What Shavuot is All About

By Eliraz Shifman Berman

Most people who have heard about the holiday of Shavuot know that it has something to do with dairy products. Why? There are different reasonings but, between you and me, it is hard to tell. And it is probably related to other customs of the holiday. So, what is Shavuot all about? Here are some anecdotes:

  • The Shavuot holiday is first mentioned in the Torah as an agricultural harvest festival. This is the time of year for the wheat harvest in the land of Israel. During the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, an offering of two loaves of bread from the wheat harvest was performed on Shavuot. 
  • Shavuot in Hebrew means “weeks,” which refers to the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. According to Jewish tradition, it is customary to count every day starting from Passover; on the 50th day, we celebrate Shavuot.
  • According to tradition, Shavuot is also the day that the Israelites received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. This is not explicit in the Torah but it became a firm tradition. Since the Torah was compared with milk—such as being referred to "milk and honey" in the song of songs book—it is customary to eat dairy products and dishes on Shavuot.
  • Shavuot is one of many names, with each taking us back to a different time in history. Among many names, Shavuot is also called:
    • a holiday of harvest,
    • a holiday of first fruits (that were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem),
    • a holiday of receiving Torah, and
    • a holiday of refraining” (on Shavuot, we are supposed to refrain from work).
  • It is also called a holiday of water, which is probably the newest name of the holiday. There is an ancient custom, especially for Jews from North Africa, for the kids to play with water on Shavuot, because the Torah was compared also with water, as water gives us life.
  • Another custom based on Kabbalistic origins is to stay awake all night and study Torah and Jewish literature. According to the Kabbalah, this learning can help repair the world or the cosmos; that is why it is called tikkun leil Shavuot, which translates as repairing (the cosmos) on the night of Shavuot.

One of the reasons why Shavuot has so many customs, traditions and names is because after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem at 70 CE, some of the essence of the holiday was taken. Our sages had to reconstruct this holiday and fill it with new meanings so the people could relate to it even after the crisis. Since then, every generation keeps the old traditions while generating new meanings. This dynamic character of the holiday is what keeps it alive and relevant.

Nowadays, as we all celebrate our holidays differently because of COVID-19—without our extended families and friends, our congregations, the physical presence of the community—we might, again, need to rethink how to give new meanings and new customs to our holidays. Any suggestions?


Attached is a recipe for a traditional blintzes soufflé. Bon Appetite!

Grandma Lucille’s Blintz Soufflé

BY TINA WASSERMAN

  

This recipe is featured in Tina Wasserman's cookbook, Entree to Judaism for Families, filled with tools to help children learn to cook with confidence, with clear, step-by-step instructions for every recipe and tips for adults to make the experience safe and rewarding.

I recently found my mother's handwritten recipe for blintz soufflé. Not only was it a reminder of a delicious dish, but seeing her handwriting evoked wonderful memories. This feeling reinforced my belief that our recipes connect us to our past and our history and that this connection must be kept vibrant. This dish is included not only for your enjoyment but for her grandchildren's enjoyment as well.

Blintzes are a popular dish for many Jewish celebrations, but they are most often served to celebrate Shavuot. Eating dairy products is linked with this holiday for many reasons. Some believe that when the laws were given at Mount Sinai (which Shavuot commemorates), no kosher meat was available so the people ate dairy foods to fulfill the laws of kashrut. Another, more likely theory is that the animals gave birth in the spring (when Shavuot is celebrated), and milk from cows and sheep was plentiful for making cheese and other dairy-based dishes. Blintzes in particular make for an ideal holiday treat because two blintzes side by side on a plate will look like the two sides of a Torah scroll.

I've never been able to find mention of a blintz soufflé in cookbooks published prior to the 1970s. It is possible that the incorporation of the Golden Company in 1978 and the instant popularity of its line of blitzes had a lot to do with the timing of the birth of the blintz soufflé. My version comes from one in my collection written in my mother’s handwriting in the late 1970s.

Ingredients: 

1 stick unsalted butter

1 dozen cheese or fruit-filled blintzes (homemade or frozen)

4 eggs

1 1/2 cups sour cream or Greek yogurt

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon orange juice

 

Directions: 

1.    Preheat oven to 350°F.

2.   Microwave the butter directly in a 13x9-inch glass baking dish until melted. Place the blintzes over the butter in one layer.

3.   Meanwhile, whisk the four eggs in a 2-quart mixing bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and blend well. Pour over the blintzes.

4.   Bake for 35–45 minutes or until the top starts to brown. Cut along each blintz or into squares.

Tina's Tidbits: 

  • This recipe is delicious and easy to make with young children. However, after you melt the butter in the casserole, let the dish cool so that no little hands are burned.
  • Homemade applesauce would be a light accompaniment to this dish if cheese blintzes are used instead of fruit-filled blintzes.

Kitchen Conversations

Blintzes were originally made in Ukraine, which was part of the Pale of Settlement, an area that included parts of modern-day Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and other countries, where Jews of the Russian Empire were forced to live for almost 150 years. Many North American Jewish families (including mine) trace their roots to this part of the world. Where did your ancestors come from? Did people in your family grow up eating blintzes?

What are your favorite dairy foods?

Eliraz Shifman Berman is the Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and Center for Jewish Life and Learning. Connect at eshifmanberman@jewishnewhaven.org or jewishnewhaven.org/jewish-community-relations-council.