Drinking Torah like Milk

Dena Weiss

Parashat Emor

The holiday of Shavuot makes its debut in this week’s parashah. One of Shavuot’s most distinctive customs is that we consume milk and eat other dairy foods.1 And though there is no explicit mention of any connection between Shavuot and milk in the Torah itself, R. Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, the Olelot Ephraim,2 finds a basis for this custom in the Torah’s description of Shavuot, by means of a rather inventive reading.3 The verse says,

במדבר כח:כו 

וּבְיוֹם הַבִּכּוּרִים בְּהַקְרִיבְכֶם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַה' בְּשָׁבֻעֹתֵיכֶם מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ:


BeMidbar 28:26

On the day of the first fruits, when you offer a grain offering of new grain to God at your festival of weeks, you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do the work of your labor.


The Olelot Ephraim points out that the first three letters of the phrase, חֲדָשָׁה לַה' בְּשָׁבֻעֹתֵיכֶם (new [grain] to God at your festival of weeks) spell out the word, חל"ב, milk.4 

He goes on to explain that the custom to eat dairy is also grounded in the Rabbinic understanding of Shavuot as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah. He cites the rich tradition of Rabbinic literature which supports a comparison between the qualities of milk and the qualities of Torah, so why does he introduce his discussion with this curious mnemonic? And how does this exegetical choice relate substantively to the custom of eating milk? Understanding the Olelot Ephraim’s teaching, both in form and content, leads us to an important lesson about what the Torah really is and what it means for us to receive it.

The Olelot Ephraim explains that the comparison to milk expresses itself in three ways, corresponding to the three letters of the word חל"ב. The first way in which Torah is similar to milk is that it always yields new meaning. As the Talmud in Eruvin 54b teaches, since the taste of a woman’s milk is affected by what she eats, every time a baby drinks the milk the baby experiences a slightly different taste. So too the Torah can always be explored for new tastes and new explanations. The second comparison to milk is based on a different talmudic passage, this one on Ta’anit 7a, which teaches that milk (like wine and oil) keeps best in inexpensive clay pottery, as opposed to in fine metals. So too the Torah is best kept by the humble and unpretentious.

Unlike the first two explanations, the Olelot Ephraim’s third characterization of milk’s likeness to Torah is not based on any passage from the Talmud and appears to be his own invention. He says that the final reason why the Torah is compared to milk is that it puts people to sleep.5 Of all of the Torah’s beneficial, inspirational, and crucial qualities, the Olelot Ephraim chooses to focus on the idea that the Torah can induce sleep.

Substantiating the claim that the Torah is compared to milk because milk makes you sleepy requires effort on the part of the Olelot Ephraim. He therefore appeals to an interpretation of the word Shabbat that is completely parallel in form to his interpretation of the word halav, milk, in the context of his explanation of Shavuot. He points out that it is traditionally said6 that the word שב"ת can be separated into the initials of “שינה בשבת תענוג, sleeping on Shabbat is a delight.” So too on Shavuot, which is the seventh of seven complete weeks, seven shabbatot, it can also be said “שינה בעצרת תענוג, sleeping on Shavuot is a delight.” We now understand why he created his derivation for the custom to drink milk out of the initials HaLa”V, חל"ב: He does so in order to compare it directly to the resting on Shabbat, which is also supported by its initials SHaBba”T, שב"ת. He creates an equivalency between resting on Shavuot and resting on Shabbat by employing this parallel derivation. The similarity of these readings allows him to forge a link between these two ideas which he then uses in the absence of any explicit Rabbinic source.

The Olelot Ephraim’s equation of Torah with sleepiness on Shavuot is particularly strange given the Kabbalistically derived custom of staying up all night on Shavuot. The notion that milk is supposed to put you to sleep and that is why we consume it on Shavuot seems to fly in the face of the established practice to wash down one’s cheesecake with enough coffee to be able to stay up and study for the entire night. More than the cheesecake puts people to bed, the coffee keeps them awake.

Despite the fact that the custom to stay awake in order to study Torah on Shavuot seems to work counter to the theory of the Olelot Ephraim that Torah puts us to bed, we can better understand his theory by looking closely at the custom to remain awake all night. The Magen Avraham,7 acknowledges the Kabbalistic roots of the practice to stay up on the night of Shavuot, tikkun leil Shavuot, but he also weds this practice to an older midrash: 

מגן אברהם תצד:א

איתא בזוהר שחסידים הראשונים היו נעורים כל הלילה ועוסקים בתור' וכבר נהגו רוב הלומדים לעשות כן ואפשר לתת טעם ע"פ פשוטו לפי שישראל היו ישנים כל הלילה והוצרך הקדוש ברוך הוא להעיר אותם כדאיתא במדרש לכן אנו צריכים לתקן זה:


Magen Avraham 494:1

It is stated in the Zohar that the early ascetics would be awake all night and engaged in Torah study. And the majority of learners have taken on the practice to do so. And one can give a straightforward [i.e. non-Kabbalistic] reason for this based on the fact that the people of Israel were sleeping all night, and the Holy Blessed One needed to wake them, as is stated in the midrash. Therefore we need to “fix” (letaken) this.


