Christmas, Holi and Ramadan are famous feasts celebrated by people all over the world. But there are many more religious festivals that are much less well-known. This year, from the evening of Tuesday 13 May until the end of Thursday 15 May, the Jewish community celebrates one of their annual festivals; Shavuot. In Hebrew, Shavuot (שבועות) means ‘weeks’ so the festival is known in English as ‘The Feast of Weeks’. It starts seven weeks after the start of Passover which is the festival celebrating the freedom from slavery of the Israelites in Egypt.
Originally Shavuot is the concluding festival of the grain harvest. In ancient times the festival included celebrations such as an offering of two loaves of bread from the wheat harvest and freshly picked fruit. As many Jewish people live in cities nowadays, most Shavuot celebrations have lost sight of this original theme. They are centred on the Torah which is the holy book which includes the central texts of Judaism. Today this feast recognises the anniversary of the giving of the Torah to Moses and the Israelite people on Mount Sinai over three thousand years ago.
Traditionally on the first night of Shavout, Jewish people stay up all night studying Jewish texts. They also meet at synagogue and read the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a non-Israelite who embraced Judaism and her personal acceptance of the Jewish faith is considered similar to the Israelites’ communal acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Another widespread tradition during Shavout is to eat dairy products, especially cheese. Typically Jews eat cheesecake, blintzes, crepe-like pancakes filled with farmer’s cheese and Sephardic burekas, cheese-filled dough pockets.
Scholars who studied Jewish customs and rituals claim that spring harvest festivals characteristically featured dairy dishes, perhaps because cheese was produced in abundance during that season. Others suggests that the practice is derived directly from the scripture which says that the eating of dairy symbolises the ‘land of milk and honey’ which is the way Israel is known and described in the Bible.
There is also support for this tradition based on the spiritual development among the Israelites after the revelation of Mount Sinai. After the Torah was given, they were obliged to follow its dietary laws known as kashrut or kosher (dietary restrictions), so they could not eat meat which had not been prepared according to these laws. Instead, they ate dairy food that was readily available.
Shavout is a great opportunity to bring the Jewish community together and remember their past heritage. It gives Jewish children from all over the world the chance to understand their connection with Israel and appreciate their sense of identity. Chag Semeach!
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2013