Shavuot is a sleeper holiday. When my friend and mentor Rabbi Dov Gartenberg related to me, with clear delight and enthusiasm, 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 actions 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.
Although there are myriad avenues of Jewish thought, belief and practice that 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 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.
Shavuot makes a complete cycle: We gained freedom on Passover in order to receive the Torah on Shavuot.
Similarly, the reasons for focusing our diet on dairy foods have inception in 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 any butchering implements kashered until after the Sabbath. The Jews therefore ate only dairy on the first Shavuot. However, one of the customs that grew around the eating of dairy on the first day of 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 person 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 the 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.
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 that the human soul needs for spiritual vitality and growth.
Here is a recipe for a lovely rich Hungarian yeasted cheese bread.
yeasted hungarian bread
with ricotta topping
For the dough:
1/2 cup milk
1 pkg. dry yeast
1 tsp. sugar
3 to 4 cups flour
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temperature
3 egg yolks
For the topping:
3 cups ricotta
3/4 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/4 cup sour cream
3 Tbs. chopped fresh dill
To make the dough, warm the milk to lukewarm, stir in the sugar and sprinkle in the yeast. Set aside until foamy, about 10 minutes. Put the milk mixture in a large bowl (or the bowl of a large mixer with a dough hook), add the soft butter, the egg yolks and enough flour to make a soft dough. Knead until smooth, lightly coat with flour and put back into the large bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set in a warm place until the dough doubles in bulk, about 40 to 60 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350º.
Meanwhile, make the topping: Place the ricotta in a large bowl and whisk until very smooth, then whisk in the sugar, eggs and sour cream. Stir in the dill and set aside.
When the dough has risen, butter a 10” x 14” inch baking pan, and press the dough evenly across the bottom and up the sides. Spread the topping over the dough and bake in the top part of the oven until golden, about 35 to 40 minutes. Cool on a rack, cut into squares and serve warm. Enjoy this delicious bread and the holiday!
Yield: About 16 servings