Shavuot is a sleeper holiday. When my friend and mentor Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, with clear delight and enthusiasm, related to me that it’s his favorite festival, I thought, why not Simchat Torah, which also celebrates Torah, or Purim, which honors Esther as Shavuot honors Ruth? Or Pesach, which commemorates the idea and action of freedom?
Shavuot celebrates the ideas and action of the Torah, which was given only after the Jews, gained freedom from slavery in Egypt. My pondering about the joy with which the rabbi spoke of Shavuot led me to learn more about the background, deep complexity, and simple beauty the holiday brings to Judaism and how, even without our knowing much more about it than the blintzes and cheesecake it puts on our tables, Shavuot has shaped the way we are as a people.
Though the myriad avenues of Jewish thought, belief and practice have their roots in the interwoven stories and traditions of Shavuot, just following the harvest themes and the lore of why we eat dairy reveals much about the bridges between the cultural and the spiritual that inherently hold us together as Jews.
The central reason for the holiday is that Shavuot is the time when the law was given by God to the wandering Jewish people at Mt Sinai. Moses spent 40 days and nights on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments and the entire Torah, cementing the Jews’ covenant with God.
What seems like an explosion of lore, practice and ritual that has accrued around the holiday from this crucial event is acutely noted when seen from our present perspective, which foreshortens the effect of the thousands of intervening years.
For example, Shavuot has more names than any other Jewish holiday, reflecting its multiple avenues of meaning: Hag HaKatzin, the Reaping Holiday, marking the beginning of the wheat harvest and the gleaning laws that meant the poor must always be taken care of; Yom HaBikkurim, Day of the First Fruits, a harvest reference made about the bread offerings baked from the first new wheat; Shavuot, Festival of Weeks, connecting the barley harvest that begins the day after Pesach with the seven weeks of omer counting that ends with Shavuot and the start of the wheat harvest; Z’man Matan Torateinu, the Season of the Gift of our Torah; Atzeret, Completion, meaning that with Pesach, Shavuot makes a complete cycle: we gained freedom on Passover so we could receive the Torah on Shavuot, and many others drawn from the depths of significance in this richest of holidays.
Similarly, just the reasons for focusing our diet on dairy foods originate from many different facets and interpretations of the holiday’s lore.
A few examples: the laws of kashrut were revealed with the giving of the Torah, which was given on the Sabbath, so any meat the Jews had been eating was not kosher and no animals could be slaughtered, nor could any butchering implements be kashered until after the Sabbath. The Jews, therefore, ate only dairy on the first Shavuot.
However, one custom that grew around the eating of dairy on the holiday calls for first eating a dairy meal, reciting the after-blessings, taking a half-hour rest and then eating the festival meal, which must, according to law, contain meat. Each meal is eaten with a loaf of challah (different loaves) to commemorate the two-loaf offering that was given at the Holy Temple on Shavuot.
Another reason for eating dairy is that when the infant Moses — the central character in the Torah story to come — was pulled from the water, he refused to nurse with any but a Hebrew woman, allowing his mother to nurse him and keep his internal connection with the Jews intact.
Yet another reference to dairy and Shavuot is in Song of Songs, where it is said that while studying and learning Torah “Honey and milk are under your tongue” (Song of Songs, 4:11), perhaps also meaning that while eating dairy is good, eating sweet dairy dishes is even better!
Another similar reference speaks to the spiritual role taken by the Torah in the lives of Jews: the Torah is thought of as “milk and honey,” but honey comes from bees, which are not kosher, and milk comes from a live animal whose flesh is not kosher until it is ritually slaughtered. Both milk and honey, therefore, speak to the Torah’s power to transform an “unclean” soul into one of holiness and purity.
More dairy references: numerologically, the word for milk in Hebrew, chalav, has a total numerological sum of 40, the same number of days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah. The background for this connection may have come from the phrase in Numbers that puts the beginning of Shavuot “on the day of the first fruits, when you offer a new meal [bread] offering to God on your Festival of Weeks.” The first letters of the main Hebrew words of this phrase form the word chalav, milk.
Even more connections: milk is white, which symbolizes kindness and speaks to God’s giving of the Torah as an act of divine kindness and relates to the kindness that must be shown to the less fortunate in Jewish culture. And another spiritual support for eating dairy is that when the Jews ate milk directly after receiving the Torah it was like being directly nourished by God.
In referencing a similar kind of miracle, that a mother’s milk provides all the nourishment needed by her newborn, Shavuot lore likens Torah to milk because it encompasses within it all the sustenance the human soul needs for spiritual vitality and growth.
Here is a recipe for making your own simple, rich and delicious ricotta cheese to eat with a spoonful or two of honey, roll inside blintzes or fashion into a fabulous Shavuot cheesecake! Enjoy the holiday and the cheese!
Rich Homemade Ricotta
3 quarts whole or 2-percent lowfat milk
1-1/2 cups whole or lowfat milk yogurt, preferably natural
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
Pinch cinnamon or nutmeg if desired
In a large, 4 to 5-quart, non-reactive (stainless steel or enamel) saucepan, combine the milk, yogurt and cream until completely mixed. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil two minutes or until the mixture is very curdled.
Line a large mesh strainer with a damp kitchen cloth or several layers of cheesecloth, making sure the cloth extends well over the sides of the strainer. Place the strainer over a deep bowl and pour the milk through the strainer. Drain 30 minutes, making sure the strainer doesn’t rest in liquid.
Gather up the loose ends of the cloth and twist gently to extract more liquid.
Transfer the curd to a clean, non-reactive (stainless, glass or ceramic) bowl and stir in the salt and spice, if using. The cheese will keep, covered and refrigerated, up to 4 days.
Makes 4 to 5 cups
Emily Moore is a local chef with 30 years experience in her field, including 13 years in local and regional restaurants. Her business, Emily’s Kitchen, provides culinary services to all facets of the food industry and catering to the Jewish community. She also currently teaches culinary arts at Edmonds Community College.