A custom mentioned in many places is to eat milk foods at Shavuot, particularly in the daytime meal. In a previous column (as well as the forthcoming book) we connected this to the gemara's view that milk is made from coalesced blood. (Nida 9a.) Blood is generally a symbol of our bestial nature; the Jews at the time of the Exodus were close to this level. But after seven weeks of refining their characters, they reached a level of purification suited to holiness; this is symbolized by the transformation of blood into milk, a permissible food. Then they were ready to receive the Torah.
I recently discovered this idea in the writings of Rav Natan of Breslav. Rav Natan incorporates this specific idea into a broader perspective on the Shavuot holiday as the culmination of the period of counting Omer.
Much of Rav Natan's explanation surrounds the following verse in Shir haShirim (5:1): "I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice, I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey, I have eaten my wine with my milk. Eat, friends, drink and be drunk, beloved ones".
"Wine and milk", points out Rav Natan, are symbols of Torah, as the commentators explain on the following verse: "O, all you who thirst go to water; and he without money, go and acquire and eat; and go and acquire, without money and without price, wine and milk" (Yishayahu 55:1).
Myrrh is a bitter spice and indeed is often found as a symbol of bitterness; whereas the word used for "my spice" (besami) generally refers to sweet- smelling herbs. The period of counting the Omer is precisely a period of gathering. Indeed, the word "atzeret" often used for the Shavuot holiday means a gathering or ingathering. The souls of all Jews are gathered one by one during this period. This includes those who began on a low spiritual level, the bitter "myrrh" souls, as well as the righteous, the sweet-smelling spice souls (as on Sukkot when the fragrance of the etrog and the myrtles recall the good deeds of the righteous).
Thus the Omer period begins with the Omer offering, which is brought from barley, which is an animal food. This symbolizes the low level of many of the people at the time they were in Egypt, who were at the level of blood or myrrh. The counting period represents a process of widening inclusion; as each day goes by, more and more souls are accounted for and gathered in to those who will be suitable to receive the Torah. By the end of the seven-week period all are included: "For we are occupied in the days of the counting every day to gather them in and to assemble them and to bring them within the numeration and accounting, so that not a single one will be missing, rejected, or lost".
When this process is completed, then "I have eaten my wine with my milk". Rav Natan explains that wine and milk have in common the idea of refinement. As we have already pointed out, milk is formed from blood that is transformed and refined. Wine also has a terrible potential for destruction; it brings out our innermost selves, including our highest but also our lowest drives. "Don't glance at the wine when it is red" (Mishlei 23:31); wine is dangerous when it is red, that is, when it is like blood. But after our characters have been refined during the S'fira period, the red blood has been transformed into white milk, and the wine of drunkenness is transformed into the wine of enhanced fellowship and insight as we are connected with others and with our inner selves.
Rabbi Meir's book Meaning in Mitzvot is now available as an e-book through Amazon, ibooks, Google Play and B&N.