Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The feast of weeks

So, I'm back at work today after two days Shavuot. I know. Who am I kidding? Close friends will know full well that I've been at work all week. But my family occasionally read this blog and I don't want to intentionally offend. It's all part of the on-going pretence. They don't ask me what I did on Friday night, and I kid myself that they have no idea. Everyone is happy. And I do feel that I've partially celebrated the festival. I even nipped out at lunchtime yesterday and bought a slice of Fruits of the Forest Cheesecake from Marks & Spencer. That's practically haimish.

For those who don't know, here's a brief explanation. Shavuot (afore-mentioned festival) commemorates the moment that the Children of Israel received the Ten Commandments from Moses at Mount Sinai. There is a custom to eat cheesecake and other dairy foods on Shavuot. The reason is rather convoluted and involves various myths and legends surrounding the law to separate milk and meat. I won't go into any further detail here. It's not really necessary. There is a Rabbinically-sanctioned custom to eat cheesecake for two days. Who needs a reason??

As well as cheesecake, some people celebrate by eating blintzes. These are thin pancakes filled with sweet cream-cheese and topped with a thick pouring sour-cream called smetna. I'm not 100% sure what smetna is. Is it a Yiddish word? Or does everyone eat smetna? It's one of those grey-area foods that you're never quite sure are Jewish or not. Like Mrs Elswood's cucumbers. And Langley Farm cottage cheese? I mean, is it just us, or what? Either way, smetna is one of those instant taste-bud triggers that whisk you back to childhood. It also reminds me of the time in primary school (and this is 100% true) that we were told to write 100 words about smetna. I waxed lyrical about blintzes, pancakes and Shavuot. Only to discover the following day that we had actually been asked to write about Smetana, the Czech composer, in preparation for a visit from a touring production of the Bartered Bride by The Childrens Opera Company. An acutely embarrassing moment. Although not quite as humiliating as when I was asked, by the same teacher, to name a moveable feast. I suggested Meals on Wheels. Well, how was I to know??

Less enticing than a guilt-free sweet cheese danish, is the custom to stay up all night studying Torah. It's called Tikkun Leyl, and it's the quid-pro-quo of all that wanton cheese consumption. The Rabbis are happy for us to laud it over the lactose-intolerant for two days. But there is a price to pay. And you have to pay it at 3 in the morning, desperately trying not to fall asleep while you pore over a badly photocopied sheet of small Hebrew writing. It is very difficult to make astute points of logical deduction when you are tired, cold and stuffed full of cheese pastries. It takes all your powers of concentration to stay awake and hold the photocopied sheet in your hands. Luckily, since Shavuot is so late this year the sun rises in time for morning prayers by 4 am. And watching the sunrise is always moving. Probably the last significant movement I'll enjoy for days. There are gastrointestinal consequences of eating nothing but cheese for two days. The Rabbis don't warn you about that though, do they?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your blog from time to time, its interesting, however, i think it leaves alot to interpretation, therefore, i have explained the following for shavuot.

Smetna is not a word i am familiar with!

Why Dairy?

Although everyone agrees that the food of choice for Shavuot is cheese (most typically blintzes, crepe-like pancakes filled with farmer cheese, or a Sephardic [Mediterranean Jewish]equivalent such as burekas, cheese-filled dough pockets), there are differences of opinion (some quite charming) as to why it is a custom.


Some derive the practice directly from scripture, saying we eat dairy to symbolize the "land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8) promised to the Israelites, or that "milk and honey are under your tongue" (Song of Songs 4:11). These passages, along with "The precepts of the Lord are… sweeter than honey" (Psalm 19:9-11) also indicate we should eat honey, which is customary in some communities.

A sage discovered that the initials of the four Hebrew words in Numbers 28:26, which describe the sacrificial meal offering on Shavuot, spell mei halav (from milk), suggesting that dairy food is the acceptable dinner for the festival. At Sinai, the Israelites were considered to be as innocent as newborns, whosefood is milk.

Those of kabbalistic [mystical] bent equate the numerical value of the word halav, 40 ('het'=8, 'lamed'=30, 'vet'=2), with the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments and other teachings (Exodus 24:18). Others look to the mountain itself, which is termed in Psalms mount of gavnunim (68:15), meaning many peaks. They connect that description with the Hebrew word g'vinah, meaning cheese.

Scholars who trace all Jewish customs and rituals to practices common among various ethnic groups claim that spring harvest festivals characteristically featured dairy dishes, perhaps because cheese was produced during that season.

Along with blintzes and burekas, cheesecake is a widely popular Shavuot item. Some eat kreplach, three-cornered dumplings that are often filled with meat but can be cheese filled or even vegetable filled. They are supposed to remind us of the Torah, which is comprised of three sections (Torah, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim / Torah, Prophets, and Writings), which was given to Israel, which is comprised of three categories (Kohanim, Leviim, and Yisraelim) through Moses, who was the third child of Amran (after Aaron and Miriam), following three days of preparation (Exodus 19:11) in the third month of the year (Exodus 19:1).

Rabbi.Ivor Schtinky Pinki

4:20 pm  
Blogger timecharger said...

fascinating info there by anon

exc blog, r

2:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the RE lesson Rabbi.
A well scripted blog tho.
O Vaweyte X

5:44 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home