Shavuot: Cheesecake and the Book of Ruth close the Counting of the Omer

Cheesecake with chocolate ganache and fresh berries on top

Cheesecake is a popular dessert for Shavuot. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET SATURDAY, MAY 23: The days of counting have ended and the Festival of Weeks has finally arrived: It’s Shavuot, the Jewish festival marking the reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Since the second day of Passover, devout Jews have been dutifully counting each day—with the “omer,” a unit of measure—to illustrate the important link between Passover and Shavuot. Duly, it was in the days of the Temple that Shavuot also celebrated the wheat harvest, when pilgrims would travel from far and wide to ceremoniously present the Bikkurim (first fruits) and new wheat crop in Jerusalem.

Note: Shavuot is celebrated for one day in Israel, and for two days in the Diaspora.

Our coverage of this holiday, which is little known outside the Jewish community, involves three of our writers, this week …

First, since Shavuot’s most memorable custom in Jewish homes involves food—Bobbie Lewis devotes her FeedTheSpirit column to the holiday (and includes a delicious recipe for a rustic vegetable tart with goat cheese).

Second, before regular Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton provides some of her timely links to share with friends—we’ve asked the Jewish scholar and publisher Joe Lewis (Bobbie’s husband) to provide his perspective on Shavuot:

“There’s an old story about the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, the mystical pietistic strain of Judaism. When the Jewish community were threatened, he would go to a secret place in the forest, light a fire, and say a special prayer—and the danger would pass. His disciples passed on what they could, but as generations came and went they could no longer find the secret place, light the special fire or remember the words of the prayer. Only the story remained, but even that was powerful enough to save the people.

Shavuot was once a harvest holiday, but in their tragic history the Jewish people were expelled from their farmland, and their agricultural holidays lost their immediate meaning. The Torah instructs us to count each day from Passover, the spring festival, to Shavuot, the early harvest. A farmer could watch seeds sprout and grow, thankful for each day of favorable weather and anxious for the next. Such meaning is a memory hard to recapture.

The meaning of many Shavuot customs has faded. Why do we mourn in the period of counting, mark Shavuot as the anniversary of the Revelation at Sinai, eat dairy foods or read the story of Ruth? We offer explanations, but they are not conclusive. The gesture remains but its meaning escapes us; we live in loss. Still, as we seek to recapture the ancient significance, we instill our customs with fresh relevance, even if we can only tell the elusive story of the vibrant past.”

SHAVUOT AT HOME

Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton adds …

Modern observance of Shavuot includes the decoration of homes and synagogues with festive greenery. Tradition says that this floral décor stems from long-repeated accounts that Mount Sinai blossomed with flowers in anticipation of the giving of the Torah on its summit.

Row of cheese blintzes with raspberry sauce drizzled over all

Cheese blintzes with raspberry sauce. Photo by Eliza Adam, courtesy of Flickr

Several explanations are offered regarding the consumption of dairy on Shavuot—among them that King Solomon referred to the Torah as “like honey and milk”—and cheese blintzes, cheesecakes, milk and more are commonplace on the Shavuot table. (Wikipedia has details.)

According to other traditional stories, the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites went to bed early and then overslept; to mend this act, many Jews stay up all night on Shavuot to study the Torah. In Jerusalem, it has been custom since 1967 to gather at the Western Wall before dawn and join the sunrise minyan that follows the all-night Torah study.

Seven ways to start family traditions for Shavuot are shared in this article by JWeekly, but by way of cuisine, several sources dish up cheesecakes and blintzes for every taste:

  • Sweet and savory recipes—including an indulgent Rugelach Bread Pudding Cheesecake—are at My Jewish Learning.
  • Going light on dairy? Incorporate dairy with an accent of cheese instead of the whole block, with these recipe ideas from JewishVoiceNY.
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Shavuot: Jews celebrate receiving the Torah

Enormous crowd gathers at Western Wall in Jerusalem at sunrise

On Shavuot, Jews study the Torah all night—and in Jerusalem, tens of thousands emerge at dawn, traveling to the Western Wall for prayer. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET TUESDAY, JUNE 3: The Counting of the Omer has ended and Jews rejoice in the reception of the Torah today, on the ancient Festival of Weeks, also known as Shavuot. An ancient grain and agricultural festival of Israel, Shavuot was once a prominent time for harvesting wheat, and during the years of the Temple of Jerusalem, families would offer loaves of bread from the wheat harvest on Shavuot. This holiday was also the time to offer Bikkurim, the first fruits, at the Temple. Learn more from Jewish Virtual Library and My Jewish Learning).

Today, Shavuot is recognized for its significance in the history of Judaism as the day the Torah was revealed by G_d to the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

What is the connection between Passover and Shavuot? At Passover, the Israelites were freed from slavery and physical bondage; on Shavuot, they were given the Torah, and were thus freed from spiritual bondage.

For 49 days, Jews have been Counting the Omer, in great anticipation for the reception of the Torah. On Shavuot—two days around most of the world, and one day in Israel—Jews enjoy elaborate meals, engage in all-night Torah study, read the Book of Ruth and partake in delicious dairy treats. (Find interactive materials and more at Chabad.org.) Synagogues and homes are draped in flowers and greenery, reflecting the Midrash’s account that Mount Sinai blossomed in full bounty in anticipation of the giving of the Torah on its peak.

Slice of cheesecake with raspberries and blueberries sitting beside the slice

Decadent cheesecakes and other dairy treats fill Jewish bakeries and shops in the days and weeks leading to Shavuot. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

DAIRY, THE BOOK OF RUTH
AND A PILGRIMAGE FESTIVAL

As one of three pilgrimage festivals in Judaism, Shavuot highlights both traditions of old and customs with no clear origin. Barley and wheat harvests are intimately connected with the timing of Shavuot, while other customs—such as eating dairy foods and reading the Book of Ruth—have no one, defined origin.

Many Jews engage in all-night Torah study on Shavuot to “correct” the behavior of the ancient Israelites, who overslept on the morning of the Torah reception and had to be awoken by Moses. In Jerusalem, tens of thousands of Jews wrap up the long night by journeying to the Western Wall at sunrise, joining an annual prayer service that has been tradition since 1967.

In the days prior to Shavuot, Jewish bakeries and shops are overflowing with indulgent cheese blintzes, cheesecakes, cheese ravioli and more. (Wikipedia has details.) The specific reason for consuming dairy on Shavuot is unclear—some relate it to the non-kosher meat dishes of the ancient Israelites, while others refer to the Torah as King Solomon did, “like honey and milk”—and still others have additional reasons. Reading the Book of Ruth has also been common at Shavuot for many years, with several reasons held as to why.

On the lookout for cheesy Shavuot recipes? Check out the cheesecake bars and homemade ricotta suggested by Jewish News, of Arizona. Read a personal account of Shavuot, plus recipes for a pecan cheese ball and cream cheese muffins, at JWeekly. Aish.com also offers an array of tasty treat how-tos.

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