Celebrate Shavuot with a vegetable and goat cheese tart

Dairy foods are traditional for Shavuot; photo by Ernesto Jorysz via Flickr Creative Commons

Dairy foods are traditional for Shavuot; photo by Ernesto Jorysz via Flickr Creative Commons

Next Sunday and Monday will be the Jewish festival of Shavuot, a term not heard much outside the Jewish community. In English you may see reference to the Feast of Weeks, because it takes place 49 days (a week of weeks) after Passover. It roughly coincides with the Christian observance of Pentecost, the 50th day after Easter, which usually occurs around the same time as Passover.

Shavuot is supremely important: It celebrates the giving of the Law (Torah)–the first five books of the Bible–to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai after the exodus from Egypt. Yet it’s probably the least observed of all the Jewish holy days.

Ruth gleaning wheat by Lorie McCown via Flickr Creative Commons.

Ruth gleaning wheat by Lorie McCown via Flickr Creative Commons.

My theory is that this is because there are no fun home-based holiday customs for Shavuot. No decorating and eating in a little hut, like for Sukkot; no candles and gifts, like for Chanukah; no costumes and noisemakers like for Purim; no big family seder like for Passover.

A cerebral celebration

The customs we do have are rather cerebral. We read the Book of Ruth from the Bible because the story it tells takes place at this time of year – and also possibly because Ruth, probably the best known Jewish convert of all time, accepted the authority of the Torah as her own when she told her mother-in-law, “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”

We also spend the first evening of the holiday (before the first day) studying the Torah, sometimes all night. My synagogue has hour-long study sessions, led by clergy and lay members, starting at around 7 p.m. and continuing – with numerous breaks for food, of course – until 5 a.m., when the few hardy souls still remaining hold an early morning service and then go home to sleep it off.

A blessing to be said before commencing study of the Torah.

A blessing to be said before commencing study of the Torah.

This is well and good, but it’s not something for children to get excited about or a reason to plan a cross-country trip to be with family.

By far the single most observed Shavuot custom, at least among Jews descended from the communities of eastern and central Europe, is eating dairy foods. Why? No one knows!

Some say the custom comes from the Bible, because dairy foods symbolize the “land flowing with milk and honey” that the Israelites were promised.

Dairy is easier when you can’t cook

Some say it’s because the Israelites received the Torah on the Sabbath; once they knew the Law, they were no longer permitted to cook on the Sabbath. They couldn’t slaughter and roast an animal, but they had to eat. The solution? Dairy!

Shavuot meal, photo by Ashley P via Flickr Creative Commons.

Shavuot meal, photo by Ashley P via Flickr Creative Commons.

There’s also a mystical reason using gematria, a technique that combines the numerical and literal meanings of Hebrew characters. The Hebrew word for milk is chalav. Add up the numerical value of chet, lamed and mem, the three Hebrew letters that spell the word, and you get 40 – the number of days Moses was on the mountain receiving the Torah!

And we’re told the Torah has 70 facets. Add up the numeric value of the letters that spell the Hebrew word for cheese – g’vina – and you get – ta daaah! – 70.

Another sage discovered that the initials of the four Hebrew words in Numbers 28:26 that describe the meal offering for Shavuot spell mei chalav, from milk.

Of course everyone familiar with gematria and similar tricks knows one can “prove” just about anything this way. But it’s always fun.

For us, Shavuot is a good time to get together with friends for a potluck lunch. The weather is usually nice, and we have lots of fruits and veggies to cook with in addition to cheese and milk.

Here’s a recipe for a rustic vegetable tart with goat cheese that works well as a main dish or as an appetizer. It’s good hot or at room temperature so it makes a great potluck dish.

Rustic vegetable tart with goat cheese

Appetizers, Vegetarian Dishes

Rustic vegetable tart with goat cheese


  • 1-2/3 cups flour
  • ¾ tsp. kosher salt, divided
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • 1/3 cup olive oil plus 1 Tbs., divided
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 bunch Swiss chard or fresh spinach
  • 1 cup vertically sliced red onion
  • 1 cup thinly sliced Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 tsp. water
  • 1 large egg white
  • ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 oz. goat cheese, crumbled (about ½ cup)


  1. Combine flour, ½ tsp. salt and baking powder in a food processor; pulse twice to combine.
  2. Combine 1/3 cup oil and ¼ cup water in a small bowl.
  3. With processor running, add oil mixture through the food tube; process until the dough is crumbly.
  4. Turn out on a lightly floured surface and knead for 1 minute, adding additional flour if necessary to prevent sticking.
  5. Gently press dough into a 5-inch disk, wrap in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.
  6. Remove stems from chard or spinach and chop enough to make 4 cups.
  7. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add remaining tablespoon of oil to pan and swirl to coat. Add the chard or spinach and the onion and saute for 2 or 3 minutes.
  8. Stir in the remaining ¼-tsp. salt, the thyme and the potato slices. Remove from heat and cool.
  9. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  10. Unwrap the dough and roll it into a 14-inch circle on a lightly floured surface. Place the dough on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. (You might want to roll it out on the parchment paper so you don't have any trouble moving it.)
  11. Spread the vegetable mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a 2-inch border. Sprinkle the black pepper and the crumbled goat cheese over the vegetables.
  12. Fold the edges of the dough in towards the center, pressing gently to seal (you'll have to pleat the dough a bit; the dough will not completely cover the vegetables).
  13. Combine 1 tsp. water and the egg white in a small bowl, stirring with a whisk. Brush the edges of the dough with the egg white mixture.
  14. Bake the tart for about 40 minutes until browned. Let stand 5 minutes, then cut into wedges to serve.

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