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Of Angels, Cheeseburgers & Cheesecake

May 15, 2018 | by Rabbi Yitzchak Scher

An in-depth, philosophical look into the custom of eating dairy on Shavuot.

Cheesecake has taken its seat alongside hamantashen, latkas, kneidlach, and gefilte fish as a traditional Jewish holiday cuisine, due to the popular and well founded custom of enjoying dairy foods on Shavuot.

There are many reasons given for this custom. I would like to expand upon a very important, yet lesser known reason.

The prohibition of cooking and eating milk and meat together appears three times in the Torah. Notably, two of those three times this verse is repeated: “The first fruits of your land shall you bring to the house of Hashem your God; you shall not cook a kid in the milk of its mother.1” Twice the Torah juxtaposes the mitzvah of Bikkurim, first fruits, with the prohibition of milk and meat. What's the connection is between these two seemingly random commandments?

Since Shavuot is called Yom HaBikkurim, the day of the first-fruits, we can’t help but sense how our custom of eating dairy on the holiday seems to flow right from this verse. This custom may not just be about eating dairy, but to pro-actively display our adherence to separating meat foods from dairy. This point is especially pronounced according to the suggested practice by the Rema in the Shulchan Aruch of eating milk and meat at the very same meal on Shavuot, being extremely careful to take all halachic precautions to keep them separate!

The entire merit of the Jews receiving the Torah seems to be predicated upon their adherence to separating meat from milk. Why?

Another striking source for the connection between Shavuot and the prohibition of meat and milk is found in a midrash2:

When Moshe came down [from Mount Sinai] and the Jews sinned [with the Golden Calf] . . . the angels rejoiced and said: “now the Torah will be returned to us.” . . . The angels said to Hashem: “Master of the World, did the Jews not violate the Torah? For You wrote in it ‘you shall not have any other gods.’ “Hashem said to them, “You are always instigating trouble between Me and the Jewish people! Didn’t you eat meat and milk when you went to Abraham as it says ‘and he took butter, milk, and a calf [and fed it to the angels]’ but even a Jewish child, when he comes home from school [knows to separate meat and milk]!” [The angels] had no response...”

This story seems to describe that the entire merit of the Jews receiving the Torah is predicated upon their adherence to separating meat from milk. The angels who neglected this concept are unworthy of receiving the Torah. However, the Jews, who are devoted to separating meat and milk to the extent that even school children are cognizant of the mitzvah, are worthy of receiving the Torah! This midrash is quite surprising. As anathema as a cheeseburger is to an observant Jew, one usually would not consider that it’s the basis of the entire Torah. Furthermore, angels are not obligated to observe the Torah’s commands; why does God accuse them of wrongdoing?

We can unlock the message of our seemingly innocent custom of eating milk on Shavuot by acquiring a deeper understanding of why we separate meat and milk.

We can classify living beings in to three categories: plants, animals, and humans.

In a general sense, we can classify living beings in to three categories: plants, animals, and humans. Each one of these categories functions differently in the world. Plants, in general, perform two main tasks: they take in nutrition (survival) and reproduce. Even the fruits produced by plants are usually only a means for its seeds to be nourished, protected, and scattered, enabling reproduction.

Animal life is more sophisticated and complex. Animals are mobile. They have social interactions, build nests, hunt, and may even claim territory for themselves. Many have refined skills, ambitions, and extremely effective methods of attaining food and protecting themselves and their young. However, upon further analysis, as sophisticated as animals may be, their actions also seem to pivot around the above-mentioned “life-goals” of plant life: survival and reproduction. The lion will conquer land with strength, stealth, and skill but only with the intent of acquiring the water hole in the middle of his territory and the lionesses with which he will mate. So too, other animals, in their own ways, focus on these very same goals. Animals utilize refined skills and wisdom, but only for the lowly goals of plant life.

The human being is totally different. We are created in the image of God3, with a divine soul implanted within4. We are partly physical and coarse but partly spiritual and elevated. We are created to live within the physical world but yet strive to connect with a Higher Purpose. But this exactly is the challenge of the human being. Humans must use their advanced wisdom to choose to live an elevated life energized by our higher elements, and not to live a physical life motivated by the physical body created of “dust of the earth.” One can choose to be Godly or choose to follow in the footsteps of the animals and plants of the world.

