Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard

Shavuot’s dairy dilemma

Today's milk industry challenges the Torah-based ethics we were taught and our understanding of what it means to keep kosher

I remember how intense, how holy, it felt to see my wife nurse our first son when he was born – to be simultaneously in the presence of so much love and sustenance. (In fairness to my other two sons, it was pretty great with them too. It’s just by then I knew all the crying, sleepless nights, and poopy diapers that come with such sublime moments.) Nursing feeds the body and soul; a baby is given tangible nourishment through the milk itself, and emotional sustenance through the comfort and love she receives from her mother, as expressed in the act of breastfeeding. 

So powerful an experience that across countries, continents, and cultures, the image of a mother nursing universally symbolizes compassion, nurturing, and love.

This image of a mother nursing a baby comes to mind as we get ready for Shavuot, the celebration of the Jewish people’s receiving Torah at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and its dietary customs.

Shavuot, like all holidays, has its traditional food customs – the primary one being that people eat dairy food. That this custom took root at all is surprising. It evolved during times when eating meat was a rarity associated with special occasions such as celebrations and holidays – which receiving the Torah certainly is. Given that, the custom of eating dairy food on Shavuot seems almost counter-intuitive.  

Although there are numerous interpretations and explanations for the origins of this custom, its roots are not clear. Historical context provides a potential answer: spring was the calving season so there was a large surplus of milk. (Historical note: in ancient Israel, this was from goats and sheep, not cows). A practical answer is that having just received Torah and learning about keeping kosher, we did not have fit meat to eat.  

However, year after year, I am drawn back to the image of a mother nursing, and milk as a symbol of life and compassion. We are taught that the Torah begins and ends with acts of loving kindness (clothing the first humans and burying Moses) that we are to walk in God’s compassionate ways, and that God only requires three things of us: to love mercy, act fairly, and walk humbly. What better symbol to capture love and compassion than milk and what better day to eat it than on Shavuot?

However, though the image of a mother nursing still holds as an iconic image of compassion and love, the reality of cow milk today is very different. While every stage of the modern milk industry challenges the ethics we were taught and our understanding of what it means to keep kosher, I want to focus on the calf’s birth. According to the Torah; “When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days under its mother (Leviticus 22:27).” Therefore, a calf taken prior to this time would be unacceptable according to Torah. In the current industrial dairy, the separation of a mother cow and baby calf occurs within 24-72 hours. This is primarily done to facilitate milking but also so that the mother will not bond with her calf. What an awful thing to do to a mother and child!

If a dairy cow was producing enough to feed her calf, she would only produce about one gallon of milk per day. Due to intensive breeding, the average American dairy cow now produces more than 7.5 gallons of milk per day, over 24,000 pounds of milk every year. This process is so brutal that cows who normally live for over 20 years are usually exhausted and killed after 5. In general, cows are considered “spent” – no longer as productive –  after 4-6 forced pregnancies.  For a symbol of compassion and nurturing, the current means of milk production shows none. 

Given the way factory farms produce milk, it begs the question of whether milk befits the symbol of compassion and life and is worthy of being the traditional food of Shavuot? For the truth is, if we really got where milk came from today, we would not get milk.

With so many alternatives available, perhaps it is time to leave dairy milk to mothers and their nursing newborns. This will require a shift over time in the foods we buy and serve to our communities, families, and congregations. Instead of purchasing commercial dairy products, consider choosing from the plethora of plant-based milk, cheese, butter, ice cream, and many other dairy-free and kosher products available today.

But for this Shavuot, I would simply ask, “Got (oat) milk?”

About the Author
Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard is the Executive Director of Jewish Initiative For Animals which helps Jewish institutions align their food choices with their Jewish values. He is a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, the co-founder of the Valley Chevra Kadisha and the vice chair of the Sandra Caplan Community Beit Din in Los Angeles.