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Shavuot - Hag ha'Bikkurim or Festival of the First Fruits.

Hag Matan Torateinu or Festival of the Giving of Our Torah

Shavuot is celebrated this year on May 29th

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  “...you shall take some of the first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name...” (Deuteronomy 26:1-3)

by Diana Viola and Elinoar Moore

Shavuot is a holiday with a double celebration.  Falling in spring, Shavuot celebrates the bounty of the harvest and the first fruits of the season.  More profoundly, Shavuot commemorates the gift of the Torah, the crystallization of the ancient relationship of the peoples of Israel with their God.

Shavuot is both an end and a beginning as the winter barley crop is harvested and the wheat crop begun.

In the Bible Shavuot is called Hag Matan Torateinu, Hebrew for the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah, or Hag ha-Bikkurim which is Hebrew for Festival of the First Fruits, as well as Hag ha-Katzir or the Festival of the Harvest.  Because it falls on the fiftieth day from Passover, it is also called Pentecost.

Shavuot means weeks in Hebrew.  It has no fixed date, but is determined by its relation in weeks to Passover.   Counting from the second day of Passover, Shavuot is celebrated seven full weeks from Passover. "On the day of first fruits, on your feast of Weeks, when you present to the Lord the new cereal offering, you shall hold a sacred assembly and do no sort of work."  (Numbers: 28:26)   Along with Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is a pilgrimage holiday, one of three festivals when the ancient Israelites traveled to Jerusalem to offer thanks to God for bountiful crops.

Biblical Significance of Shavuot

Shavuot celebrates Moses' descent from Mount Sinai and his presentation to the peoples of Israel of the Torah (the books of the Pentateuch) and the two tablets on which were recorded the Ten Commandments. The emphasis on Shavuot is on receiving the Torah and accepting the revelations contained within it.  That acceptance is a commitment to obey the laws given by Moses.

The Book of Ruth, written long after the books of the Pentateuch, is a narrative book in the Old Testament that relates the story of Ruth, a Moabite, who joined the Jewish people and who is the ancestor of King David.  Though the story is told in narrative form, it stands as a metaphor for the acceptance of the Torah and is generally read on Shavuot.   The story takes place at harvest time which brings a focus to the harvest, but, because Ruth was a convert who embraced Judaism fully and sincerely, she also represents the Jewish acceptance of the Torah.

The narrative centers on Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, an Israelite.   Both women lived in Moab, but Naomi decided to return to Israel and her own people.  Ruth, steadfast in her love for Naomi, determined to go with her.  Ruth's simple statement of loyalty is used today as part of many wedding ceremonies, though Ruth was pledging devotion to her mother-in-law, as well as an acceptance of her mother-in-law's religion: "For wherever you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God." (Ruth 1:16).

The Agricultural Significance of Shavuot

All three pilgrimage holidays are tied to agricultural cycles. Passover marks the beginning of the barley season which ends with Shavuot when the barley is is harvested and the wheat crop is planted.  In the days of the temple, some grain would be offered ritualistically.  This, too, is commanded biblically: “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage.... you shall take some of the first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name...” (Deuteronomy 26:1-3:) Traditionally the offerings made to God were taken from what has come to be known as 'the seven species.' (see below)

Jewish families adorn the synagogue and their homes with flowers, leaves and plants on Shavuot.  The agricultural aspect of Shavuot is obviously celebrated with these decorations, but, according to Midrash, Mount Sinai blossomed with flowers in anticipation of the Torah, and the decorations celebrate the double nature of Shavuot. In Israel, children wear wreaths and take flower bedecked baskets filled with fruits and vegetables to school.

Foods of Shavuot

The Connection between Shavuot and Dairy Foods

Food is an important ritual aspect of every Jewish holiday or celebration, and most of the foods eaten on a given holiday are specified by the Torah. 

Shavuot is an exception, as there are no rules in the Torah to suggest how Shavuot should be observed ritually, but the holiday has long had links to to dairy foods, and a dairy meal is eaten at least once.

Dairy dishes are generally served during the day. A meat-based dinner, especially if Shavuot begins on a Friday night, may be served.

Lacking a direct biblical reference to the use of dairy, there are many theories about the development of the use of dairy products, especially cheese.  One theory holds that in spring calves and kids would be weaned from their mothers and milk would be plentiful.  Another theory points to verses in "The Song of Songs" that stand metaphorically for acceptance of the Torah: "Honey and milk on your tongue."  In the Bible, the Jewish people are promised a "Land flowing with milk and honey."   Dairy meals recall this description of Israel. Yet another theory holds that because the Jewish people were at Sinai for so long, their milk turned into cheese.

