Seven weeks after the holiday of Passover, Jews celebrate Shavuot, commemorating the day the Israelites received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The Hebrew word shavuot means weeks, as the holiday completes the Counting of the Omer period between Passover and Shavuot. Another name for the holiday is Yom Habikurim, the Day of the First Fruits, as the day celebrates both the wheat harvest and the ripening of the first fruits.
While religious Jews mark the holiday with all-night Torah study and the reading of the Book of Ruth, for most Israelis, Shavuot is primarily known for its association with the eating of dairy food. But if you posed the question of why we eat dairy on Shavuot, not many would know the answer.
There is no definite reason why Jews eat dairy on Shavuot. Some of the suggested reasons include:
1) The Torah gave special instructions for slaughtering and eating meat. According to tradition, the Torah was received on Shabbat, so slaughter and cooking were not permitted. Therefore, only dairy could be eaten for the rest of the day.
2) Torah is likened to milk in the Song of Songs. Torah sustains the human soul just like milk sustains the human body.
3) The numerical value of the Hebrew word for milk, chalav, is 40, marking the 40 days that Moses spent on Mt. Sinai before receiving the Torah.
4) An alternative name for Mt. Sinai is Har Gav'nunim (the mountain of majestic peaks). The word gav'nunim is similar to the Hebrew word for cheese, gevina.
Religious Jews will usually have one meat meal on Shavuot, but others will prepare so much dairy food that there will be leftovers not only for the rest of the holiday, but for the rest of the week.
My wife states that cooking for Shavuot is much more difficult than preparing meat meals for Shabbat or other Jewish holidays. "When you prepare chicken, you throw something on it and stick it in the oven. Then you just need to prepare rice and vegetables to go with it, and you have a complete meal. When you cook dairy, you feel that you haven't prepared enough so you cook more dishes," she says.
With so much food on the table, how can you not taste a bit of everything? On the festive table there is salmon and a cheese blintzes casserole. In keeping with our Bulgarian traditions, there is spinach-filled banitsa. The antipasti vegetables fill two serving plates. A green salad is accompanied by an orange and beets salad. And then the desserts are served. A fresh fruit platter includes pineapples, cherries and blueberries. There are more blueberries at the top of the cheesecake. And to top everything off, there's a coconut cream pie.
After so much food, we need a holiday to recover!