tzaar baalei chaim (preventing the suffering of animals), the enjoyment of eating them involves enjoyment coming from a sin.
It is also forbidden to buy them because doing so constitutes helping a person to sin. Therefore, dairy should not be put on the holiday table; with today’s abundance of products, it is easy enough to replace milk products with natural, sweet, and tasty foods.
Milk and honey?
Why was Israel named "a land flowing with milk and honey"? Let's look at the sources:
“‘A land flowing with milk and honey’; Rabbi Eliezer says: milk — is the milk of the fruit, honey — is date honey" (Mekhilta DeRashbi 13).
“‘As You have sworn to our forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey,’ so that You will give flavor to the fruit" (Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deut. 26:15).
“A land whose fruits are rich as milk and sweet as honey" (Targum Yonatan on Deut. 6:3).
“A land of milk and honey... [meaning] a land rich and prosperous in all its fruits” (Akeidat Yitzhak, Deut. Gate 89:6).
“‘A land flowing with milk and honey,’ which is a land that has ripe and sweet fruits” (Alshich, Torat Moshe, Deut. 6:10).
Israel was blessed with the Seven Species and only they were brought to the Temple for the Shavuot first fruit harvest offering. Milk and bee honey were not included among them — “For the Lord your G-d is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey" (Deut. 8:7-8). As noted above, honey here refers to date honey.
When the spies returned from scouting out Israel, they describe how good it was: “It does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit" (Num. 13:27). It is important to note they brought with them samples of the fruit - not milk.
Even according to those who believe that milk is the milk of goats, the Torah is talking about excessive milk that drips on its own, as Rashi says: “The milk drips from the goats and is like a stream” (Talmud, Meg. 6a). Milk, as a product of pregnancy, is a symbol of fertility and abundance.
On Shavuot therefore we can and should celebrate the sweetness of Torah with date honey and other tasty foods.
Asa Keisar is an Israeli religious scholar, known for his views on veganism as both a Torah imperative to avoid cruelty to animals and the Torah’s ideal for mankind. The author of Velifnei Iver HaShalem, he states that eating meat and animal by-products is no longer permitted according to Jewish sources because of the cruelty inflicted on animals by the modern mass production of meat, dairy, and eggs.
"The Lecture Every Jew Should See”, in which he discusses what the Torah, Talmud, and scholars have to say about meat consumption, has been viewed on YouTube by over half a million Israelis. In 2017 the President of Israel commended him, saying; “You are doing groundbreaking work, nothing less than a true revolution…” He is a frequent lecturer at universities, elementary schools, and high schools, religious and non-religious, and yeshivot across Israel.
This article, reprinted with permission of the author, previously appeared at asakeisar.com