The midrash that the Magen Avraham is referring to is found in Shir HaShirim Rabbah: 

שיר השירים רבה א:יב

רַבִּי פִּנְחָס בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי הוֹשַׁעְיָא אָמַר: עַד שֶׁהַמֶּלֶךְ בִּמְסִבּוֹ (א:יב), עַד שֶׁהַמֶּלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא. בִּמְסִבּוֹ, בָּרָקִיעַ, כְּבָר הִקְדִּים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות יט, טז): וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיֹת הַבֹּקֶר. לְמֶלֶךְ שֶׁגָּזַר לְיוֹם פְּלוֹנִי אֲנִי נִכְנַס לַמְּדִינָה, וְיָשְׁנוּ לָהֶם בְּנֵי הַמְּדִינָה כָּל הַלַּיְלָה, וּכְשֶׁבָּא הַמֶּלֶךְ וּמְצָאָם יְשֵׁנִים הֶעֱמִיד עֲלֵיהֶם בַּקְלָאנִין, בּוֹקִינַס וְשׁוֹפָר, וְהָיָה הַשַֹּׂר שֶׁל אוֹתָהּ מְדִינָה מְעוֹרְרָן וּמוֹצִיאָן לְאַפַּנְתֵּי שֶׁל מֶלֶךְ, וְהָיָה הַמֶּלֶךְ מְהַלֵּךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם עַד שֶׁהִגִּיעַ לַפָּלָטִין שֶׁלּוֹ, כָּךְ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא הִקְדִּים, דִּכְתִיב: וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיֹת הַבֹּקֶר, וּכְתִיב (שמות יט, יא): כִּי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי יֵרֵד ה' לְעֵינֵי כָל הָעָם, יָשְׁנוּ לָהֶם יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל אוֹתוֹ הַלַּיְלָה,

לְפִי שֶׁשֵּׁנָה שֶׁל עֲצֶרֶת עֲרֵבָה, וְהַלַּיְלָה קְצָרָה.


Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:12

Rabbi Pinhas said in the name of R. Hoshaya: While the king is in his repose (Shir HaShirim 1:12). While the king—the King of Kings, the Holy Blessed One, is still in his repose—in the sky, He already arrived, as it says, It was on the third day, while it was still morning (Shemot 19:16). This is analogous to a king who decreed, “I will be entering the province on a certain day,” and the residents of that province slept all night. When the king came and found them sleeping, he appointed criers with trumpets and horns. The governor of that province would awaken them and brought them out to the king’s reception, and the king would walk before them to his palace. So too the Holy Blessed One already arrived, as it says, It was on the third day, while it was still morning, and it also says, On the third day God descended before the eyes of the entire people (Shemot 19:11). Israel slept through that entire night because the sleep of Shavuot is sweet, and the night is short.


This midrash accounts for some of the aspects of God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai that the Torah records, which seem somewhat strange when examined closely. First, the Torah emphasizes God’s presence on the mountain on the morning of the third day.8 Why do we need to know that it is the morning? Second, God’s appearance is accompanied by a lot of sound and sight, kolot uvrakim.9 Regarding Moshe, the verse says, וַיּוֹצֵא מֹשֶׁה אֶת הָעָם לִקְרַאת הָאֱלֹהִים, Moshe brought the people out to encounter God10 which implies that Moshe was bringing them instead of their walking independently and of their own accord. The midrash therefore explains that the untold story behind these details is that only God was there on time on the third morning, while Benei Yisrael were still sound asleep. The Torah needed to be given with a clamorous noise in order to wake us up, and Moshe needed to be there to drag us out of bed. According to R. Hoshaya, the Jews were asleep. Even though they knew that this momentous day was arriving, they didn’t succeed in waking up for it.

The Magen Avraham says that the Jewish people had been dozing lazily in bed on the morning of the giving of the Torah, therefore in subsequent generations we make an extra effort to stay awake and rectify the errors of our ancestors. We stay up all night in anticipation of receiving the Torah. However, the midrash itself does not attribute the sleeping in of Benei Yisrael to laziness at all, but rather says, “Israel slept through that entire night because the sleep of Shavuot is sweet, and the night is short.” This description is wonderfully consonant with the Olelot Ephraim’s theory that what characterizes Torah is that it puts you to sleep. The sleep of Shavuot is sweet because it is the sleep of receiving the Torah. To receive the Torah is to be able to rest. 

Every adult knows that the most frustrating and regularly occurring obstacle to a good night’s rest is stress, anxiety, and worry. Worrying about family and relationships, worrying about finances, anxiety about choices that we’ve made or things we’ve said. We feel overwhelmed by the stress of all of the work we need to take care of, work which we would be better able to take care of if we could just get a good night’s rest! When the Olelot Ephraim says that the Torah puts you to sleep, he does not mean that the Torah is boring, and that a sermon is the right time for a nap. What he means is that the Torah should release you from anxiety and should bring you peace.11

Often we are stressed about things that don’t really matter. If we are being honest with ourselves, we know that the level of anxiety we have about things is often way out of proportion to the amount they deserve. Studying Torah should redirect our focus to what is important, thereby diverting our attention and energy from the pointless and unnecessary to the teleological and meaningful. Not only does Torah direct you to what is important and steer you away from distractions, but it is there to help you make your way through what is difficult and confounding. The Torah should guide you to do the right thing. Rely on its wisdom, and it will free you from obsessing over whether or not you did make or are about to make the right decisions. Although the Torah does not always provide clear and succinct instructions, studying Torah trains you in how to think through the important problems and to weigh complex issues with clarity. It also demonstrates how important it is to discuss what matters with wise mentors and sensitive, insightful peers.

