Bintzes and sour cream, wherefore

Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (1040-1105), the perceptive and erudite Bible and Talmud commentator known as Rashi, said of Shavuot: "One should rejoice on it by eating and drinking to demonstrate that this day on which the Torah was given is acceptable to him."[1] Accordingly, certain culinary customs have evolved to give due honor to Shavuot.

Dairy dishes characterize the Shavuot meals served on the first day of the festival celebrating the revelation on Mount Sinai. Various reasons have been advanced for this tradition. The Bible itself compares the Torah to milk and honey. The verse "honey and milk shall be under your tongue" (Song of Songs 4:11) implies that the words of the Torah shall be as dulcet to your heart and ear as milk and honey are sweet to your tongue. The psalmist declared that "the precepts of the Lord are...sweeter than honey and the honeycomb" (Psalms 19.9-11). Hence it is obligatory to partake of honey on Shavuot.[2] Another rationale for eating these foods on the Feast of the Harvest derives from the biblical description of the Land of Israel as "a land flowing with milk and honey."[3]

Rabbi Moses Isserles (c. 1520-1572) states: "It is a universal custom to eat dairy food on the first day of Shavuot. The reason appears to be that just as on the night of Passover two cooked dishes are taken in remembrance of the paschal sacrifice and the festival offering, so one should eat a dairy dish and then a meat dish [as a reminder of the two sacrifices offered on Shavuot...."[4]

Some commentators maintain that, prior to their receiving the Torah, the children of Israel were permitted to eat nonkosher meat that was not ritually slaughtered. However, when the Torah was given on Shavuot, they were thenceforth obligated to adhere to the laws pertaining to ritual slaughter and to forbidden foods. All their cooking utensils and eating vessels were forbidden: they could not be purged because it was on a Sabbath and a festival that the Torah was given. Thus they had no alternative but to eat dairy foods, which were relatively easy to prepare.[5] Another explanation relates to the fact that the law of the first fruits is placed in juxtaposition to a law concerning milk (Exodus 23:19).[6]

The custom of indulging in dairy fare on Shavuot is also derived from this biblical verse: Minhah hadashah la-Adoshem be-Shavuotekhem (your Feast of Weeks, when you bring an offering of new grain to the Lord; Numbers 28.26). The initials of the four Hebrew words spell me-halav (from milk), implying that foods made from milk are acceptable on Shavuot.

minha hadasha leadonai

Mystics see a reason in the fact that the numerical equivalent of halav (milk) is forty the number of days Moses tarried on Mount Sinai. Finally, in Psalm 68, which is read on Shavuot, the mountain on which the Divine Presence rested is called Har Gavnunim, a word akin to gevinah, the Hebrew for cheese.

The mountain where the Divine Presence rested

Perhaps the most delectable of Shavuot foods are blintzes, rolled pancakes filled with cheese. Among other tempting tidbits are cheese knishes, butter cakes and cheesecakes and cheese kreplakh. The kreplakh are three-cornered, a shape based on the talmudic statement: "Blessed be the Merciful One who gave the threefold Law [Torah, Prophets, Writings] to a people comprising three classes [Kohen, Levi, Israel], through a thirdborn [Moses, the third child of his parents], in the third month [Sivan].[7] In some communities it is also customary to stuff these triangular pancakes with meat.

Jewish women in oriental countries took pride in baking for Shavuot a seven-layer cake called Siete Cielos (Seven Heavens), symbolic of the traditional seven celestial spheres God traversed to present the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.[8] Fashioned in seven circular tiers, one smaller than the other with the smallest on top, it was decorated with various symbols such as a star of David, the rod of Moses, the two tablets of the Law, manna, Jacob's ladder, and the ark of the covenant. Others topped the cake with a seven-rung ladder to recall Moses ascending Mount Sinai. Similar elaborate pastries called Sinai Cake alluded to the mountain. A large cake or bread with raisins, generally known as pashtudan or floden when baked for Shavuot, was also called Sinai. Some oriental Jewish women baked baklava a very sweet cake made with nuts, sugar, and honey.

Jews of Kurdistan prepare large quantities of butter and cheese for the festival. Their special dish was ground wheat cooked in sour milk with dumplings of butter and flour. Jewish housewives in Tripoli baked wafers in various shapes: a ladder, to recall that Moses went up Mount Sinai; a hand, denoting hands extended to receive the Torah; the two tablets of the Law; eyeglasses, to see the words of the Torah, and other symbolic forms.[9]

Shavuopt feast

In some communities it was customary to serve matzah remaining from Passover as a reminder that Shavuot is the culmination of the exodus from Egypt. In North Africa the matzah was shredded into bowls of milk and honey.

Pious Jews herald Shavuot with an all-night vigil devoted to study of tikkun leil Shavuot, and partake of cheesecake and coffee to refresh themselves. Yemenite Jews read the tikkun in the synagogue on the second night of Shavuot. Each brings a choice delicacy such as spiced coffee or candy to share with those spending the night in study.

Shavuot recipes from The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York (with more than 800 Ashkenazi and Sephardi Recipes), by Claudia Roden:

"For the Ashkenazim, the specialities for Shavuot are cheese blintzes and strudel, cheese, kreplach, lokshen pudding with cream cheese, borscht with sour cream, cheesecake, and paschko. For the Sephardim, they are filas and sambousak with cheese, milk puddings like sutlach, and pastries like ataif, stuffed with cheese. Shavuot is also regarded as a harvest festival of fruit, and all kinds of fruit puddings and cake are eaten."




[1] Pesahim 68b, Rashi [back]
[2] Kitzur Shulhan Arukh 103.7 [back]
[3] (Exodus 3.8) As the Festival of the Giving of the Torah, Shavuot was considered the most appropriate season to initiate children in the study of Torah. To endear studying to the children, Hebrew words and letters were written on a slate spread with honey. The children were encouraged to lick the honey and thus sense the Torah's sweetness. At the end of the lesson honey cakes decorated with biblical verses were distributed to the newly initiated pupils. [back]
[4] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim ~ Rema [back]
[5] Abraham I. Sperling, Sefer Taame ha-Minhagim u-Mekore ha-Dinim (Lvov, 1890), 623 [back]
[6] Kitzur Shulhan Arukh 103.7 [back]
[7] Shabbat 88a [back]
[8] Yosef Ometz 854 [back]
[9] Malkah Kohen, "Rekike Hag ha-Shavuot," Yeda-Am 16, nos. 39, 49 (1972):63
excerpted From: The Shavuot Anthology, ed. Philip Goodman (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974, 1992).

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