May 18, 2011
From Torah to cheesecake
Ask a group of average Jews what they know about Shavuot, and you’re likely to hear something like: “Oh sure, that’s the holiday when we eat cheesecake.”
From a biblical standpoint, Shavuot is one of the holiest days in Judaism, but as a holiday on the Jewish calendar it is one of the most misunderstood and overlooked.
It’s not that the cheesecake comment is wrong. Actually, all sorts of dairy foods are eaten on Shavuot. But the central reason for the celebration — that the Jews received the Torah from God — isn’t as well known as one might expect. Part of the reason, experts believe, is that there are few traditions associated with the holiday.
“Shavuot is the third of the harvest festivals, but there are not very many rituals attached to it,” said Rabbi Mark Blazer of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita.
Blazer says that the other harvest festivals might be easier for people to connect with because they have specific food and prayer traditions associated with them.
“Sukkot, the first harvest festival on the calendar, celebrates the harvest of fruits, nuts and other agricultural products. It also commemorates our ancestors living in the desert for 40 years,” he said.
The unmistakable matzah we eat on Passover reminds us of our ancestors’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, and the seder is a widely observed tradition. But when it comes to Shavuot, Blazer says, “Eating cheesecake or blintzes really isn’t a big or important reminder to people.”
Furthermore, Shavuot celebrates the wheat harvest — a crop that was not easy for our ancestors to grow. Sukkot lasts eight days, as does Passover (which celebrates the harvest of barley). Fruits, nuts and barley all were readily available and abundant, so eight days of celebration seemed appropriate. With wheat being more expensive and less available, Shavuot became a one-day holiday. On a more practical level, many rabbis believe that the celebration of Shavuot might be a bit neglected because it traditionally falls toward the end of the religious school year.
So, how do you get the Jews to celebrate a holiday that is biblically mandated but not, er, well, all that exciting from a traditional standpoint?
The rabbis figured out that Shavuot, which marks the end of the counting of the Omer, also should represent the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, as the event occurred during the same period.
Today, many synagogues commemorate Shavuot by hosting all-night Torah study sessions. The idea is to replicate the excitement of the Israelites as they waited for Moses to return from the mountain with God’s laws. So what, exactly, is the deal with dairy foods on Shavuot?
That depends on whom you ask.
There are a couple of theories about how dairy became associated with Shavuot.
One theory holds that once the Israelites were given the Torah, they became obligated to keep the dietary laws of kashrut. Because they did not have the means to prepare kosher meat, they ate dairy products. Another idea that’s been explored also involves kashrut — that milk and meat must be kept and consumed separately, so the Israelites ate two separate meals, one meat, the other dairy. Of course, this is all open to interpretation.
Yet another idea comes from the Song of Songs, verse 4:11, which compares the Torah to milk. Just as milk can sustain the body, Torah is seen as nourishment for the soul.
Fortunately, this is one tradition that’s easy to follow. Let’s face it: Jews are pretty good about keeping up with food traditions. Kosher cookbooks and recipe sites overflow with delicious recipes for creative cheesecakes and blintzes.
This Shavuot, even if you don’t attend an all-night study session, grab some cheesecake and a glass of milk and remember the miracle of our ancestors receiving the greatest gift of our people — the Torah.