It’s traditional to eat dairy on Shavuot, which begins the first week of Sivan. So let’s explore dairy for the month of Sivan.
Let’s start with the separation of milk and meat in the Torah. What it actually says is “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (לֹא-תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי, בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ). This prohibition is found three times in the Torah: Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34: 26 and Deuteronomy 14:21, which means — seriously, don’t freaking do this we’re not kidding around!!!
Most likely this was a prohibition on mixing life and death; milk being the source of life and death being meat, very literally in this case the meat of the kid goat. It was also, according to the Encyclopeida of Jewish Symbols, a common ancient pagan practice to give an offering of a kid boiled it it’s mother’s milk as part of religoius rites. This is also a good reason that it was prohibited in ancient Jewish practice. Like so many things in Jewish tradition walls upon walls were built up to ensure we don’t accidentally make this mistake.
So let’s play out this idea of dairy and milk as a potent symbol of life. The name of one of the rivers in Eden was Hiddekel (חדקל) often translated as Tigris, which may have been a derivation of the Akkadian word for “Milky Way.” Mother’s milk is our first food and the first food of all mammals.
The tradition of eating dairy products on Shavuot seems incongruous, but I think the simplest answer is from our agricultural heritage. This month would be when traditional cultures would begin milking cattle, goats, and sheep for the summer. Jessica Prentice, in her book Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection, points out that this is the time known as the Milk Moon for just this reason. In The Rosh Hodesh Table: Foods at the New Moon by Judith Solomon, it’s pointed out that chalav (חלב), the Hebrew word for dairy, has the numerical value of 40. This is the same length of time that Moses stayed on Mt. Sinai to receive the ten commandments. This is just one of the connections that the rabbis have given us for the tradition of dairy on Shavuot, but the agrarian connections truly make the most sense at the true root.
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Adapted from a post originally written for Peeling a Pomegranate (2003-2013) by Kohenet Ketzirah haMa’agelet