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The Kabbalah of Cheesecake
by Yosef Y. Jacobson

Dear Rabbi,

What's behind the custom of eating dairy products on Shavuot before we engage in the regular holiday deli feast? Is there a connection between the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai and eating milk products?
I'm not complaining, I love cheesecake -- I'm just looking for a deep spiritual excuse to eat more.
We present here two answers, one complex, the other somewhat simpler. Both explanations, culled from the Kabbalistic literature, reflect the layers of depth and significance contained in Jewish customs and rituals. We hope you enjoy these explanations at least as much, maybe even a bit more, than the lasagna.
But first an anecdote:
Little David and his family lived in the country, and as a result seldom had guests. He was eager to help his mother after his father appeared with two dinner guests from the office.

When the dinner was nearly over, Little David went to the kitchen and proudly carried in the first piece of apple pie, giving it to his father who passed it to a guest. Little David came in with a second piece of pie and gave it to his father, who again gave it to a guest.

This was too much for Little David, who said, "It's no use, Dad. The pieces are all the same size."
* * *

By Yosef Y. Jacobson


A Cheeseburger With a Cappuccino?

The Shavout menu mirrors the first serious meal captured in the Bible -- the meal our father Abraham offered his angelic visitors in the beginning of Genesis, a feast, to be sure, rather uncharacteristic for a religious Jewish host.

"Abraham fetched some cottage cheese and milk," records the Torah, "and the calf that he prepared, and he placed it before his guests. He stood over them as they ate under the tree (1)."
Sounds like a cheeseburger with a cappuccino to me.

Indeed, exactly 400 years later, G-d refused to give the Torah to the angels because they had eaten trief (non-kosher food) at the table of Abraham. The Midrash relates (2), that when G-d was about to present the second set of tablets to Moses, the angels protested, saying that the Jews had violated the Torah and G-d ought not to trust them with His blueprint for life. "Leave the Torah with us," the angels exclaimed, "here it shall be safe and sound.”

G-d responded: "If anything, it was you who violated the Torah by eating non-kosher in Abraham's home." Upon hearing this, the Midrash relates, the angels conceded to G-d and the Torah was granted to the human race.

Yet, a closer reading of the biblical story suggests that Abraham's menu was Glatt Kosher and would be readily sanctioned by the most ultra-orthodox of rabbis. Let us reread the verse:

"Abraham fetched some cottage cheese and milk and the calf that he prepared and he placed it before his guests." In other words, Abraham first offered his guests cheese and milk, and only afterward did he present the calf's meat, something entirely permitted according to Jewish law (3). So why did G-d accuse the angels of eating a trief meal?

Balancing the Forces

The Kabbalah teaches that all physical substances represent spiritual forms of energy. In Jewish mysticism, dairy products are associated with the attribute of chesed, or love, while deli products reflect the attribute of gevurah, or strength (4).

The serene whiteness of milk and it being a substance that, unlike a solid, flows and expands readily -- are physical features reflecting the emotional energy flow of loving-kindness and tender nurturing. The redness and toughness of meat are reflections of man's capacity to create boundaries and walls, to discipline and withhold, to reject and to say no (5).

Strength and rejection are not necessarily evil or cruel; they are important components in a relationship. If there is only love and no borders, only giving and no reciprocity, only generosity and no consequences, we are denying the person we love the ability to develop their independence. If love eliminates the gulf between people, borders underscore the space we give each other, recognizing the otherness and distinctiveness of our beloved one.

Yet, though both elements are crucial in order to maintain a healthy balance in life, the attribute of chesed must always overpower the attribute of gevurah. One needs to make sure that his acts of disciplining are an outgrowth of love and caring rather than the other way around. For example, parents need to discipline and rebuke their children. But parents' primary enjoyment ought to come from nurturing and creating close relationships with their children, not from constructing boundaries and punishing.  

The Wait

In Jewish law there is a principle known as tattah gavar, which states that in the natural order of the universe, the bottom overpowers the top (6). Based on this principle, we may understand why following the consumption of meat one must wait six hours before eating dairy (7), while one who eats dairy need not wait prior to eating meat (8).

When man absorbs meat first, the energy of rejection becomes the bottom substance in his body, so that if he were to consume dairy immediately afterward, the attribute of rejection would overpower the attribute of love in his life, based on the principle that the bottom overpowers the top. Only when six hours have elapsed, during which the rejection energy of meat is fully digested in his system, and there is no residue of meat left in his throat, palate or between the teeth (9), can he ingest and internalize the dairy energy of love in a healthy and productive manner.