A symbolic way to start the holiday would be with a plate of cheese and some grapes, one of the seven species (see below). Decorate the dining table with bowls of olives in various sizes, shapes and colors and a bowl of mixed fruit. Pour chilled white or red wine.  Wine would be served with any celebratory meal or holiday.

Jewish culinary tradition reflects the diaspora of the Jews, the wandering from country to country.  Settling in many lands across Europe, throughout the Middle East, even in small communities in India and Asia, Jewish cooking varied according to the culture of the country and area, often a kosher adaptation of local cooking.  (read in more depth about Jewish cooking)

Among the most famous Shavuot dishes are blintzes, cheese knishes, butter cakes, cheese cakes, cheese kreplach, salads of bread and cheese, soups with bread and cheese and many more.  Because this is a celebration of a grain harvest, it is permissible to eat leavened bread. All recipes with cheese that don't have meat in them are acceptable.  Fish recipes are fine, soups are popular and they may contain milk rather than cheese.  Desserts with cheese or milk are prevalent, so prevalent that some people refer to Shavuot with a wink and an irreverent smile and call it the "cheesecake holiday."

The popular dishes for Shavuot reflect the world-wide variations that fall under the very large umbrella that is Jewish cooking.  The main groups are Ashkenazi or Sephardic.

An Ashkenazi meal for any festive occasion follows European traditions. An appetizer starts the meal, and is followed by a cold soup or salad. The main course with vegetables would come next, with dessert to follow.  Kreplach is an example of a food specific specific to eastern European Jews.

During Shavuot it is customary for Sephardic Jews to eat leftover Passover matzo softened with milk and sweetened with honey. Rice pudding and filo (cheese-filled filo, or phyllo, dough pockets) and sambousak with cheese are common dishes in Sephardic communities. Sephardic Jews also eat coriander cheese balls, or artichokes stuffed with breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese and drizzled with olive oil.

Sephardic women take pride in baking a seven-layer cake for Shavuot called Seven Heavens. The cake is created in seven circular rising tiers, one smaller than the other with the smallest on top. Frequently it is decorated with various symbols made from dough. Jews of Kurdistan prepare a dish with ground wheat cooked in sour milk with butter and flour dumplings.  A large cake or bread with raisins, known as floden is traditional as is baklava.

In Tripoli, women bake wafers in symbolic shapes. Among the symbolic shapes is a ladder which stands for Moses' rise up Mount Sinai. Another shape is that of a hand, denoting hands openly receiving the Torah. Frequently there are two tablets representing the Law.

Milk puddings with ground rice are a must in the Middle East. For the Jews they are the all-purpose dessert of the dairy table and the traditional sweet of Shavuot . Every community has its own traditional flavorings and presentation.

To learn more about cheeses, please visit Elinoar's site: cuisinemiddleast.com

The Seven Species of Shavuot

by Elinoar Moore

Deut. 8:8 describes the Land of Israel as a "land of wheat and barley, of (grape) vines, figs and pomegranates, and land of olives for oil and date for honey."

The offerings of the first fruits (bikkurim) brought to the Temple in Jerusalem on Shavuot were brought only from seven species, despite the fact that ancient areas of Israel were blessed with many other choices of products. The holiday takes place in the spring, in the time of new blossoms, and therefore symbols of the season prevail.

The seven species of agricultural produce that symbolize the fertility of Israel celebrated at Shavuot are wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, pomegranates, olives and honey (from dates). They were the staple foods consumed by the Jewish people in the Land of Israel during biblical times. In modern Israel with dozens of species in a diverse diet only wheat remains a staple.

Wheat - Chitah

Wheat has been a major foodstuff in the human diet since neolithic times, and was, of course, a main crop throughout Israel, Egypt and parts of Mesopotamia.  In biblical times, as today, wheat ground into flour was the ingredient that made bread and earned it the term 'staff of life.' 

Wheat is easily processed into various forms of breadstuffs: crackers, cookies, doughnuts, muffins, pasta, pizza, and many prepared dishes. Wheat is common thickener in soups and sauces.

Barley - Se'orah

Barley was an important grain to the ancient Israelites.  Barley requires less water than wheat, and grows even in arid areas, such as the Negev (Southern Israel). Bread prepared from barley was called "poor man's" bread, and the grain was eaten as porridge and barley cakes. Barley provides feed for cattle and other livestock.  In today's usage, you find barley in soups, stews, and mixed with vegetables for summer salads. Barley's most common modern use in Israel is as the basic ingredient for beer, sold in bottles and cans and served in pubs from the barrel.

Barley is the first grain to ripen in Israel. Because of this, it is barley that marked the start of the spring harvest season and is an integral part of Shavuot.

