I have heard the cries of discontent calling out in pain – the shul is having a Shavuot BBQ! Is eating meat on Shavuot permitted? Surely even the youngest child knows that it is obligatory to eat dairy on Shavuot. But the question is: Is this really true?

Well, Shavuot is about learning, so let’s review the custom of eating dairy. There are numerous explanations given on Aish.com, but few resonate with me. One idea is that the Hebrew word for milk, Chalav, has a numerical value of 40, which corresponds to the 40 days Moses spent on Mount Sinai. Another possibility is that the Hebrew word for cheese, Gevina, equals 70 and corresponds to the 70 faces of the Torah.  In my estimation, these examples are trivial and a weak basis for the custom.

Another explanation for the custom of eating dairy is that when the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai, included were special instructions for how to slaughter and prepare meat for eating. Until then, the Jews had not followed these laws, thus all their meat – plus their cooking pots – were now considered “not kosher.” So the only alternative was to eat dairy, which required no advance preparation. This reason is perplexing for a couple of reasons. If their utensils were unkosher, surely they could not use them for dairy. Furthermore, in my understanding of Jewish law, there are many rules and regulations regarding the kashrut of dairy.
In the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, the custom of eating dairy is mentioned by the Rema, the Ashkenazi parallel to Rabbi Joseph Karo.  He mentions two customs on Shavuot. He says one should beautify the sanctuary with greenery, and then he adds that some people also eat dairy on the first day only. The meal would consist of a dairy appetizer followed by a main course of meat. On the second day he does not mention eating dairy because this custom was limited only to some people and only on the first day.

However, as important as any custom may be, there are factors that often trump the custom. For example, a person who is vegan or vegetarian and finds eating dairy or meat unpalatable should not ruin their holiday eating foods they find offensive. The same would apply to someone who is lactose intolerant or someone who has vascular issues and is told to refrain from foods laden with cholesterol. Even those who do not enjoy either dairy or meat are obligated to eat on Shabbat or Yom Tov only foods that are to their liking.

In conclusion, the custom of eating dairy is limited only to the first day of Shavuot and only to those who enjoy eating dairy. On the second day there is absolutely no reason at all not to have a BBQ, especially if having a BBQ would enhance the holiday. I remember eating on Rosh Hashanah at the house of Rabbi Uziel Milevsky (a former chief rabbi of Mexico). His wife served Gefilte fish with “chrain” horseradish even though the custom is not to eat anything bitter on Rosh Hashanah. He said, “I enjoy horseradish, of course you should eat what you enjoy on the holidays”.

The holidays are about enjoyment and there is even a biblical obligation mandating us to enjoy ourselves. Thus, it is clear; if you enjoy a BBQ and think it would enhance your Yom Tov, then it would be our pleasure to have you join us at the shul on the second day Shavuot.  If, however, having a BBQ on Shavuot is not to your liking, please remember that Jewish law is derived through a multiplicity of opinions, with some opinions being contrary to what others may opine are absolute and factual.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jack


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