Shavuot: Celebrating Dairy, Fruit & Mothers-in-Law

Shavuot: Celebrating Dairy, Fruit & Mothers-in-Law

Today is the first day of Shavuot, a not-so-well-known Jewish holiday.

I became aware of this fact because several of the sites that I follow on Facebook mentioned it (since I started this blog, I’ve joined the Social Media sect of Judaism).  One site, What Jew Wanna Eat, started posting mouth-watering pictures of dishes like goat cheese and zucchini blintzes and mentioned that dairy was associated with the holiday.

Girl with a fruit basket for Shavuot festival, Tel Aviv,1920, via the Oster Visual Documentation Center at Beit Hatfutsot, courtesy of Sima Shtibel, Israel

Girl with a fruit basket for Shavuot festival, Tel Aviv, 1920, via
The Oster Visual Documentation Center

I also spotted a historical picture of a young girl with a Shavuot fruit basket on the Douglas E. Goldman Jewish Genealogy Center page.

I naturally became curious.

Why  Eat Dairy?

First of all, Shavuot, which means “weeks” in Hebrew, occurs seven weeks after Passover and marks the occasion of Moses’ giving of the Torah  — which includes lots of  rules about what Jews can and cannot eat — at Mount Sinai.   I won’t provide all seven related reasons for eating dairy that I found on the site, but I particularly like Reason #3 because it’s so esoteric:

The gematria (numerical value) of the Hebrew word for milk, chalav, is 40. We eat dairy foods on Shavuot to commemorate the 40 days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving instruction in the entire Torah. (Moses spent an additional 40 days on Sinai, praying for forgiveness following the Golden Calf, and then a third set of 40 days before returning with a new set of stone tablets.) The numerical value of chalav, 40, has further significance in that there were 40 generations from Moses who recorded the Written Torah, till the generation of Ravina and Rav Ashi who wrote the final version of the Oral Torah, the Talmud.

Further, the Talmud begins with the letter mem – gematria 40 – and ends with mem as well.

I knew that.

Harvests & the Book of Ruth

The site explains the fruit basket and other associated imagery in this way:

Shavuot, like many other Jewish holidays, began as an ancient agricultural festival that marked the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. In ancient times, Shavuot was a pilgrimage festival during which Israelites brought crop offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem..

Another thing I learned about Shavuot while browsing around the internet (one of the key rituals of the aforementioned Social Media sect of Judaism): The Book of Ruth is traditionally read on the holiday’s second day. This is likely related to the fact that the biblical story, which discusses the gleaning of Boaz’s barley fields, takes place at harvest time.

There’s another explanation that I like because it’s linked to genealogy: The Book of Ruth ends with noting that Ruth is the mother of Obed who is the father of Jesse who is the father of King David, who is believed to have died on Shavuot. You can see the family tree in this Wikipedia article on the Book of Ruth.

I’ve always been moved by the relationship between Ruth and Naomi that is at the heart of the story (you know,”Whither thou goest, I will go”), perhaps because it goes against so many stereotypes — primarily the one where women are supposed to dislike their mothers-in-law and vice versa.

Another Mother-in-Law, Frances Kornmehl

Frances and Nathan Kornmehl, ca. 1990.

Frances and Nathan Kornmehl, ca. 1990.

Which leads me to another very moving instance of a bond between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law that is also related to genealogy and that has been instrumental to this blog. I’ve been wanting to write about it for ages and finally found the perfect occasion.

I’ve mentioned Jill Leibman Kornmehl and her work on the Kornmehl family history numerous times. Because she married into the family rather than grew up into it, I wondered what had spurred her interest in Kornmehl genealogy. Her answer: Her beloved mother-in-law, Frances Leder Kornmehl.

Jill sent me an essay on the topic. It began:

It was 199o and not the most opportune time to have a conversation about my mother-in-law’s family with her, but I felt I had no choice. She was dying of stomach cancer and I was six months pregnant. I wanted to name my unborn child after one of her relatives who had perished in the Holocaust. [Francis] had been part of a large vibrant Hasidic family who had lived for generations in Tarnow, Poland.  All of that changed in 1941, when she found herself alone at the age of 16.  One by one her family members had disappeared — to places unknown.

It was names I asked for, and names are what I got from Frances.  Using the names of her siblings, I embarked on a genealogy research project at a time when there  were very few resources available to trace Holocaust victims.

I will include the rest of the essay at a future date, I promise. Right now I’m off to try to find some fruit blintzes.

10 Responses to Shavuot: Celebrating Dairy, Fruit & Mothers-in-Law

  1. I am reminded, by your ambivalent opening sentence, of the fury unleashed and visited upon by me by a slightly older and more well-versed in Judaism sibling, when I wrote about a Jewish holiday in one of my first columns, Tisha B’av, and called it little-known. LIttle known to whom?

    I had riffed that Tisha B’av was little-known principally because it was a day of fasting – if you didn’t eat, therefore how could cooking Jewish mothers observe it?
    By contrast, you write you became aware either or both of Shavuot and that it was occurring, because of recipes.

    Anyways, I attended my first Shavuot service last night and being asked to bring a dairy dish, I did have to look up what is a dairy dish. At dawn this morning standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai (Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque standing in) ready to receive the computer-download of the Torah with Rabbi Chavah Carp, ordained in the Renewal tradition, I was surprised to learn Shavuot is one of the three major harvest festivals of Judaism, right in there with Passover and that other one…uh….Sukkot.

    The dawn here this morning was just like the Bible said, the waters of the firmament were parted to separate the earth and sky. A little rain and moisture and voila we even had a dawn rainbow.
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  2. I think I got it wrong, way wrong — brought deviled eggs. Frank opined I should have brought angel food cake. . .
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  3. Jill says:

    What a special way to remember Frances and the bond we shared. And to tie it into the story of Ruth and Shavuot–even more wonderful. Thanks for sharing our family’s story with your readers.

  4. So entertaining, your posts! I learn a lot, and they are also fun.

    I wonder about the confluence of rituals and stories:

    I wonder if the “40 days” that Moses spent on Mount Sinai is like the “40 days” that (for Christians) Jesus spent in the wilderness. Or the 40 days and 40 nights that it rained after Noah stocked the Ark. These people had a lot of 40s.

    Also I wonder whether Ceres and Persephone forecast Naomi and Ruth. Except that Persephone wandered off and was lost for 6 months out of every year. Something here about the inevitable separation of daughter from mother (or mother-in-law, I suppose). And about harvest, really.

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about your mother-in-law Frances, and the naming of your unborn child.
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    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Yes, 40 is a mystical number; I can’t remember what it means or why it’s special — if I ever knew — but it definitely crops up a lot!

      I’d bet the harvest myths are connected, passed along from one group to another in various incarnations.

      Frances wasn’t my mother-in-law, I’m afraid. She was the mother-in-law of Jill Leibman Kornmehl, who provides a great deal of the research for this blog. I’m looking forward to sharing the story of what inspired her research in the first place.

      Thanks for coming by and, as always, for your thoughtful comments.

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