Dairy Food and the Power of Permission by Rabbi Moshe Rube

It seems that with every Shavuos that comes around, the same arguments repeat themselves.  Jews start dreaming about the cheesecake and blintzes they will feast on and various rabbis raise the alarm that according to halacha, meat remains the only legitimate form of Simchas Yom Tov.  The opinions fly back and forth, but at the end of the day, everybody does what they wish.  I have eaten at many meals of my rabbis during Shavuos and have experienced dairy meals, meat meals, and of course meals that have faithfully followed the Rama where they serve dairy first, clear the table and then serve meat.  With the argument settled and the minhag of eating dairy on Shavuos so well entrenched among the Jewish people, the best reason I can think of for continuing these arguments is that it makes our dairy at our Yom Tov meals taste sweeter knowing there are some rabbis who forbid.  “The inclination only desires that which is forbidden” (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:1).


Since people will follow their custom anyway, I seek here not to give a reason why we eat dairy meals, but to offer a meditation as to what our dairy foods can signify to us on the night we receive the Torah, whether you have it as nosh, or as a part of your meals.


Although we don’t usually think about it, milk occupies a special place as the most purely kosher food there is.  Unlike plants that we must separate Terumos and Maasros and meat that must have proper Shechita, the milk needs neither to be kosher.  There never is a time that milk milked from a kosher animal is not kosher.[1]


This observation may be the explaination of a famous Gemara (Ketubot 111b) that states “One who shows his friend the whites of his teeth, is like giving him a cup of milk to drink.”  I’m sure the Gemara knows that people have varied dietary preferences so why the emphasis on milk?  Perhaps because milk signifies permission and freedom from worries about Kashrus.


Now to people who (like me) study or who have studied in Yeshiva such a conjecture may fill you with utter horror.  Why would the Talmud hint to joy when we receive a lenient ruling?  We must reflect the cool and collected attitude of Reb Nechunia Ben Hakaneh who prayed before every learning session “That I do not declare what is impure, pure and not what is pure, impure”.  The truth of the Torah is simply the truth and we should strive to eliminate from ourselves any inclination to enjoy going lekula.


I don’t wish to casually cite various go to Talmudic guidelines for a ruling that seem to encourage us to rule leniently like Torah Chas Al Mamonan Shel Yisrael (The Torah takes pity on Israel’s money) or “Koach Diheteira Adif” (The Power to give permission is stronger).  They don’t bode well for making sweeping generalizations about psak.


But one inarguable truth I can say is that it takes more knowledge to permit than to forbid.  As a communal Rav, I can testify to the truth on the ground that Jews who wish to keep the Torah tend to forbid more on themselves than they need to.  Thus they spend money and cause themselves stress unnecessarily.  It has been my job more to assure people that something is permitted more than forbidden.  For instance, not seeing an official hechsher on cut fruit in a grocery store can be enough to send someone into a worrisome frenzy and declare Assur (forbidden).  It then becomes my distinct pleasure to teach them that not everything requires a hechsher and they can permit many of the items that they forbade on themselves.  And although this is frequently over the phone, I can tell that I’ve given them their proverbial cup of milk.


Milk is something the Torah explicitly permits when it calls the Land of Israel “A Land flowing with milk and honey”.  So it’s not just a plain heter that makes a person smile, it’s the permissibility and the fact that we know that it’s valid and based on God’s word.  Apparently, this was the motivation for Rav Ovadia Yosef’s long responsas full of every opinion under the sun.  One of his guiding principles of halachic rulings which he stated often was Koach Diheteira Adif, so it seems he was reluctant to forbid anything without foraging through the vastness of Torah knowledge.


So with all that in mind, let me propose a new prayer for Torah teachers, rabbis, and poskim, to say during the year and especially on Shavuos as we behold milk in all its forms.


“May it be your will, God, the God of our forefathers, that we merit to know your Torah and make it our own in all its vastness, beauty and light.  May we learn so much of your Torah that whenever a Jew asks us to declare something pure or impure, we may have the knowledge to grant him a heter that will cause him the happiness of milk to drink if that’s where the truth guides us.  And if we must forbid something and cause a Jew loss of money or emotional burden, may it never be based on ignorance but on knowledge.”


[1] Excluding Rabbinic Gezeiros of Chalav Yisroel

Rabbi Moshe Rube is the Rav of Knesseth Israel of Birmingham, Alabama, the only Orthodox synagogue in the state.  He received his Semicha from Yeshiva University and also holds a Master’s degree in Music Education from Lehman College.

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