This week’s parasha, Korach, describes the rebellion instigated by Moses’ Levite cousin Korach. Korach’s main accusation was against Aaron and the Kohanim: why did they tale all the priestly services for themselves and left nothing for the lay Israelite? Had not God stated that all of Israel will be a holy nation of kohanim? (Exodus 19:6) Why did only a small group of people (Aaron and his descendants) suddenly become kohanim? His argument was actually a valid one, and Rashi (on Numbers 16:6) records that Moses even agreed with Korach to some extent, and said that he too wishes that all of Israel could be priests! Why weren’t they?
This Saturday night comes the festival of Shavuot, commemorating the Divine Revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah. There is a well-known custom to eat dairy foods on the holiday. Although it isn’t clear exactly where this custom came from, there are many beautiful explanations for it. Below are some of them.
Cheese & Coffee
The classic and most oft-cited answer for eating dairy on Shavuot is as follows: Since the Jewish people received the Torah on Shavuot, they were now bound by the laws of kashrut. This meant that whatever meat they had available was not kosher. Therefore, they had to consume dairy products. The consensus among the Talmudic sages is that the Torah was given on Shabbat, which means the people would not have been able to shecht fresh meat (Shabbat 88a). So, they ate dairy.
This standard explanation is actually problematic, for it is also forbidden to milk a cow on Shabbat or to make cheese (Shabbat 95a). Although the Israelites could have had cheese from before, making cheese requires rennet which, to be kosher, must be extracted from a kosherly-slaughtered cow. Whatever cheese they had would not have been kosher either! Perhaps they ruled that since only very little rennet is required—certainly less than 1/60th of the cheese’s total mass, although it is a davar hamaamid, a vital ingredient—and that they had produced that cheese inadvertently—not being bound by kosher law at the time—it would be okay.
Or, perhaps they reasoned like Rabbeinu Tam (Rabbi Yakov ben Meir, 1100-1171) who held that rennet was not the issue with non-kosher cheese. He argued that in our day and age all cheese is pretty much kosher, even that made by gentiles, though it is certainly better to be stringent and avoid those made with non-kosher rennet (see Tosfot on Avodah Zarah 35a). It should be noted that the halacha today is not in accordance with Rabbeinu Tam’s lenient position. Although over 90% of the cheese on the market is made from artificial rennet anyway, Jewish communities long ago accepted the prohibition of gevinat akum, not to consume any cheese not made or supervised by Jews.
Of course, it is possible that the Israelites at Sinai didn’t eat cheese at all, but had other dairy products such as butter, which would have been made before Shabbat, and would have been fine to consume. Today, on our fixed Jewish calendar, Shavuot can never coincide with Shabbat (at least not the first day of Shavuot). Because of this, as with other yom tovs, it is common to have a barbeque since cooking on a holiday, unlike on Shabbat, is permitted. Now, most people who had stayed up all night studying (as is customary on Shavuot) are unlikely to start grilling in the wee hours of the morning, nor could they stomach a heavy meat meal. In many synagogues, after staying up in study all night, the community then prays at the earliest possible hour, has a quick breakfast Kiddush—breakfast generally being a dairy meal—and then everyone is off to get some sleep. This is the simplest and most practical reason for the custom of a dairy meal on Shavuot.
Alternatively, others have the custom to have a dairy meal in the evening, before the all-night study session. This is because eating a heavy meat meal will make it hard to stay awake all night. It is better to have a light dairy meal, probably with a strong coffee. Jewish historian and scholar Elliot Horowitz presented a fascinating theory that the practice of staying up all night on Shavuot (as well as Hoshanah Rabbah) only became popular starting in the 16th century because it was in this century that coffee was introduced to the Ottoman Empire! Similarly, among Ashkenazis the practice didn’t take hold until decades later, when coffee was first brought to Europe. (See Horowitz’s 1989 paper, “Coffee, Coffee Houses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry.”)
Mountain of Cheese
In Psalm 68, which is recited on Shavuot, we read:
When God scattered kings therein, it snowed in Tzalmon. A mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan; a mountain of peaks [har gavnunim] is the mountain of Bashan. Why do you look askance, you mountains of peaks? The mountain which God has desired for His abode? God will dwell therein forever. The chariots of God are myriads, even thousands upon thousands; God is among them, as in Sinai, in holiness.
