Milkshakes at Mt. Sinai
Shavuot, like Sukkot and Pesach, began as an agricultural festival celebrating the end of the spring barley harvest and the commencement of the wheat harvest. In ancient times Jews were required to bring barley offerings (omer) to the Temple. At the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer two loaves of leavened bread were brought to the Temple to signify the end of the barley harvest and new “first fruits” of spring. Once the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. there was no place to bring the harvest offerings. Since the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was in the month of Sivan, the holiday became associated more with the giving of the Torah than with one of the three harvest festivals. Many symbolic customs and food traditions surround Shavuot. Greenery and flowers are placed in synagogues and homes to commemorate the lush, green fields surrounding Mt. Sinai. Spices and roses are often used for decorative purposes, in response to the Bible story of how the Israelites fainted when they heard the voice of God and needed to be revived with the smell of spices. In medieval times, young boys were brought to the cheder (schoolroom) on Shavuot to begin their Jewish studies, and a drop of honey was placed on each letter of the alef-bet. As each letter was learned, the new student was encouraged to lick off the honey, “sweetening” the start of school. Today, many houses of worship hold confirmation services on Shavuot to coincide with the giving of the Torah as young Jewish teens commence their Jewish lives as educated adults. Dairy foods are traditionally associated with Shavuot meals. Although there is no one definitive explanation for this association, many theories abound. One theory states that the laws of kashrut were given at Sinai, but since the Jews had no time to kasher their eating utensils, they ate only dairy foods, requiring no advance preparation. However, the more likely reason is that the cattle were grazing on fresh grass and their milk was rich and plentiful. In an interpretation of Song of Songs 4:11, the Torah, here imagined as a bride, is likened to milk, “honey and milk are under your tongue.” Once Shavuot became less linked to the harvest and more to the giving of the Torah, the natural association to milk and honey lent itself to the minhag (tradition) of eating dairy-based foods to celebrate the holiday. According to the mystical wisdom of Gematria (ascribing a numerical value to a word), the letters in the Hebrew word for milk, chalav, add up to 40. And 40 are the days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. Hence, many Jews make the association between chalav’s Hebrew numerology with having dairy on Shavuot. Some say that each one of the 365 days of the year corresponds to a specific one of the Torah's 365 negative commandments. In Exodus (34:26) we are commanded: “Bring Bikurim (first fruits) to the house of God; you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Since the first day for bringing Bikurim is on Shavuot (the Torah calls Shavuot “the holiday of Bikurim”), the second half of that verse, which refers to milk and meat - is the negative commandment corresponding to Shavuot day. Hence we eat two separate meals on Shavuot, one of milk and one of meat, taking care not to mix the two. Our ancestors often tied the visual aspect of food to a story (think hamantaschen or latkes), and Shavuot is no different. Blintzes are delicious, often filled with cheese and covered with sour cream, but the tale is in the placement of the blintzes on the plate; two placed side by side resemble the Torah scrolls! We don’t need an excuse to consume delicious cheesecakes and flans and blintzes and kugels, but it is nice to know that the minhag was established long ago. May you enjoy celebrating the fruits of your labor and the wisdom that was given to us on Mount Sinai. Eat in good health!
Tina D. Wasserman is a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas. Her Shavuot recipes for Deluxe Noodle Kugel and Mediterranean Cheese Torta are included in her cookbook, Entrée to Judaism (URJ Press). Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah