Shavuot is a festival with both agricultural and historical significance. The most ancient references to Shavuot, in the Torah, refer to a harvest festival, the “festival of first fruits.” Both of these are reflected in the various alternative names for Shavuot, Hag HaKatzir (harvest festival), and Yom HaBikkurim (day of the first fruits). Another name is Zeman Matan Torataynu (time of the giving of Torah), as it was calculated to be upon this day that the Israelites received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. All of the above have a part to play in the home rituals and food eaten on the festival of Shavuot.
There is no Jewish law regarding home practices or rituals on Shavuot. Jewish practice regarding food on Shavuot is the result of customs and traditions. The main custom is the eating of dairy dishes, mainly dishes containing milk products and cheese. There are a number of theories about how this practice developed. In chapter four of Song of Songs, which is a beautiful love poem containing wonderful descriptions of spring in the Holy Land, it states that “honey and milk are under your tongue.” The poem was interpreted by the ancient rabbis to be a metaphor for the love between God and Israel and the “honey and milk” of that verse were interpreted to mean Torah. Consequently Jews eat milk products on Shavuot, the commemoration of the time they received Torah on Mount Sinai; many traditional Jews eat dairy as the main meal on the first day of Shavuot and meat as the main meal on the second day.
Some other reasons for eating milk-containing products are as follows: At the Passover seder there were two sacrificial offerings on the seder plate, the shankbone and the egg. Likewise, Shavuot focuses on two food items, milk and meat, to reflect the sacrificial offerings of Shavuot. The custom for those who mark two days of Shavuot is to eat milk products on the first day and meat on the second day.
An alternative reason for milk on the first day and meat on the second is linked to Exodus 23:19, which states, “You shall not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.” This was extrapolated to mean that dairy and meat and milk products should not be eaten at the same meal–one of the basic laws of keeping kosher. Another compelling reason for consumption of dairy rather than meat products on Shavuot is so that the Jews will not be reminded of the sin of the Golden Calf, when Moses was so angry with the people that he broke the sacred tablets he dictated from God’s direct revelation.
Finally, there is an explanation that focuses on the reception of the kashrut (dietary) laws. It is only after the revelation that the Israelites would have been aware of laws of kashrut and thus aware that they had no immediately available kosher meat to eat. Consequently, they ate dairy products. The Torah was gained by giving up excess, showing restraint and self-control. It is thus more fitting to commemorate its reception by showing restraint and giving up meat for that day.
Two special challot are baked for Shavuot. As there were two breads offered in the Temple, so Jews eat two challot. It is a special feature of Shavuot to place a braid in the shape of a ladder on top of the bread. In Hebrew, letters all have numerical values assigned to them; the word for ladder in Hebrew, “sulam,” adds up to the same number as “Sinai.”
One of the old Eastern European customs associated with Shavuot is that young children between three and five were introduced to yeshivah study, the study of Torah, at this time of year. They were given cakes, honey and candy to associate Torah study with sweetness and joy.
Another dietary practice of Shavuot was to eat triangular “kreplach,” or dumplings. The three-cornered shape reflects the three patriarchs by whose merit the Israelites received Torah. It also reflects the three categories of Jews; Kohen, Levi and Israel, as well as the three sections the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), Torah, Neviim (prophets) and Ketuvim (writings).
In addition to triangles, round shapes also play a symbolic role on Shavuot. The circle manifested in round challot may be interpreted as a symbol of shelemut, spiritual integrity, that Jews achieved on Shavuot when they were given the Torah. This fits with the Rabbinic reading of the Sinaitic revelation as the day when the two types of Torahs–the written and the oral–were given to the Jewish people, the circle representing the unity of two diverse parts of Judaism.
Pronounced: kahsh-ROOT, Origin: Hebrew, the Jewish dietary laws.
Pronounced: KOH-sher, Origin: Hebrew, adhering to kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws.
Pronounced: SAY-der, Origin: Hebrew, literally “order”; usually used to describe the ceremonial meal and telling of the Passover story on the first two nights of Passover. (In Israel, Jews have a seder only on the first night of Passover.)
Pronounced: shah-voo-OTE (oo as in boot), also shah-VOO-us, Origin: Hebrew, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, falls in the Hebrew month Sivan, which usually coincides with May or June.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.