In this passage, we see how God’s chosen mountain, Sinai, is called by other names. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2:4) elaborates:
[Mt. Sinai] has five names: Har HaElohim, Har Bashan, Har Gavnunim, Har Horev, Har Sinai. “Har HaElohim” because there Israel accepted Hashem as their God. “Har Bashan”, since everything a person eats with their teeth [b’shinav] comes from the merit of the Torah, which was given on this mountain… “Har Gavnunim” because it is pure like cheese [gevinah], free of all blemishes. “Har Horev” since here the Sanhedrin was given the authority to pronounce the death penalty [harev]… “Har Sinai” since henceforth there was hatred [sinah] for idol worshippers [who did not accept the Torah].
We see that one of the names for Sinai is “mountain of cheese”, which is another reason to consume dairy products on Shavuot. Better yet, the gematria of cheese (גבינה) is 70, alluding to the “seventy faces” of Torah, as well as the seventy names for God, and the seventy names for Israel—all revealed at Sinai.
Interestingly, in the Talmud, Rav Kahana adds that Sinai comes from the word nes, “miracle”, since the Jewish people witnessed the greatest miracle there (Shabbat 89a). The Sages countered his point by saying: Then it should’ve been called Har Nisai! Another Midrash adds that Sinai comes from the word sneh, the burning bush through which Moses first encountered God on that mountain (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 41).
We read in the Torah that when Moses was born, his mother hid him from the Egyptians for three months (Exodus 2:2). Since we know that Moses’ birthday was the 7th of Adar, three months later would be the 7th of Sivan. According to one opinion in the Talmud, the Torah was actually given on the 7th of Sivan, even though today we celebrate Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan (Shabbat 88a). Whatever the case, Shavuot is the day when Moses was placed into the River and discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter.
We then read in the Torah that Moses’ sister, Miriam, who was a servant of Pharaoh’s daughter, told her: “Shall I go and call you a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for you?” (Exodus 2:7) Miriam brought Yocheved, and Moses was nursed by his own mother despite being raised in the Egyptian palace (Sotah 12b). So, another reason to eat dairy on Shavuot is in commemoration of baby Moses being reunited with his mother and continuing to nurse from her. In fact, the entire nation standing on Mt. Sinai on Shavuot is likened to a newborn baby, for this is the officially birthday of the Jewish people. At that moment, the Jewish people “nursed” directly from God. And there is an allusion to this in Psalm 68, cited above.
There, the first verse refers to God coming upon Mt. Sinai using the Name Shaddai. The first time this Name appears in the Torah is when God reveals Himself to Abraham: “…I am El Shaddai, walk before me, and be pure, and I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” (Genesis 17:1-2) Later we read how Isaac blesses Jacob and says: “May El Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of peoples.” (Genesis 28:3) Finally, Jacob invokes the Name Shaddai when he blesses his own children: “…And by Shaddai you will be blessed, with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that couches beneath, blessings of the breasts [shaddaim], and of the womb.” (Genesis 49:25)
In all of these cases, we see that El Shaddai is associated with blessings of fertility and reproduction. The last verse in particular makes this explicit, connecting Shaddai with shaddaim, “breasts”. In fact, later in the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:13), God states that He “suckles” us with sweet honey, and the Name used is once again Shaddai (though it should be mentioned that it is typically read as saddai, “My field”). In short, El Shaddai is a Name of fertility and reproduction, and symbolic of the Jewish people—children of God—“suckling” and sustaining ourselves from God’s blessings. The association with milk is quite clear.
Better yet, the Torah itself is compared to nourishing milk (Song of Songs 4:11). And, fittingly, the gematria of “milk”, halav (חלב) is 40, alluding to the 40 days and nights that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to bring down the Torah. Forty is the value of the letter mem, which is unique in that it has an “open” (מ) and “closed” (ם) form. The open mem is incomplete, searching for meaning and for its purpose, while the closed mem is complete, a full circle (or square). The open mem’s value is only 40, while the closed mem is 600. The difference between them is 560, the value of parpar (פרפר), “butterfly”, the ultimate symbol of transformation and metamorphosis. All of this alludes to a person’s own growth, transformation, and completion through Torah.
This week’s parasha, Metzora, is primarily concerned with the laws of various skin diseases. Jewish tradition holds that the main reason for a person to contract these skin afflictions is for the sin of evil speech. The term metzora, loosely translated as “leper”, is said to be a contraction of motzi ra or motzi shem ra, “one who brings out evil” or gives someone a “bad name”. The Sages described lashon hara, a general category referring to all kinds of negative speech (even if true), as the gravest of sins.