Grapes - Anavim

Man has cultivated grapes from the earliest times.The first vineyard mentioned in the Bible was planted by Noah after the Flood. Grapes provided fruit and wine, the latter, a symbol of joy, is used in many Jewish rituals. The spies that Moses sent into the Land of Israel, returned with grapes so large that the cluster had to be carried on a pole suspended between two men.

Ancient Israelites knew the taste of wine two thousand years before the first vine appeared in Europe. They planted the vineyards on the slopes of mountains, hoed and weeded the ground annually, and watched the direction of the growing vine. To prevent from the ground from slipping, they stacked terraces of stones.  Harvest time was a time of celebration. In ancient times as in today's life, grapes were also used for seasoning and in vinegars. Today wine is a major industry, and over the past decade high-quality Israeli wines have become widespread. Moreover, because grapes, especially dark grapes, are rich in iron, the fruit is recommended to ward off heart disease. Stuffed with meat and rice, the leaves of the vine make a popular dish.

Figs - Te'enah

Figs are first mentioned in the bible when Adam and Eve covered their nakedness with fig leaves. Figs are of such ancient origin that the first recorded mention occurs in the tablets of Lagash in Sumer (2738-2371) BC and has since appeared in the recorded history from Egypt to Greece, where it was a staple food of both rich and poor .

This fruit ripens in the hot summer can be eaten fresh or dried. The Bible refers to the fig as a symbol of fertility. In biblical times the fig was eaten fresh, was used as a seasoning, or was used to make honey and alcohol. The fig itself, ripe in midsummer, is today an expensive delicacy. The biblical quote "each man under his own vine and fig tree" (1 Kings 4:25) has been used to point out peace and prosperity. to read more about figs and find more recipes, click here

Pomegranate - Rimon

The pomegranate is a dark red fruit with rich red flowers, and its abundant seeds serve as a powerful symbol of fertility. The tree becomes heavy with fruit for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) .

In biblical times the pomegranate was used for making wine and seasonings in addition to its function as a dye. Today the pomegranate is traditionally eaten on the New Year. Discovery of the health properties of pomegranate has made it increasingly popular.   Jewish tradition holds that a pomegranate has 613 seeds to represent the 613 commandments in the Torah. to read more and find more recipes, click here

Olive - Zayit (oil)

The olive tree is one of the oldest and most common trees in ancient Israel and surrounding lands. There are olive trees in the Galilee that are estimated to be thousands of years old. The tree's leaves are green all year round, and both black and green olives are harvested from the same tree. To this day in Israel, olive trees are so valued that it is against the law to cut them down if they are still living.

In ancient times, olive oil was used not only to cook,but also to light lamps. Its soothing qualities made it valuable as a soap and skin conditioner. Today, the olive is a very popular ingredient in recipes, and is eaten on its own.  The luscious green-gold oil is valued above most oils.   Olive oil has become increasingly popular since the discovery that it lowers cholesterol. Olive wood, with light and dark grains, is popular for small decorative items, while the olive branch persists as a symbol of peace ever since it was used by Noah as evidence that the flood had ended.

Date - Tamar (honey)

Honey is called d'vash in Hebrew, and Israel is called the "land that flows with milk and honey." In the biblical era dates were made into honey, and many believe the notion of the "land flowing with milk and honey" actually referred to date honey. Date honey was made by placing dates in a pot of boiling water and scooping the fruit sugar off what bubbled to the surface. The sweet dates, which ripen at the end of summer, are eaten fresh or dried.

Date palms were one of the few crop plants that could survive desert conditions, and became a reliable source of food in an otherwise inhospitable climate. Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and other ancient people used the palm for house construction as well as for food. It spread across northern Africa along the coast and at oases by nomadic people, where it became a staple crop.

Shavuot and Numbers

*The number seven (sheva in Hebrew) is a significant "Jewish" number. Shavuot is celebrated seven weeks after Pesach (passover). The holiday is been symbolized with seven species. Jewish mourners sit "Shiva" (seven days) after the death of a close relative, there are seven days in the week, and Jewish tradition refers to seven planets. The seventh year in every cycle of seven years is the Shemitta year, in which the land must rest.

*The numerical value of chalav, Hebrew for milk, is 40. This matches the number of days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai studying the Torah which he then taught to the Israelites in the wilderness.

*One of the five names for Mount Sinai mentioned in midrashic sources is Gavnonim, which literally means "free from blemish", but whose Hebrew form indicates a dairy product. (The Hebrew for cheese is gevinah).

*Moses was born on the seventh day of the Hebrew month of Adar, hidden for three months by his mother Jochebed, and found by Pharaoh's daughter in the Nile bulrushes on 6th Sivan, the future date of Shavuot. According to legend, the baby Moses refused milk from his new non-Jewish mother, and his sister Miriam.

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