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Shavuot: A bounty of customs

We’re coming up on another holiday that, like Lag b’Omer, has some customs whose origins no one knows with certainty. Specifically, dairy. Why is Shavuot the holiday of cheesecake?

Classic Cheesecake topped with kiwi, orange and strawberry

Various theories have been put forward. One is that the Israelites, having just received the Torah, weren’t prepared to butcher and eat meat following the newly-given laws of kashrut. Another one references Israel being the land “flowing with milk and honey.” There’s also a connection to the story of Judith, who slayed Holofernes after quieting him with dairy products. No one really knows, but the custom has become firmly entrenched and no one’s giving up their cheesecake now.

Last year we experimented with a new recipe courtesy of English-Australian food critic Matt Preston. This was the stuff of the gods, utterly creamy and perfectly balanced. Lush sweetness with just a hint of tang from the cream cheese and lemon. This is the one to go to if you’re looking for that classic cheesecake experience.

It would be fascinating to uncover the true origin of this custom, and we wonder if it’s one that begin in Europe, as it seems that the Sephardic communities associated with it are European, not Middle Eastern. For example, Salonika (Ottoman empire) Jews had a rich smorgasbord of dairy items for Shavuot — from rice pudding to fresh yogurt to cheesecake.

Shavuot also has associations with other kinds of foods, which makes sense as it’s a harvest holiday, specifically of first fruits and wheat. So in Middle Eastern communities, you’ll find bread-related delicacies made especially for the holiday, such as a seven-layered round bread called “Seven Heaves.” For Greek Jews there’s a mashup, a bread made with honey and yogurt. Another mashup, according to food historian Gil Marks is the German “Kauletsch,” or cheese challah.

Central and Eastern European communities didn’t necessarily use the seven species as literal inspiration, but “first fruits” are often found in their Shavuot menus in the form of a first-course cold fruit soup, sour cherry for example.

Another seasonal Shavuot custom, and this one is strongly practiced in Middle Eastern communities, is decorating the synagogue with flowers, roses taking center stage. To come full circle, this one carries into a traditional Middle Eastern Shavuot dessert, “Soutlach,” a rosewater flavored rice pudding.

Everyone has different taste, but with this plethora of flavorful and seasonal customs to choose from, there are plenty of options for making your Shavuot colorful, refreshing and sweet.

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