The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) comments on the parasha (on Leviticus 13:59) that the word “Torah” is used in conjunction with words like tzaraat or metzora five times, alluding to the fact that one who speaks lashon hara is likened to one who has transgressed all five books of the Torah! The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) famously states that one who speaks lashon hara “kills” three people: the subject of the evil speech, the speaker, and the listener. The same page states that lashon hara is equal to the three cardinal sins: murder, idolatry, and adultery. Other opinions (all supported by Scriptural verses) include: one who speaks lashon hara is considered a heretic, deserves death by stoning, and God personally declares that He and the speaker of lashon hara cannot dwell in the same space.
Having said that, the Talmud’s definition of lashon hara is quite narrow. It doesn’t include general tale-bearing, but specifically refers to slandering another person. It also states that lashon hara is only applicable when two people are speaking in private, secretly. If one slanders before three or more people, then it is evident that he doesn’t care that the subject will know he said it. It is like saying it publicly, or to the person’s face directly, which does not constitute lashon hara. (It is still a horrible thing to do, of course.) This is why God says (Psalms 101:5) that “Whoever slanders his fellow in secret, him I will destroy.” It is specifically when done in secret that it is such a terrible, cowardly sin.
Since Talmudic times, the definition of lashon hara has broadened considerably. It has come to include rechilut, “gossiping”, saying negative things about another person that are true, saying them publicly, and even to suggest or imply something disparaging about another, without naming a person specifically. When it comes to gossiping, one can find an allusion to its severity from the Torah itself, which states “You shall not go as a talebearer among your people, neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16). In a single verse, the Torah juxtaposes gossiping with failing to prevent bloodshed. One can learn from this that one who listens to gossip (specifically where another person is spoken of unfavourably) without trying to stop it is like one standing idly while the “blood” of another is being shed.
One question frequently asked about this is whether lashon hara applies between a husband and wife. We saw that the Talmud states lashon hara is especially horrible when spoken in secret between two people. Does this include a married couple as well? On the one hand, we want to distance ourselves from negative speech as much as possible, at all times. On the other hand, we expect a married couple to be allowed to speak freely between one another as they wish. After all, they are two halves of one soul and considered a singular unit.
The Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, 1839-1933), generally considered the greatest authority on lashon hara, forbids such speech even between husband and wife. However, many other great authorities before and after him (including Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, 1910-1995, and the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Isaiah Karelitz, 1878-1953) ruled on the contrary, and permitted a husband and wife to speak about whatever is on their mind, particularly if something bothers them. Technically, even the Chafetz Chaim is lenient in a case where a spouse is in distress and needs to get something off their shoulders.
Still, all agree that we should limit negative words as much as possible, and certainly keep gossip to a minimum. Of course, when negative words have a constructive purpose, it is not considered lashon hara at all, whether between spouses or fellows. This is the case if a person undoubtedly knows, for example, that a particular contractor or salesman is dishonest, and tells a friend in order to protect them from harm.
Repairing Evil Speech, Repairing the World
In the days of the Temple, the kohanim would bring about atonement for the nation through sacrifices and various offerings and rituals. The most important time for atonement was Yom Kippur, and the greatest atonement ritual of the day was when the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, would enter the Holy of Holies (just once a year) and fill it with incense smoke. What was the ultimate purpose of this? The Talmud (Arakhin 16a) states that it served to atone for lashon hara! This was especially necessary because, elsewhere, the Talmud (Bava Batra 165a) states: “Many transgress the law of stealing, few transgress the prohibition of adultery, and all transgress lashon hara.” Everyone is guilty of negative speech, at least to some degree. How do we repair this sin, especially when we don’t have a Temple today?
The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) states that if one is a Torah scholar, they should learn more Torah, and if one is not a Torah scholar, they should strive to be more humble. Like all the other statements, support is brought from verses in Tanakh. King Solomon said “A healing tongue is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4). The Sages see the use of the word tongue (lashon) as alluding to lashon hara, and therefore if one wants to heal their lashon hara, they should cleave to the Tree of Life. What is the Tree of Life? King Solomon himself said in another place (Proverbs 3:18) that the Torah is a Tree of Life! Therefore, to rectify the sin of lashon hara one should study Torah.
