A deeper look at the meaning of the foods we eat on Shavuot.
by Ketzia Barron | April 12 2021
As a foodie at heart, when I think of a particular holiday, my mind wanders to what I’ll be eating: latkes on Hanukkah, apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, matzah ball soup on Passover. Shavuot has its own selection of mouth-watering food options centering around sweet dairy desserts. Ironically, many of us are known to not tolerate dairy all that well, and as a vegan myself, Shavuot doesn’t offer a multitude of options. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) observes, “Shavuot’s dairy diet is a test of intestinal fortitude.”1 But even for those of us who can’t enjoy the dairy-full delicacies of Shavuot, we can still reflect on what the food represents, and I think that’s just as fun (maybe not, but work with me here!).
Food is a common, universal necessity that brings us together and helps us remember deeper meanings, cultural ties, and even symbolism. There is an element to food that is fundamental, uniting, and experiential. Cultural foods always carry meaning. The traditional Shavuot foods have been attributed to everything from the Israelites conforming to the new laws of kashrut and mystical numerology, to Shavuot falling in the season where cows are weaned.2
Milk is part of a visual picture that God gave to Moses and the Israelites four times in the book of Exodus as part of the promise to give them “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3). And that phrase appears about 20 other times in the Hebrew Scriptures. The image of milk and honey stood in stark contrast to the bitterness and bareness the Israelites faced in slavery in Egypt.3 Milk pointed to the fertility and abundance they would experience in their tribe and their land, and honey pointed to the sweetness of living in unity with each other and with God.
The land was a gift that was given by God with an expectation that His people turn their hearts towards Him in response. David reflects on the perfection of God’s Law, and he says, “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10). The food we eat on Shavuot reminds us of the significance of the holiday: God has given us His laws for our life and sustenance. On Shavuot, we remember the giving of God’s Law, and that His Law is good, sweet, and nourishing for our souls.
As we bite into our sweet, milky delicacies on Shavuot, we are also reminded of what it is like to tangibly know God. Eating traditional food is a physical experience with our senses of a spiritual reality; it is a tactile reminder that God is near and is with us. Each generation that upholds this tradition is reminded that our God is not a foreign, far-off, or distant God. David also says that we can “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
Knowing God is experiential. Shavuot reminds us that God is relational and personal. Just as all our senses react when we bite into a delicious cheesecake, knowing God should fill all our senses with joy.
In the New Testament, the apostle Peter encourages us to crave milk: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2–3). God’s Word is what we need for our spiritual growth, sustenance, and nourishment. So, as we bite into our kugels, blintzes, and cheesecakes, let’s remember that it’s God who gives us life. His Word and Law are sweet and satisfying to our weary souls.