The most famous reason, quoted by the Chafetz Chaim (see Mishnah Berurah 494:12) in the name of the Mogen Avrohom, is that when the Jewish people returned to their homes after the harrowing, exhausting experience of receiving the Torah, they did what all Jewish people do when we get home – they went and stood in front of the refrigerator with the door open. (At least that’s what the men did.) Only this time, there really was nothing to eat, for a very simple reason. Before they had accepted the Torah, they could eat anything they chose – meat and milk together; improperly slaughtered meat – anything. But, staring into that fridge on that monumental morning, they realized that not only was the half-eaten corned beef sandwich on the bottom shelf not kosher; all of their dishes were treif and would have to be kashered as well. Then came the epiphany! As complicated as meat preparation is according to the Torah, with the shechitah and de-veining and kashering and salting and soaking – milchig food requires none of that confusion. So, until they could get their act together, learn the new halachah and prepare a proper kosher hot dog, they decided to stick with milchigs. So they all promptly rushed to the drive in at the Mount Sinai Dunkin Donuts, which ran out of bagels in under an hour. (Or so I hear.)
For this reason, we too enjoy milchig meals on Shavuot. In the spirit of fraternity with our forefathers of so many years ago, we reenact their sacrifice of barbecue for the sake of the Torah, and make do with pizza, cheesecake and ice cream on Shavuot.
But what if don’t have it in me? What if it’s just not Yom Tov for me without a roast, or meatballs, or steak? In fact, don’t the rabbis tell us precisely this idea? The Gemara does say that that אין שמחה אלא בבשר ויין – if you want to truly enjoy Yom Tov, which the Torah commands us to do, you cannot really have enjoyment without meat and wine. So, as good as that ice cream is, how am I supposed to enjoy Shavuot without a nice piece of roast? Or a steak? Or a hot dog? Or all three?
According to the Ramo, I’m not. Yes, I should eat milk. But then, I should also eat meat. You got that right – we should eat both, at the very same meal!
Commenting on the Shulchan Aruch (סימן תצ"ד), Ramo – Rabbi Moshe Isserles – explains that,
“There is a custom in some communities to eat dairy foods on the first day of Shavuot. It seems to me the reason is similar to the two cooked foods that we take on the night of Pesach to remind us of the Pesach offering and the Chagigah offering. Similarly, we eat dairy food and then we eat meat food, and we need to bring with these foods two breads on the table, which represents the altar, to remind us of the two breads that they would bring in the Temple on Shavuot.”I’ll explain. On Shavuot, the Torah commands us to bring as one of the offerings in the Temple a sacrifice called the שתי הלחם, literally meaning, “Two breads.” We call this the “two bread” sacrifice because God commands the כהן to offer two breads as a sacrifice on Shavuot. (No, it’s not a very creative name, but it does get the point across.) Just as on Pesach we put different foods on the seder plate (the shankbone and egg) to remind us of the different sacrifices offered in the Temple, on Shavuot people wanted a way to remember the “two bread” sacrifice as well. This is where the milk and meat enter the picture. The Shulchan Aruch (in Yoreh Deah 89:4) writes that one may not use bread that was served in the course of a meat meal for a dairy meal, even if the bread remained untouched. (This rule applies only to cut bread and not whole challahs or rolls.) Therefore, I cannot used challah leftover from my fleishig Shabbos lunch to make French Toast on Sunday morning. (On a personal note, I try not to cut up huge amounts of challah if we’re having a small family meal for this reason. This way, I leave the uncut challah on the side, ready for my kids’ cream cheese sandwiches during the week.) Armed with this information, we can now understand why people have the custom to eat both milk and meat on Shavuot.
When, on Shavuot morning, I smear my cream cheese on my challah, I now can’t use that same challah if wanted to switch to meat and eat salami. Halachah requires me to get another loaf of bread instead – two breads! Thus, I remember the שתי הלחם – the “two bread” sacrifice of the Temple. Brilliant!
You’re probably wondering why we don’t just use the two challahs we use on every Shabbos and Yom Tov to remember the שתי הלחם. I suppose we could, but this way, we’ve actually created a minhag that allows me to have my (cheese) cake and eat (my steak) too! I think that this is one custom that every family should adopt. Just make sure to eat the milchig part first, or you’ll be sitting down for one long, long, meal.