Upon closer examination, we see that Torah study is actually the perfect remedy for lashon hara. When a person speaks lashon hara they are using their tongue in a negative way and infusing bad energy into the world. When a person learns Torah (which is traditionally done vocally), they are using their tongue in a positive way and infusing good energy into the world. The balance is thereby restored, measure for measure. On top of this, the purpose of Torah study is ultimately to make a person better. The Torah is the best tool to counter the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, as God Himself declared: “I have created the evil inclination, and I have created the Torah as its remedy” (Sifre Devarim, 45). Thus, a person who learns Torah simultaneously neutralizes the evil speech they have spoken and refines their inner qualities so that they will not participate in evil speech in the future.
On that note, there are two kinds of people when it comes to lashon hara: those that like to speak it, and those that love listening to it. The latter often quell their conscience by telling themselves that they never speak lashon hara, God forbid, but only passively, faultlessly, hear it. As we’ve seen above, the listener is almost as culpable as the speaker. Thankfully, there is a remedy for this, too. While many don’t necessarily learn Torah directly from a sefer or on their own, today we have unlimited potential to learn Torah by listening to lectures. These are shared widely on social media, and through digital devices, on apps, and over the radio. Every person today is a click away from Torah learning.
This takes us back to the Talmud, which stated that a Torah scholar can repair lashon hara by learning, while one who is not a Torah scholar should become more humble. The big question here is how can a person just “become more humble”? Humility is one of the most difficult traits to attain! We might even say that the Talmud should have required the Torah scholar—who is constantly learning, growing, and working on themselves—to “become more humble”, not the other way around! How can we make sense of the Talmud?
To prove the point about the non-Torah scholar, the Talmud uses that same verse from Proverbs: “A healing tongue is a tree of life, while perverseness through it will break the spirit.” The plain reading of the verse is that a person who uses their tongue for positive, healing purposes is likened to a Tree of Life, while one who uses their tongue for perverseness is destroying their soul. The Sages take the latter half of the verse to mean, on a simple level, that one who uses their tongue for perverseness should “break their spirit”, ie. become more humble, in order to rectify the sin. There is also a deeper way to read that same verse.
To solve the puzzle, one needs to re-examine what “it” (bah, in Hebrew) refers to. The simple meaning is that “it” refers to the tongue, and one who speaks perverseness through it (the tongue) will break their spirit. However, the verse can just as easily be read so that “it” refers to the Tree of Life. If so, the verse is read this way: “A healing tongue is a tree of life while perverseness, through it [the Tree of Life] will break the spirit.” What is it that will “break” one’s spirit and cause them to become humble? The Tree of Life itself!
Therefore, it is specifically the learning of Torah, the Tree of Life, that brings one to more humility. With this in mind, if we go back to the Talmudic statement of our Sages, what they are saying is: The Torah scholar should rectify their sin by learning more Torah, as they have yet to attain the proper level of holiness, while a non-Torah scholar should learn by listening to more Torah, for this will have the same effect of bringing a person to humility, and rectifying lashon hara.
At the end, this rectification is what will bring Mashiach. In Kabbalistic texts, the generation before Mashiach is in the sefirah of Yesod, which is concerned primarily with sexuality. It is not a coincidence that this is one of the major global issues today. The time following Mashiach’s coming is that of the final sefirah, Malkhut, “Kingdom”. One of the most famous passages from the Tikkunei Zohar is “Patach Eliyahu”, customarily recited before the prayers. There we are told that “Malkhut is the mouth, the Oral Torah.” While Yesod is the sexual organ, Malkhut is the mouth; it is Torah sh’be’al Peh, the Oral Torah, literally “Torah on the mouth”. The key path to realizing Mashiach, Malkhut, is by rectifying the mouth, which is done through the study of Torah.*
As we prepare for Pesach, we should remember the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah, ch. 32) which states that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of four things: for not changing their names, not forgetting their language, not engaging in sexual sins, and not speaking lashon hara. The same is true if we wish to bring about the Final Redemption. Not engaging in sexual immorality is a direct reference to Yesod, while the other three all deal with the holy tongue, with proper speech and Malkut: using holy names, speaking the Holy Language, and making sure to speak only positive words.
*More specifically, the first rectification is that of the “lower mouth”, Yesod, a tikkun that will be fulfilled by Mashiach ben Yosef. This is followed by the tikkun of the upper mouth, Malkhut, fulfilled by Mashiach ben David (of whom the Prophet says he will slay evil with his mouth, Isaiah 11:4) bringing about God’s perfect Kingdom on Earth.