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Lactose Tolerance - Got Milk?

I recently read an article in a popular Jewish publication featuring a proponent of a vegan approach to Shavuot, while playing down the popular custom of eating dairy foods, a practice that is anathematic to vegans. One of the arguments offered was that if we get back to basics, Shavuot is depicted in the Bible as a “wheat harvest festival,” while the focus on dairy is a newer-fangled custom.

There is no question that the Torah associates the festival of Shavuot with the wheat harvest, and in fact, mandates that an offering be brought in the Temple from the new crop of wheat. However, Shavuot is undoubtably also connected to the anniversary of Revelation at Sinai, and is referenced in the prayers of the day as Zman Matan Torateinu – the season of the giving of our Torah.

Now the practice of eating dairy on Shavuot is certainly not a Mitzvah. The wheat offering most certainly was a Mitzvah. Yet, chronologically, the practice of eating dairy on Shavuot actually precedes the wheat offering, because it was done by the Jewish people standing at Sinai, while the wheat offering did not take place for at least another year, if not 40 years. See for more on the custom of eating dairy.

So, while I definitely respect the right of vegans to not eat dairy, even on Shavuot, I would be hesitant to downplay it as an insignificant custom. Indeed, the “big deal” we make about eating dairy on Shavuot highlights the preciousness of mere customs and the valuable role they play in our connection to Hashem.

Another custom is learning all night on Shavuot eve. And yet another, very important, custom is to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments on Shavuot day. Please join us at Chabad (all locations) for these uplifting celebrations. For more information, see below or

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

The Crown of a Good Name

Many people spend a lifetime crafting an image and creating a legacy for themselves, by which they wish to be remembered. A lot of thought goes into every “positive” thing that they do. The timing, the optics, and opportunity for maximum exposure are all considered.

And then there are those who just go about their day and leave a lasting impact on those around them.

Ethics of Our Fathers (4:13) states: Rabbi Shimon says: There are three crowns—the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty—but the crown of good name surmounts them all.

The “crown of a good name” does not need a lot of explanation. You know it when you encounter it. A person who possesses it is the type to leave you with a positive feeling following an interaction with them.

This week our family mourns the loss of a young relative, my 40-year-old cousin, Eli Baitelman, of Los Angeles. Eli served as a Chabad Rabbi for many years and then transitioned over to the business world to become a contractor. While he may have switched hats, he didn’t switch crowns. The “crown of a good name” followed him wherever he went. He was the same source of kindness and blessing to whomever he encountered.

He would share an encouraging word. He would speak to Jewish customers or business associates about holidays and Jewish practices. He put on Tefillin with Jewish subs, clients, and site inspectors. Needy families were the beneficiaries of his generous approach to business.

At his funeral, in addition to family, friends, and community members, a large contingent of his loyal employees participated, openly demonstrating their emotions over the passing of their “boss.” He gave them opportunities to support their families and treated them with kindness and respect.

“The crown of a good name surmounts them all.”

But there is a grieving family trying to come to terms with this tremendous loss. His young wife, seven children; his mother, siblings, and extended family. We do not know why Hashem would take a person at this young age, but we do know that we must step up and help where we can. A fund was set up to assist his family as they navigate this overwhelming challenge. Please join me in generously contributing at

May Hashem bring them strength and comfort in these difficult times. Even better, may Hashem put an end to the suffering by ushering in the era of Redemption when, “those who dwell in the dust will arise and sing” and be reunited with their loved ones once again.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

A Floating Skull on Lake Pontchartrain

In 1985 a skull fragment was discovered near the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. At the time they were only able to determine that it belonged to a female 25-35 years old. As technology improved, further testing was done, and a greater profile was developed. Just last week it was reported that cold case investigators used carbon 14 testing and determined that the skull fragment was from a person who lived around 1500 BCE. Testing even revealed some of her lifestyle and eating habits.

As I came across this news story, I thought about a similar story reported in the Talmud (Avot Chapter 2). The great sage Hillel was walking alongside a body of water and saw a skull floating atop the water. Pondering what he saw, he declared, “You were drowned because you drowned others. And ultimately, those who drowned you will also drown.”

Maimonides explains that Hillel was teaching us the principal of “measure for measure.” He then adds that if this is true in a negative sense, how much more so does G-d reward someone for a positive matter. Rambam’s grandson suggests in the name of “the ancient ones” that the skull belonged to Pharaoh, who ruled Egypt at the time of the Exodus. (Interestingly this would place the skull that Hillel saw to have lived around the same time period (give or take a century or two) as the skull fragment discovered on the Northshore in 1985.)

The Arizal cites this interpretation and gives a radical insight. The second half of Hillel’s statement, “And ultimately, those who drowned you will also drown” is addressed not to Pharaoh, but to the Jewish people. It is Hillel’s way of comforting the Jews through the terrible millennia of persecution, that no matter how insurmountable a circumstance we might be facing, Hashem has the last word. Indeed, we look back at all of those who sought to “drown us” and they themselves have been relegated to the history books, while Am Yisrael Chai.

The Rebbe adds an even more radical insight. Hillel was known to be a humble and kind man. Why would he rebuke a skull, even that of Pharaoh, over a thousand years after his demise? Hillel said to himself, “Why would Hashem show me this sight?” By using Pharaoh to bring a meaningful message to the Jewish people, Hillel granted Pharaoh’s wandering soul a measure of peace as well.

As Paul Harvey would sign off… “And now you know, the rest of the story.”

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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