Dairy foods are the hallmark of Shavuot. Many households, in fact, go so far as to eat milchigs almost exclusively on Shavuot.
This practice, though, seems difficult to justify. The Torah enjoins us to rejoice on Yom Tov (Devarim 16:14), and rejoicing requires – at least for men – eating meat and drinking wine (Rambam, Hilchot Yom Tov 6:18). In fact, the Mishnah explicitly singles out Shavuot as one of the most carnivorous times of the year (Chullin 5:3-4). While the Mishnah’s words are descriptive, not prescriptive, the fact remains that Chazal never mention eating dairy on Shavuot. This custom arose in medieval Europe (Kol Bo 52).
If so, how are we allowed to ignore what seems to be a basic halacha – that one should eat meat on Yom Tov – and eat milchigs exclusively? In fact, the earliest sources describing the minhag to eat milchigs on Shavuot give no indication that dairy foods should be eaten instead of fleishigs. Indeed, a gloss to the Sefer HaMinhagim of R. Isaac Tirna – the authoritative collection of Eastern European customs (15th century) – states explicitly that “one must also eat meat” in addition to dairy (Laws of Shavuot, hagaha 59).
The Rema also clearly speaks of eating both milchigs and fleishigs on Shavuot (Orach Chayim 192:3). In fact, according to the Rema, eating milchigs is only significant if a fleishig meal follows. When one transitions from a first course of dairy to a main course of meat, one must bring a new loaf of bread to the table (since bread eaten with milchigs may not be eaten with fleishigs). These two loaves, writes the Rema, allude to the shtei ha’lechem that were offered in the Beit Hamikdash on Shavuot. The Rema further states that this custom applies only on the first day of Shavuot, not the second day.
It’s true that other authorities do not require that dairy be eaten specifically as an appetizer to the meal; furthermore, many encourage eating dairy on both days of Shavuot (see Hilchot Chag BeChag, Shavuot ch. 8 n. 108). No one, however, suggests that we eliminate or minimize our consumption of fleishigs. Is there any justification, then, for those who do so?
To begin with, it actually isn’t clear that eating meat on Yom Tov is formally required. It’s true that in the times of the Beit HaMikdash, the essence of “rejoicing” on Yom Tov was eating sacrificial meat (Pesachim 109a). However, the Talmud clearly states that in the absence of the Temple, men fulfill the mitzvah of simchat Yom Tov by drinking wine and women fulfill it by getting new clothes.
A simple reading of the Talmud indicates that in the absence of consecrated meat, the mitzvah of simchat Yom Tov has no objective definition. People should simply do whatever gladdens their heart (cf. Sha’agat Aryeh 65). Even if one were to argue that men are obligated to drink wine on Yom Tov since the Talmud mentions it explicitly, there would seem to be no source for the Rambam’s ruling that meat is absolutely required in post-Temple times (Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 529, but see Yam Shel Shlomo, Beitzah 2:5).
Although partaking of meat on festivals is not strictly mandatory, poskim generally recommend that both men and women eat meat nonetheless (Bei’ur Halacha 529 s.v. “keitzad”; Hilchot Chag BeChag, Yom Tov vol. 1 2:33 and vol. 2 5:9). They do so because simchat Yom Tov is subjective nowadays, and most people enjoy fleishigs. But if one genuinely prefers dairy foods, eating milchig meals on Yom Tov should be permissible (especially if they include fish, which halacha considers a very honorable food).
Even for those who prefer meat, not every meal on Yom Tov necessarily needs to be fleishig. Many people like taking a break from the heavy meat meals by having a dairy meal, and doing so should be acceptable on any holiday – let alone Shavuot when eating dairy has particular significance.
In fact, no less an authority than the Steipler used to eat milchigs on Shavuot night and fleishigs during the day (Orchot Rabbenu vol. 2 p. 98). (He chose to eat fleishigs during the day because halacha generally places greater significance on the daytime meal.)
Yet, some authorities do prefer that meat be eaten both on Yom Tov night and day (Darkei Teshuvah 89:19). According to this approach, one should either:
1) Follow the minhag of Rema – eat a fleishig meal but begin with a dairy appetizer;[i] or
2) Eat a dairy Kiddush followed by a fleishig se‘udah. This custom is based on two factors: a) Changing the table settings and cover – plus cleaning one’s hands and mouth – in the middle of a meal is inconvenient; and b) some people have a pious practice, based on the Zohar, not to eat milchigs and fleishigs in the same meal.
In conclusion: Although eating dairy food on Shavuot is a widespread minhag, one need not have a formal milchig meal. It is quite sufficient to have a milchig appetizer, or a milchig Kiddush, followed by a fleishig se‘udah. In fact, if one enjoys eating meat, dispensing entirely with fleishig meals on Shavuot (or any holiday) is improper.
[i] The appetizer should not include those kinds of cheeses after which one must wait six hours according to most minhagim.