Everything You Need to Know About Shavuot

One of the shortest and least regulated holidays in the Jewish calendar, Shavuot has surprisingly few strictures and customs. Here’s our guide to getting the most out of the holiday!

What is Shavuot?

Shavuot is one of the three pilgrim holidays given to the Jewish nation in the Torah (the others are Passover and Sukkot). It falls on the sixth of Sivan, the third Hebrew month, and is observed for either one day in Israel, or two days in the Diaspora.

Shavuot is when we stop counting the Omer – the seven-week countdown that we began on the second night of Passover. In the Torah, the holiday marks two very important events: bringing a sacrifice of new grain, and receiving the Torah from God.

After leaving Egypt, the ancient Israelites journeyed through the desert for almost seven weeks before God told them to make camp and prepare to receive the Torah. Moses ascended the mountain, and the people spent three days washing their clothes and themselves and preparing for the life-changing ceremony about to take place on Mount Sinai.

According to the Midrash (the writings of rabbinic sages), it wasn’t just the people that readied themselves for this momentous occasion. The mountain itself – which, according to legend, was a small and undecorated mound in the desert – became covered in foliage and flowers ready to witness the Israelites’ new pact with God. Indeed, when asked if they wanted God’s Torah, they replied, “Na’aseh veNishma” – we will hear and we will do.

Thus Shavuot, despite its short length, became one of the most important Jewish holidays, as it marks the time at which our ancestors stopped being nomadic Israelites and became instead the Jewish nation.

What do we do on Shavuot?

Despite its enormous significance in the story of how Judaism was formed, Shavuot is a surprisingly empty holiday. Rosh Hashana has a biblically-mandated shofar; Pesach comes complete with matzah; and Sukkot’s extravagance includes building a new, temporary home in our gardens! In comparison, Shavuot is devoid of “stuff”: while massively meaningful to us, it has no special laws differentiating it from a “regular” Shabbat.

(Of course, in earlier times, it was accompanied by a special grain harvest, but this no longer applies today.)

That said, there is one important and prevailing custom on Shavuot: eating dairy foods. It is thought that this custom originated because the nascent, manna-eating Jewish nation did not eat meat – without the laws of kashrut, the didn’t know that it was permissible. Instead, they were a vegetarian people. To commemorate their pre-law lifestyle, we eat milky foods (instead of the more traditional meat-based meals that tend to be the focus of Jewish holidays).

This has given way to one of the most popular of all holiday traditions: cheesecake! World-over, Jews prepare sweet, dairy desserts for the holiday, and in Anglo nations, cheesecakes are the firm favourite. Due to the laws of kashrut (which prohibit eating milk and meat foods together, and mandate a set waiting time after consuming meat before one can eat milk again), it’s not just desserts that turn out dairy – the whole meal is.

These are some of our favourite dairy meal ideas- they’re so delicious you’ll want to eat them all year round and not just for the holiday!

  • Lasagne! But not the American version filled with cottage cheese or similar: do it the Italian way with by layering sheets of pasta with a rich tomato sauce, a creamy béchamel, and plenty of parmesan.
  • Potatoes Dauphinoise is like scalloped potatoes on taste steroids. Thinly sliced potatoes are tossed with cream, thyme, and minced garlic, seasoned with salt and pepper, and baked until soft, steamy, cream, and delicious. It’s such a rich dish that you can serve it simply with a green salad and baked mushrooms.
  • Quiche – but better. Skip the bought pie shells in favour of a homemade shortcrust pastry – it’s buttery and flaky and delicious and so much more fitting for a festive meal! Fill the crust with your favourite veggies (and cheeses, depending on how decadent you’re feeling) and a thick mixture of eggs and cream. Season well and bake till bubbling.
  • Mac and cheese doesn’t come out of a box: it’s a thick white sauce filled with melted cheeses that’s poured over pasta, topped with breadcrumbs, and baked to bubbling, cheesy perfection. I like using English cheddar with a touch of English mustard powder and a little cayenne pepper.
  • Just cheese! Want to indulge but don’t want to cook? Pick out a couple of decent local cheeses from a farmers market, buy a decent loaf of crusty bread and some olives, and enjoy.

Wishing you and your family a fantastic Shavuot!