Friday, May 3, 2013

Why do we eat dairy on Shavuot, and other excuses for an ice cream party

We've put our town's historic ice cream stand, Uhlman's, on notice... large numbers will be descending on their corner of town toward the end of Shavuot day for our congregation's first Shavuot Ice Cream Flash Mob.  Its a favorite place for locals to go, and its going to be a lot of fun for our families to get our community together over one of the lighter (but not in the calories sense of the word) aspects of this harvest holiday.  But why ice cream? What's this dairy eating on Shavuot all about anyway?

I often tell people that whenever you ask a question about a Jewish practice and you are given several answers, it means that no one really knows what the original answer was. I’m only half-joking, because in each answer that we get we learn something about the concerns of the Jewish leadership at a certain point in time, and each teaching can offer something meaningful. In the case of eating dairy on Shavuot, among some of the more ‘traditional’ answers we sometimes hear that it has something to do with observing Kashrut – a precaution against breaking the covenant the very moment we received it, but that is clearly a later lesson expressing concern that we uphold the laws that provide the infrastructure which shapes Jewish living in response to Revelation.

I prefer a more allegorical set of meanings. Torah is likened to milk – something that provides life to newborns, nourishing and sustaining them in their infancy. Likewise, the Hebrews standing at Sinai were in their infancy as a people and were to build a society upon the bedrock of ethical and ritual practices that would enable them to endure and mature. Mystics also point out that the Hebrew for milk, chalav = 40 (chet -8, lamed -30, bet -2) – the number of days that Moses stayed on Mount Sinai.

But I am also drawn to a deeper mystical teaching. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810) gave one of his most significant lessons one erev Shavuot, dressed in white, in which he described how we can effect a tikkun haklali – a complete healing – of the fractured kabbalistic Tree of Life. Just as when our thought, speech and deed are in alignment and we are in spiritual alignment, so we can bring the sephirot of the Tree of Life into alignment in the spiritual realm, and the Zohar describes the flow of Divine Presence throughout the worlds as being like a lactating mother. While the specifics of the Zohar, and Rabbi Nachman’s explanation are complex and multi-layered, at its essence is the idea that Torah provides a guide to spiritual daily practice in all we think, say and do, and each one of us can bring a piece of healing and wholeness to our world through mindful living. I’ll raise an ice cream cone to that!

A couple of years ago, when I first published this answer to the question of dairy on Shavuot in the Connecticut Jewish newspaper, the Ledger, my father responded with his own attempt to answer the mystery of dairy on Shavuot... it's a lot more amusing than my version above - you can enjoy reading it here.

See you at Uhlman's for the CBS Shavuot Ice Cream Flash Mob, May 15, 6:30 - 7:30 p.m.!

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