what's with the cheesecake?

Shavuot, And The Meaning Behind One of Judaism's Least-Understood Holidays

Shavuot is one of those Jewish holidays that somehow gets lost in the hustle and bustle of our lives and post-passover chametz binges.

Many Jewish people don’t know much about the holiday, and, if they do, their only real information is that we eat cheesecake, and lots of it.

So what is this elusive holiday?

What does it mean for the Jewish people?

And most importantly, what’s up with all the dairy?

The word “Shavuot” literally translates to “weeks” in english. The holiday is a celebration of the completion of the Omer, the 7-week period between Passover and Shavuot. In order to understand Shavuot fully, one must first understand what it is in relation to the Omer.

The Omer

Rabbi Akiva is arguably one of the most famous Jewish scholars ever born. During his time as a Talmud scholar, 24,000 of his students died during the period between Passover and Shavuot. According to the Talmud, all of these students perished in one day, struck down by a mysterious plague.The Gemara presents the opinion that they were struck down because they did not have respect for one another. This changed the period of the Omer ( the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot) from a celebratory time to one of semi-mourning.

How do we mark this period of mourning? Those who observe the Omer do not cut their hair or listen to music. They do not make weddings or other celebrations out of memory and respect for those students who perished.  

What is Shavuot About?

Shavuot is a time for renewal of our Jewish commitment to The Torah. Even though Shavuot literally means “weeks,” it is also defined as “oaths,” in line with the holiday’s historical significance when the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Shavuot, in biblical times, was also a celebration of the wheat harvest, which gives a little more insight into why we read the book of Ruth, a story set during the biblical harvest time in Jerusalem. While Shavuot isn’t as famous as some of the more heavy hitters (how you doing Yom Kippur?), Shavuot is actually one of the Shalosh Regalim, which translates to “three pillars” of Jewish ritual and holidays. It’s a very special time in the year, as Jewish people celebrate and reconnect with their commitment to the Torah.

Customs and Practices: AKA Cheesecake

While the traditional custom of eating dairy on Shavuot has taken on a life of its own, eating dairy on Shavuot is deeply rooted in our history. The most cited explanation is probably that given by Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, who suggests that the tradition stems from Mount Sinai: when the Israelites received the Torah on Shavuot, they were instantly subject to all its laws, including those regulating ritual slaughter. Since there was no time to prepare kosher meat before the feast, the Israelites ate a dairy meal.

There are many other opinions offered as to why we eat dairy, and we will likely never know for sure. In the meantime, let’s just delve into the deliciousness of cheese cake, blintzes, and other traditional dairy dishes!

Wishing our Torah High and NCSY families a meaningful Shavuot!

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