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It is a widely accepted Jewish custom to eat milk products on the holiday of Shavuos. The commentators give many reasons for this custom. One reason is that the Torah is compared to milk as it says in the posuk “Honey and milk is under my tong” (Shir Hashirim 4:11). Chazal interpret this posuk as a reference to Torah study. Being that Shavuos is the holiday in which we received the Torah, we eat milk products as a symbolic reminder as to what has occurred on this day.
Another reason we eat milk products is to draw attention to the prohibition of eating meat and milk together. The commentators tell us that every day of the year corresponds to one of the negative commandments. For example the commentators devote much effort to show how tishah ba’av corresponds to the prohibition of eating from the gid hanashe, the sciatic nerve. Similarly, the holiday of Shavuos corresponds to the prohibition of eating meat and milk together. An allusion to this can be found in the posuk “The first of the fruits of your land you shall bring to the house of Hashem your G-d, you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Shemos 23:19). The holiday of Shavuos is the earliest time in the year that we may bring our first fruits to the Beis Hamikdash. The fact the Torah juxtaposes the law of the first fruits to the prohibition of eating meat and milk together, reveals a relationship between the two. What is the symbolic significance of this relationship?
If a drop of milk falls on a hot piece of meat, the meat is prohibited due to the fact that the meat now contains a flavor of milk. However, if the piece of meat is sixty times the volume of milk, the meat is permitted. In this instance we say that the flavor of milk has been nullified by meat. If the meat is less then sixty times the volume of milk, and the piece of meat subsequently falls into a pot of meat that contains less then sixty times the volume of the meat, all the pieces of meat in the pot are prohibited. The novelty of the law is that even if all the pieces of meat together contain more than sixty times the volume of the original drop of milk they are still prohibited. The reason here is because we need sixty times the volume of the prohibited meat, not the milk.
The above mentioned law illustrates the principle of chatichah atzmah naasais neveilah, the piece itself becomes like a piece of non-kosher meat. When the drop of milk falls on the original piece of meat we don’t view the piece of meat as merely a mixture of meat and milk but rather as a new entity that is completely forbidden, similar to a piece of non-kosher meat. Even the meat flavor that exudes from this piece is forbidden.
The principle of chatichah atzmah naasais neveilah is unique to the laws of meat and milk. With regard to other prohibited mixtures the Torah law states that the prohibited flavor becomes nullified. For example, if a piece of non-kosher fat fell on a piece of meat which is less then sixty times its volume and the meat subsequently fell into a pot that has more then sixty times the volume of the non-kosher fat but less then sixty times the volume of meat, the pot of meat is permitted. We view the first piece of meat as merely a mixture of non-kosher fat and kosher meat. Thus, even if we only have enough volume to nullify the prohibited fat, the remaining pieces of meat are permitted. In practice we are stringent and follow the principle of chatichah atzmah naasais neveilah even with regard to prohibited mixtures other then meat and milk but only out of stringency not due to the letter of the law.
Throughout the Torah and Rabbinic literature we find man described as a “basar vada’am,” meat and blood. We have mentioned that on Shavuos it is customary to eat milk products as a symbolic reminder that the Torah was given on this day. We have also mentioned that we eat milk products to draw attention to the law that it is forbidden to eat meat and milk together. We may suggest that the purpose of eating milk products is to draw attention to the unique principle of chatichah atzmah naasais neveilah that applies only to law of meat and milk.
We would be tempted to believe that Torah study has little impact on our behavior and lifestyle. After studying Torah we are merely a mixture of meat and milk. We use the term meat here to refer to our physical bodies and the term milk as a reference to Torah. We would think that even when we devote time to Torah study we remain that same people as before only with an accumulation of Torah knowledge. The law chatichah atzmah naasais neveilah teaches us otherwise. Just as a combination of meat and milk is not viewed as merely a mixture of two dissimilar items but rather a new entity, likewise when we bring the milk of Torah into our bodies of meat we are transformed into a new people who live with the spirit of Torah.
© Efraim Levine 5760/2000 - 5764/2004