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.
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 Aish.com, 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 ReformJudaism.org 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
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 1990 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.