When Moshe felt that he couldn’t provide for the people, that he couldn’t manage the responsibility of all of our crying, the image he used to describe his helplessness, anxiety, and stress was that he saw himself as a wet-nurse without milk:

במדבר יא:יב, יד-טו 

12הֶאָנֹכִי הָרִיתִי אֵת כָּל הָעָם הַזֶּה אִם אָנֹכִי יְלִדְתִּיהוּ כִּי תֹאמַר אֵלַי שָׂאֵהוּ בְחֵיקֶךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא הָאֹמֵן אֶת הַיֹּנֵק עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתָיו:...

14לֹא אוּכַל אָנֹכִי לְבַדִּי לָשֵׂאת אֶת כָּל הָעָם הַזֶּה כִּי כָבֵד מִמֶּנִּי: 15וְאִם כָּכָה אַתְּ עֹשֶׂה לִּי הָרְגֵנִי נָא הָרֹג אִם מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ וְאַל אֶרְאֶה בְּרָעָתִי:


BeMidbar 11:12, 14-15 

12Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that You should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child, to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors?”

14 I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. 15 If this is the way You are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in Your sight—and do not let me see my misery.12

We see from this that what it would mean for Moshe to have milk would be for him to have the ability to not only provide the children of Israel with nourishment and nutrients, but also to be able to hold them; to provide them with the sense that everything is going to be fine, and to comfort them; to nurse them successfully and have them be satisfied and to quietly fall asleep. What Moshe doesn’t know, and Moshe needs to be taught is that he is, in fact, full of milk. Full of the Torah that he needs to guide and support the people, as the midrash on Shir HaShirim teaches about Moshe and Aharon: 

שיר השירים רבה ד:ה

שְׁנֵי שָׁדַיִךְ, אֵלּוּ משֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן...מָה הַשָּׁדַיִם הַלָּלוּ מְלֵאִים חָלָב, כָּךְ משֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן מְמַלְּאִים יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן הַתּוֹרָה.


Shir Hashirim Rabbah 4:5

Your two breasts. These are Moshe and Aharon… Just as these breasts are full of milk, so too Moshe and Aharon fill up Israel from the Torah.


We often think that it is children who don’t know how to prioritize, who don’t understand what is really important, and are concerned with frivolous things. But it is we who are concerned with frivolous things. The younger you are, the closer you are to milk, the more you understand its taste and its texture. When you are young, you know that you should be focused on the future, not feeling anxious about the past. When you are young, you are resilient, and you tend to sleep well. You are trusting. You can understand that the Torah isn’t there to make you feel inadequate, but it is there to teach you and to help you grow.

1 Even though meat is more often the food that graces a special holiday meal. See Rambam, Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:17-18. There, the Rambam teaches that it’s a requirement to make the festivals joyous occasions by eating and drinking special favorite foods. He says that for men, this generally means meat and wine, though this is certainly not true for all men and not considered to be a strict guideline, but rather a general description.

2 16th century, Prague. He is better known for his commentary on the Torah, Keli Yakar.

3 Section 2, Page 20.

4 Constructing new words out of the initial letters of the words of other phrases is a common practice in Rabbinic and even Modern Hebrew (particularly slang). This phenomenon is less common in English, though it does exist. For example, the word LASER is an initialism of this sort.

5 Milk’s soporific quality is well testified to—in the most graphic way—by the story in Shoftim, where Yael was able to execute Sisera, the general of the enemy army, by making him drowsy by feeding him milk and then driving a tent peg through his head while he was sleeping. See Shoftim 4:19-21.

6 The phrase is originally attributed to the Ar”i. See Yalkut Re’uve’uni to Parashat Va’Ethanan.

7 R. Avraham Gombiner 1635-1682, Poland. Commentary to the Orah Hayyim section of the legal code, Shulhan Arukh.

8 Shemot 19:15.

9 Shemot 19:16.

10 Shemot 19:17.

11 The Olelot Ephraim himself talks about the metaphor of milk as releasing one from anxiety. However for him, the reason why milk allows you to rest and releases you from anxiety is that it is symbolic of someone who can make do with less. It is the relentless pursuit of money and power on the part of those who are already wealthy that makes them unable to be content. The poor who have their milk and do not expect more than that are able to rest peacefully even though they sleep on the floor. The theme of the wealthy versus the poor is a perennial theme in R. Luntschitz’s writings. He often refers to himself as poor and persecuted, and suggests that the wealthy who abuse him are misguided in their approach to life.

12 Trans. NRSV emended.