Growing up, we always had dairy products on Shavuot. What is the connection between dairy and the holiday?
What a great question! There are two kinds of answers that are commonly given, both having to do with Shavuot as the anniversary of the Revelation of the Ten Commandments. First, according to a rabbinic tradition, at the moment of the Revelation at Sinai, the entire natural world stopped in its tracks and took notice. Birds were silent. Beasts stopped foraging for food. They momentarily stood at attention, at one with the Jewish people who were standing at the foot of the mountain, with a heightened sense of God’s presence. In remembrance of that moment, in which humans and animals stood together in a common awareness of the Divine, we refrain from eating meat on Shavuot.
The second reason has to do with the laws of Kashrut (dietary laws). Standing at Sinai, we learned all of Torah, and within that Torah are the dietary laws that regulate what foods are permissible, how meat must be prepared, and the requirement of strict separation between meat and dairy foods. Hearing these laws for the first time, the people knew that it would be several days before they could prepare bowls and utensils that would be fit for use, and so they restricted themselves to dairy products in order to keep within these laws. You can find many variations on this theme, all connecting the custom of eating dairy to the newly received laws of Kashrut.
I used to have a strong preference for the first theme, judging the second as, well, rather trivial by comparison. The Torah does not, after all, actually tell us to have two sets of dishes. Why would God concern himself with such small details amidst the thunder and lightning of Revelation? But I have reconsidered, and now see both approaches as important sides of the same coin. The first approach focuses on the ineffable nature of Revelation as an intuition or experience of God’s presence. It turns our attention to that Presence, rather than to the words, pointing toward what Franz Rosenzweig taught early in the 20th century that the real content of Revelation is Revelation itself. Revelation is discovering that it is even possible to stand in relationship with God. All the words we put to the experience come later.
The second approach focuses on the actual content. This includes the specific laws and teaching that both regulate the ethics of our relationships with one another and the regimen of ritual acts that keep us open to God’s presence day to day, including the Ten Commandments and the discipline of separating milk from meat and maintaining separate sets of dishes. The specific content of the laws may evolve over time, but when we see these laws as the ways in which we express our relationship with a transcendent God, it is as if they had all been spoken at Sinai.