Shavuot food traditions are rich and varied. In most Jewish communities, emphasis is on dairy dishes, though some Sephardic Jews eat meat. Perhaps dairy is a reminder of King Solomon’s portrayal of the Torah as “honey and milk are under your tongue.” Also, it is a springtime festival when dairy animals gave birth and milk was in abundance. In some traditions, the seven species (wheat, barley, grapes or wine, figs, pomegranates, olive or olive oil, and dates) or “first fruits” also are enjoyed. The first written connection between Shavuot and dairy appeared in the thirteenth century.
In the Ashkenazi tradition, main dishes included sour cream noodles, kugels, such as zeesih lukshen kugel (a sweet dairy noodle pudding), knishes, and cheese-filled strudels. Triangular cheese kreplach (stuffed dumplings) were another Shavuot specialty.
Kreplach originated in Venice in the 14th century, according to Claudia Roden, then traveled to Germany with other noodles which evolved into lokshen kugel. Three appears many numerous times in association with the giving of the Torah: the three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), three categories of Jews (Cohen, Levi and Israel), three section of the Tanach (Torah, Prophets, and Ketuvim). In addition, the Torah was given to Moses who was the third born in his family in Sivan, the third month in the ancient Jewish calendar.
Sweets included blintzes, rugelach (nut and raisin crescents with cheese in the dough), kaese fluden, a layered cheese tart, also called Mount Sinai cake; and smeteneh kuchen, a sour cream coffee cake. There are many types of filled pancakes in central Europe from the Hungarian palacsinta to Russian blini. Perhaps these and the quintessential blintzes originated with thin wheat pancakes made by Ottoman Turks who ventured as far as Central Europe.
In the Ashkenazi kitchen, cheesecake made with fresh curd cheese was a definitive dish. The German variation (kasekuchen)was tart and lemon scented. According to folklore researcher Yom-Tov Levinsky: “In Ashkenazi communities it was customary to bake cheesecakes in celebration of the holiday, ‘Mount Sinai’ cakes filled with fruit and cheese.”
Regional dishes included: Russia and Ukraine – beet borsht, served with sour cream, cucumber soup, schav (sorrel) soup, pirishkes (a half-moon-shaped cheese-filled turnovers), and strudel. Hungary – Shavuot coincided with the sour cherry harvest, sour cherry soup or hideg meggyleves, a sweet tart soup made with fresh or sour cream, sugar, and whole sour cherries. Bulgaria – sytu sylus (The Seven Heavens), a fruit and nut filled challah [see below]). Alsatian Jews ate French dishes such as soufflés, quiches with vegetable or cheese fillings, and gratins with béchamel sauce.
Among the specialties of Ottoman Sephardic Jews were borekas, cheese filled caltzones, kezadas (borekas open-faced sister filled with rice and cheese), bulemas or boyuz (coiled, yeast dough filled with spinach and cheeses). The holiday meal often included a fish entrée, quejado (a cheese and vegetable fritada), and salads.
On the eve of Shavuot, a platter with the seven species of food specific to Israel was displayed prominently on the table. Two loaves of fine wheat flour, shaped like a bird, a mountain, or a ladder, were given a place of honor as well. Meat (lamb or beef) was served at every meal of the holiday.
Favorite Shavuot sweets in Ottoman Sephardic and Mizrachi communities include malabi and soutlatch, Both are rice flour and milk-based puddings flavored with rose water. Malabi, a close cousin the muhallabia a spoon sweet in the Arab world, is also offered at Turkish Jewish weddings, symbolizing the couple’s sweet life ahead. Here’s a link if you’d like to learn how to make it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B79JpBeIHMs&feature=youtu.be
Soutlach is Turkish for rice pudding. Serving rice on the holiday reflects the belief that Shavuot is a wedding between God and the Jews, as rice is a customary food at weddings. Poet Bouena Sarfatty (1916-1997) describes a similar scene of a Salonican Shavuot on the eve of World War II, (Renée Levine Melammed, An Ode to Salonika, The Ladino Verses of Bouena Sarfatty, 43-44):
Beytsinar eze ouna vouerta grande.
Se kamina kilometros i nounka se ve entera.
Chevouotte debacho el arvole mos asentamos kon la mujer i las kriatouras.
