Sarah Newman explores the food and traditions of Jewish festival, Shavuot
Agriculture plays an important role in the Jewish calendar. There are three major holidays that celebrate harvests as well as historical events: Sukkot (autumn), Passover (late winter/early spring)—and Shavuot, which is taking place this weekend.
While Passover is a commemoration of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot celebrates the Israelites receiving the Torah on the 50th day after their departure: a moment of transition from liberation to revelation.
To mark this occasion, Israelites gather the ‘first fruits’ of the season (known in Hebrew as ‘bikkurim’)—dates, figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates and wheat—and offer them as sacrifices to god at the temple in Jerusalem.
Sundown to sunrise
This year, Shavuot begins at sundown on 11th June. It will last for two days outside of Israel, one day within. On the first night, to honour the receiving of the Torah, communities around the world will study Jewish texts from sundown to sunrise.
This practice, known as “tikkun leil shabbat”, has typically revolved around the traditional texts of the Torah and Talmud, but these days it is likely to include many other styles of learning as well. I’ve attended sessions with Jewish meditation, yoga, chanting and singing, together with discussions about politics, international relations and women’s issues in Judaism.
The book of Ruth is usually read during the holiday. In this story, Ruth gathers leftovers from the fields for Boaz, who she later marries. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, commenting about Ruth’s ‘gleaning’, writes: “The good that may result from a modest act of charity should never be undervalued.”
Gardens and fruit trees
The importance of gleaning and leaving food for poor people continues to be taught in Judaism, and its requirement is described in the Torah. This includes donating produce from our gardens and fruit trees.
Food is an integral part of all Jewish holidays. For Shavuot, it is common for people to eat dairy foods (and drink caffeinated beverages to stay awake throughout the night of learning!) that symbolise themes of the holiday.
Dishes prepared for Shavuot are frequently rolled to symbolise the Torah scrolls or triangular, which is representative of the three sections of the Jewish Bible, Tanach (Torah, Prophets and Writings). Jewish dietary laws (known as kashrut) state that meat and milk are never consumed together.
Dairy is served on Shavuot for many reasons, including the multiple references to the Israelites’ consumption of milk and honey in the Torah. Dairy is seen as a simpler food than meat, and its consumption reflects the humbleness of the Israelites as they received the Torah.
Another idea is that the Torah is nourishing, just like milk is for babies. Traditional holiday dishes, packed with dairy, include cheesecakes, cheese filled phyllo rolls, cheese blintzes (rolled crepe, filled with cheese), and kugels (sweet or savory pudding).
While I love Shavuot, it’s quite difficult for me to participate in the late night learning as I generally go to bed early. And eating a large meal of heavy dairy foods makes it even more difficult to stay awake! But the most diligent (and caffeinated) people stay awake until sunrise.