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Why Shavuot is Different from Every Other Jewish Holiday


Jewish holiday menus tend to be kosher meat heavy. Then there's Shavuot. Arriving with the first fruits of the spring harvest, Shavuot is the time to reconnect with kosher dairy dining.

If you love dairy, this is your time of year because the holiday of Shavuot is next on the calendar of Jewish holidays.  The holiday of Shavuot begins on the evening of May 18th, 2010. For those who are lactose intolerant, get your Lactaid ready, because this holiday might otherwise do your stomach in.  Yes, it is when we roll out our favorite kosher cheesecakes, blintzes, kosher pastries, quiches or as the Israelis do, pashtida (similar to a quiche, but usually baked in square not round pans and often without a crust).

One day in Israel and two days outside. Shavuot is primarily associated with our joy in receiving the Torah.  It is also one of the three important biblical pilgrimage festivals (in Hebrew, shalosh regalim … the other two being Sukkot and Pesach).  And, as we recently discussed, it is the end of the Omer, the counting of the 50 days between the second day of Passover and Shavuot.

As with other Jewish holidays, Shavuot seems to have aliases. In biblical times, “Hag ha Shavuot” (week is shavuah in Hebrew) marked the beginning of the new growing season and was also called “Festival of Reaping" (Hag ha Katzir) and Day of the First Fruits (Yom ha Bikurim), when Jews made the pilgrimage to the holy Temple in Jerusalem with offerings of the season’s first fruits.

Dairy and Then Some – How to Eat on Shavuot

Enough with the history, back to food.  You may be asking … what is up with all the dairy?  Well, like the joke says, "If you put enough rabbis in one room to solve a problem, they may all have different answers."

Some of my favorite explanations:

  • We eat dairy to symbolize the land of Israel as the “Land flowing with milk and honey,” as is described in Exodus.
  • Some sage discovered that the Hebrew word for milk, chalav, has the numerical value of 40 (in Hebrew numerals), which represents the number of days and nights Moshe was on Mt. Sinai.
  • And … when the Jews received the Torah, they were told that from then on they must eat meat that had only been ritually slaughtered.  But, as the Torah was received on Shabbat, they couldn’t butcher or prepare any new food to eat that day, so they ate dairy until the end of Shabbat.

Shavuot in Israel – Flower Wreaths & Bourekas

Shavuot in Israel is a very tasty and colorful holiday.  Children in Israeli preschools (ganim) wear white to school, wreaths of flowers on their heads (learning to make a wreath or zer is a prized skill for many parents who also make them for their young children to wear at birthday celebrations) and bring baskets of fruits (fresh and dried) and vegetables and dairy treats.  And while in America and Israel a lot of blintzes are eaten, in Israel, bourekas (Sephardic cheese, mushroom, potato, etc … filled pastry pockets) are also devoured.

Not Everyone Goes Meat-Free on Shavuot

In certain communities eating dairy just doesn’t cut it as a yontif meal.  So, some will eat dairy during part of the Shavuot celebration and then later eat a meat dish (after the required kosher waiting period, of course).

For whatever direction you decide to go, dairy or meat, Shavuot is a great time to explore new and tasty recipes for all those luscious first of the season spring fruits and vegetables.

B’tayavon (bon appetit) and chag sameach!