Yivamos Sestos yenos de koumida,
Sin moz oulvidar el sotlatsi i raki Nahmias.
El golf komo Kristal; azemos bagno de mar.
Bevamos a la saloud de Daniel Amar.
Bes Tsinar is a large garden.
One can walk for miles and never see its eternity.
On Shavuot we sit under the tree with the wife and the children.
We bring baskets filled with food
Without forgetting the rice pudding dessert and the Nahmias ouzo.
The Gulf [of Salonika] is (clear) like crystal; we take a dip in the sea.
Let us drink to the health of Daniel Amar.
In Iraq, Shavuot was known as “Eid al-Ziyara,” Judeo-Arabic for “festival of the pilgrimage. Sambusak, a cheese filled pastry, and kahi, baked or fried filo, were prepared. It is also a time of great sadness; on Shavuot in 1941, terrible attacks were made on the Jews of Iraq, the “Farhud.” Hundreds were killed or wounded and much Jewish property was looted, while the police and army stood by watching and not intervening.
The Shavuot challah like so many other Jewish holiday foods was full of symbols. In some communities two oblong loaves were baked to represent the tablets. Or it was baked in the shape of a dove, in gratitude to the birds that did not chirp during the giving of the Torah, enabling all Israelites to hear the divine words.
Sometimes a dough ladder (sulam, Hebrew) was placed on top of the braided loaf to symbolize giving of the Torah. Sulam is the same numerical value as the word Sinai. Italian Jews baked ladder cakes. Jews in Tripoli, Libya, baked many symbolic cakes including ladder-shaped biscuits, hamsa hands, and doves.
The bread of the seven heavens, “el pan de siete cielos,” has been made in a number of Sephardic communities from Greece and some North African countries. Jews of Tunisia and Morocco made a seven-layer cake known as siete cielos. The bread of the seven heavens attributed to the community of Salonica is the most elaborate and symbolic tour de force of the Shavuot story. It probably was first created in medieval Spain as a Jewish version of elaborate Easter breads. Like the Christian breads, this yeast bread contains many ingredients the Catholics did not eat during Lent, such as butter, milk, and eggs. This elaborate bread is enjoying a revival right now.
The center of the flattish, oval loaf is raised, representing Mount Sinai where God gave Moses the Torah. Surrounding the center are seven rings of dough, the clouds surrounding the mountain or the seven heavens Moses passed through to reach God. Decorative symbolic dough shapes in the forms of tablets, a ladder, Miriam’s well, and a snake are added to the bread’s surface.
The ladder, known as Jacob’s ladder, represents Jacob’s dream of a ladder connecting earth and the seven heavens on which angels are ascending and descending the ladder. The snake is the serpents that God sent appeared when the Israelites complained about eating the same old manna after forty years of wandering in the desert (Numbers 21:5-9). During the forty years of wandering, wherever Miriam went in the desert, a well followed her and there was water. After her death, (Numbers 20:1-2) there was no more water. Recipe for bread of the seven heavens:
Shavuot is a holiday I’ve never paid much attention to and had no inherited food traditions. This year, I decided to embrace it for the family in seclusion. Our meal was comprised of kuku, an Iranian herb omelette, barley and mushrooms, and sautéed zucchini. One kuku recipe I have actually incorporates the squash, but I preferred it as a side dish. Kuku is a springtime dish and barley is one of the seven species celebrated at Shavuot.
For dessert, I went to Hungary and made a cherry galette (see 14 August, 2019 post for more on kuku and galette). I find this unconstructed pie easy to make and fun to play with. In seclusion, I’m trying to clear out my pantry. I rinsed and combined two cans of red tart cherries with a small jar of ultra-sweet cherries from Israel (I cannot remember who gave these to us and when).
The fruits with no added sugar were mounded in the center of a store-bought pie crust. The edges were folded in and baked for about 40 minutes in a 350 degrees Fahrenheit oven.
Shavuot, a minor holiday with grand meanings. The giving of the Ten Commandments, fundamental to the Jewish and other faiths, is recalled. A significant woman is recognized. As one of the three Biblical festivals, it is tied to the land. Shavuot calls upon memory. As life is trying to reopen in many parts of the world, memory of the so-called “normal,” a short 3 months ago, will be called upon. Maybe when all is said and done, a new celebration can be inaugurated to commemorate what we’re all living through. That’s a thought!