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Shavuot: Like Honey and Milk Under Your Tongue

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With the Jewish holiday of Shavuot coming up next week, I've been thinking less about the covenant at Mt. Sinai which the holiday commemorates, and more about Leah's blintzes. Every year my friend Eva's 80-something year old mother, Leah Fogelman, provides me with a Tupperware container filled with homemade, delicious cheese, blueberry and strawberry blintzes for the holiday.

A non-Jewish friend of mine who is conversant with most of the Jewish holidays asked me if Shavuot is a "feast or famine" holiday. It's a quiet kind of a holiday, not one of the high-profile holidays like Passover, where everywhere you look, it seems there are boxes of matzoh, and even non-Jews in New York City are talking about going to a Seder. It's not Rosh Hashanah with "Happy new year!" greetings being called out on the streets of New York and displayed in storefront windows. It's not Chanukah, when the world's largest menorah is lit on 59th and Fifth Avenue, nor is it the solemn, breast-beating repentance of Yom Kippur which hangs over the city like bad breath.

Indeed, unlike the other holidays, you wouldn't notice much external, physical evidence of Shavuot's presence in the stores or on the streets of New York City, unless you looked closely. Some Jews will stay up all night studying the Torah or engaging in some kind of learning, then maybe they'll go to synagogue the next day and listen to the book of Ruth being read, and later that afternoon many congregants will bring a picnic of blintzes and cheesecake and non-meat items to a park and, as a community, eat together on the grass.

Shavuot has been a difficult holiday to pin down ever since the destruction of the Second Temple. In Temple times, Shavuot was one of the three big pilgrimage festivals, a harvest festival. The giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and the book of Ruth were tacked on to Shavuot later, perhaps to lend this festival more historical weight. As for the dairy meals, God knows where they came from.

Which brings me back to Leah's blintzes. To non-Jews, as well as many secular Jews, the custom of eating dairy food like blintzes and cheesecake on Shavuot is peculiar. What does dairy have to do with the Ten Commandments? There are a number of explanations, including a mystical one that notes that the numerical value of the Hebrew word, chalav, (milk) is 40, equivalent to the number of days that Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the Law. Or, Mt. Sinai is referred to in Psalms 68:16 as Bar Gavnunim in Hebrew, a word that shares the same root as gevinah, cheese.

Shavuot literally means "weeks" in Hebrew, and it falls seven weeks after Passover, in springtime, when lambs and calves were suckling, so perhaps since more dairy was available it became traditional to eat dairy at that time. Or, it might be traced back to the "land flowing with milk and honey," Israel, the land into which they would soon enter. More far-fetched (to me) is the connection with the passage from the Song of Songs, "Like honey and milk lies under your tongue," which some believe is a metaphorical reference to the Torah. I think it's a not-so-veiled allusion to oral sex, nor oral law.

Anyway. I have another theory, one that I haven't seen mentioned anywhere else. Covenants in the ancient world tended to be brokered with animal sacrifices. In fact, that's the etymology of a popular expression today, "to cut a deal," meaning: If I break this contract, may I be cut up like this animal. The covenant at Mt. Sinai, however, was one of words, not of flesh. Is it not possible that eating dairy was a manifestation of a new kind of covenant, one that was centered around the life-giving sustenance of mother's milk, not the blood of a dead animal? Words, not violence or death, were intended to be the new way in which decisions were to be made and conflicts resolved. Unlike animals, milk can't be divided or cut apart.

Shavuot is a festival of giving, which also reminds me of Ruth. As many reasons are given for this story being read on Shavuot as for the dairy meals. The story takes place during the spring harvest, which coincides with Shavuot. Like the people of Israel, Ruth accepted the Torah individually, just as each person individually, but within part of the group, accepted the Torah at Mt. Sinai with Moses. But again, I have my theory. Ruth was not related, by blood, to the Israelites, but she took on the covenant in the only way she could - with words. Blood and words, receiving and giving.

The most plausible explanation for the dairy tradition on Shavuot is that it wasn't until Moses received the Law that the Israelites knew which animals were allowed for consumption, or how the meat was to be prepared. So, presumably, the Israelites were eating only dairy until Moses descended the mountain. Leah's blintzes date way back, then, some 3,200 years. Though they seem awfully fresh.

This was originally published at zeek.net