The Festival of Shavuot, the Feast of the Weeks, Chag Habikkurim, the Festival of the First-fruits; all describe the festival that started with ancient agricultural origins associated with the sweetness of spring bounty that later in history shifted to the Revelation of Torah.
The first fruits of spring (dates, figs, grapes, pomegranates and olives; the last harvest of barley, and the first harvest of wheat) compose the seven species available in this ancient land of Israel. These comprised the First-fruit offerings made to the temple during this festival. The two loaves of bread made from the finest flour were given from their farms by Jews to the priests at the temple for wave offerings.
In the Bible (Exodus 23:19; 34:26), a reference to bringing the first fruits is made twice, “You shall bring the first-fruits of your land to the house of the Lord your God…,” and it is paired along with the reference to what rabbis inferred as a command to separate milk from meat “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. Eating dairy food on the Festival of the First Fruits was drawn from this association.
Dairy foods were also served during Shavuot. Milk is symbolic as the breast food for the infancy of the Jewish people, and their birth as a nation at Mount Sinai. Chalev, (milk in Hebrew) numerically is 40, which corresponds to the number of days Moses spent on the Mount studying Torah so that he could teach it to the Israelites. Chalev is also an acronym formed of Hebrew letters meaning “To declare Your lovingkindness in the morning” (Psalms 92:3) and the entire Torah is lovingkindness. Song of Songs verse 4.11: “knowledge of the torah is like milk and honey under the tongue.”
On Erev Shavuot, the evening of Sunday, May 16, we celebrate the receiving, and with that, our beginning of learning the Torah and its laws. After the erev service, there is an intense night study session, the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (the Shavuot night watch) that brings on the need for food for the body as well as for the soul. Going along with that is the tradition of foods rich in milk during the study. Shavuot is also the time to celebrate the harvest of the first fruits of the seven species of Eretz Yisroel with decorating with greenery and colorful baskets of fruit; and also celebrating the beginning of harvesting of the wheat crop with special loaves of Challah.
During Shavuot, be certain to enjoy your festival meals of dairy whether they include cheese blintzes, cheese kreplach, or cheesecake.