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.
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.
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!
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.