The ability to make this choice is found in the human intellect. Unlike the animal, the human can succeed in having his or her intellect override his or her animalistic instincts, urges, and desires. However, if the human mind is not engaged or does not have clarity of purpose, the animalistic side will inevitably prevail resulting in the human being living as merely a highly sophisticated, complex, and ambitious “plant”. Like the lion claiming his territory, the successful human being will use his talents and wealth to acquire his own “lionesses and water-hole”.

Reintroducing the meat into the milk symbolically expresses the antithesis of what it means to be human.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch5 beautifully describes that the above message is the symbolism contained within the prohibition of mixing meat with dairy. He explains that the material which characterizes the “vegetative side” of animal life is milk. Milk is the first and most basic nourishment consumed by a mammal, and is secreted by the mother as a result of reproduction. Therefore, milk is the substance symbolizing the drives for nourishment and reproduction within an animal. In contrast, the flesh of the animal represents its “animal” side. The muscles, power, movement, and prowess of the animal are evident within the meat. Reintroducing the meat into the milk symbolically expresses the antithesis of what it means to be human.

Allowing the meat, i.e. the animal side containing skill, power, and ambition, to be utilized in pursuit of plant-like goals, is the opposite of what a human being is created to do. Animals allow their unique power and talents to assist then in a pursuing their plant-like objectives. We, as humans, must be sure to use our intellect to moderate and guide our activities so they are channeled toward our Higher calling, not towards our base desires. We must take in nourishment and reproduce, but in order to achieve higher goals, not succumb to instincts. We utilize our animal side and our plant side to enable us to live noble lives, but not to have each side service one another. We must make sure that our “milk” and “meat” remain separate. Mixing the two would be a symbolic replication of a human being descending in to animalistic behavior. (“You are what you eat.”)

The Torah addresses the spiritual side of the human being. It is a system both in thought and in action to lift the person above the bounds of this world and cast him into an elevated lifestyle. The Torah teaches us how to live within the physical world, but not be subjugated to physical desires. Mitzvot and Torah study train the body and mind to not give in to their animalistic or vegetative elements, but rather to subordinate these elements and channel the entire being to bringing sanctity in the world.

When the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, a bridge was created between Heaven and Earth: Heaven and Earth touched6. Now with our feet firmly planted on the ground, we can have a way to have our mind, body, and essence reach the highest realms.

Only humans are created as a hybrid of the divine soul and dust of the earth and thereby must toil to ensure that his spiritual side is not overrun by his animalistic drives.

Angels are not touched by the above struggle. A human is created as a hybrid of the divine soul and dust of the earth and thereby must toil to ensure that his spiritual side wins and does not become suppressed by earthly, animalistic drives. Angels are totally spiritual beings and do not run the risk of becoming animalistic. They have no earthly desires or instincts and consequently can “mix dairy with meat” bearing no impact on their essence. Accordingly, they can feast7 on meat and milk in the home of Abraham without any regrets. However, God still tells them that because of this, they are unworthy of receiving the Torah. The Torah is designated for a being that has free choice and must contend with a physical side. Angels are not the ones who need Torah because they are not involved with this struggle.

The above midrash points out that even a Jewish child is innately aware of this issue. When the Jewish child is described returning home from school and separating meat from milk, it highlights the fact that this concept is an essential and intrinsic part of every Jew. We must deal with constant tug-of-war between our soul and our body, yet we are equipped with the tools to succeed. Innately, we know to use our intellect and keep our “meat” separate from our “milk”.

Shavuot, the day of receiving the Torah, is the time to focus on what it means to be a human being. Are we just sophisticated vegetables and animals or do we have a unique nature and mission? The Torah teaches us how to move beyond our vegetative and animalistic elements, act purely human, and thereby connect to the divine. As we enjoy our cheesecake this Shavuot (carefully keeping it away from our brisket), may we all endeavor to have God’s word elevate us to the exalted level a human being is meant to reach!

1. Shemos 23:19 and 34:26
2. Midrash Shochar Tov Chapter 8
3. Bereishis 1:27
4. Bereishis 2:7
5. In his commentary on the Torah, Shemos 23:19
6. Shemos 19:20 and Rashi’s commentary
7. The fact that a totally spiritual being can “eat” is a question which must be addressed but is beyond the scope of this article.

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