On the other hand, when man consumes dairy first so that the flow of chesed is the bottom substance, then he almost immediately may proceed to eat meat. In this case, the prevailing substance would be chesed, and it would dominate the power of gevurah that came second.

Earth Battles Heaven

Why did G-d establish the natural law to be that the bottom substance overpowers the higher substance? Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains (10) that this is because in the cosmic battle between heaven and earth, earth - the bottom - prevailed over heaven - the top.

When did earth prevail over heaven? As mentioned above, the angels, the heavenly creatures populating the spiritual universes on high, demanded that the Torah be granted to them. But it was Earth that triumphed. Our rock-bottom world, a world which is lowly and coarse, became the recipient of the Divine blueprint for life. It is on our soil and within our frail hearts that the objective of all creation is implemented. The bottom overpowered the top.

When the angels protested G-d's plan to send the Torah down to Earth, demanding instead that it remain within the higher realms of existence, G-d demonstrated to them that they really did not believe what they were saying. For if they truly felt the Torah belonged above and not below, it would mean that their perspective held that the top ought to overpower the bottom. But if that were the case, they would need to wait six hours after eating cheese before they could consume meat so that the rejection power of meat would not override the loving power of cheese - all this based on their perspective that the higher substance overpowers the lower substance.

The fact that the angels did consume meat immediately following their dairy meal demonstrated that they, too, believed that the Divine blueprint for life was reserved for the human race, living and struggling in a lowly and mundane world. They, too, conceded to the fact that the bottom overpowers the top. That's why they allowed themselves to consume dairy and immediately after that eat deli.
It was in the merit of the dairy-followed-by-deli feast that the Torah was given to the Jewish people. 

Hence, each year on Shavuot we reenact that Abrahamic feast: We eat dairy, followed by deli, demonstrating that earth prevailed over heaven; that it is in our labor to sanctify the soil in our life where we touch the truth of existence.

(This essay is based on a discourse by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (10)).


1) Vayeira 18:8. The translation presented here follows that of The Living Torah. Some, however, interpret the Hebrew term chemah to denote butter, cream, or a kind of yogurt. But according to all of the interpretations, it was a dairy dish.
2) Midrash Tehilim chapter 8, quoted in Daas Zekeinim Vayeira 18:8. The angels visited Abraham on Passover, in the year 2048 (1714 BCE). The Jews left Egypt on their way to Sinai where they received the Torah in the year 2448 (1313 BCE).
3) See Daas Zakeinim and Rashi ibid. According to Jewish law, after drinking milk and eating cheese one washes one's hands, rinses and cleans one's mouth, and is immediately permitted to eat meat. Many have the custom to wait one half an hour or one full hour between the two (see Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Daah section 89 and commentaries there).
4) See Shalah Parshas Vayeira. Likkutei Torah Behaaloscah, p. 31c-d.
5) See Likkutei Torah ibid. and references noted there.
6) Here is a Talmudic example: If cold food is placed on top of hot food in one vessel, we assume hat the bottom food overpowers the top food and warms it. Since heat enables taste to travel, if any of the food in the vessel is non kosher, all the food becomes trief, because the heat causes the taste to be transferred from one food to the other. On the other hand, if hot food is placed on top of cold food, we assume that the bottom food overpowers and cools the hot food placed above it. In this case, the taste would not be transferred from one food to the other and the kosher food would remain valid for consumption.
The Talmud (Pesachim 76a) cites a dispute as to whether the bottom overpowers the top or the top overpowers the bottom. But the latter opinion was rejected in the final rulings of Jewish law (Rashi and Tosfos, ibid. Tur Yoreh Daah, section 91).
7) In fact, there were Jews who waited 24 hours before partaking of cheese (see Chullin 105a).
8) See Shulchan Aruch Yorah Daah, section 89, and commentaries. The basic rational behind this distinction is that meat, unlike dairy items, leaves a fatty residue in the throat and palate. Also, particles of meat may remain lodged between the teeth (see Shuclchan Aruch, ibid.). What follows ahead is the mystical explanation of this law.
9) See Kreisi U'pleisi 89:3 and references noted in footnote #8.
10) Kerem Chabad, vol. 1, p. 80.


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