On the Table – Shavuot
“And the Festival of Pentacost (Shavuot) you shall make for yourself” – The holiday of Shavuot is celebrated joyously in Jewish communities throughout the world in many ways.
Chag Hakatzir V’habikkurim – The Harvest and Bikkurim Festival.
Unfortunately, we’re still unable to celebrate this festival in the Beit Hamikdash, yet many kibbutzim and farms still commemorate the annual harvest of the field with a tractor parade and public reading of the names of all babies born that year on the kibbutz…
Chag Hamayim—The Water Festival. Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:19 states: “Words of Torah are compared to water. Just as water stretches from one end of the world to the other, so the Torah extends from one end of the world to the other. Just as water grants life to the world, so the Torah is life for the world. Just as water is from the heavens, so the Torah is from the heavens…” Today, many teens observe this aspect of the holiday by merrily spraying each other (and passersby!) with a hefty dose of water. In Morocco, there was a widespread custom that at the end of studying the Azharot on Shavuot, (a special poetic prayer listing all the mitzvot in the Torah) the congregation poured water on the one who completed it. Tradition maintained that the one who was sprayed on Shavuot would not be harmed throughout the year, as alluded to in the words “And I shall spray upon you pure waters” (Yechezkel Ch. 36). The anthology “Noheg Bam” adds that this practice developed because it was customary to stay awake throughout the whole night of Shavuot to study Torah, and people were tired the next morning. Hence, they sprayed water on the people to rouse them for prayers.
Chag Ma’achaeli Hachalav – The Dairy Festival. There are numerous reasons and sources explaining the custom of eating dairy on Shavuot, the primary one being that the Torah is compared to milk, as written in the verse, “Honey and milk beneath your tongue” (Shir Hashirim 4:11). Just as milk strengthens and sustains the body (a nursing infant), so the Torah nourishes and spiritually sustains our soul. Shavuot is prime time for companies like Tenuva, Tara, and all other boutique dairy farms and companies! Stocks skyrocket; new recipes for cheesy lasagnas in Japane Bechamel sauce and Himalayan pistachios abound; and aspiring culinary artists try their hand with dietetic cheesecakes with Italian ricotta and sugar-free sweeteners…
But first and foremost, Shavuot is Chag Matan Torah! It’s the festival of giving, the day when the collective soul of Am Yisrael was forever bound with the eternal gift of the Torah that enlivened us and unified us throughout history and until this very day. This is the principal reason why men, women and even many children stay up throughout the night (or at least part of it) to learn Torah with a chavruta or attend the wide range of available shiurim in synagogues and batei midrash around the world.
A Gift in the Desert
On this coming Shabbat we open for the first time this year Sefer Bamidbar, in perfect synchrony with Erev Chag Hashavuot and this notable time of year. It was not by chance that Hashem chose to bequeath us the Torah in the Midbar, the desolate Wilderness. The Sages, who discuss this concept at great length in a variety of places including Midrash Rabba, Yalkut Shimoni, Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael and the Midrash Tanchuma, all focus on the point of hefker—abandonment. Just as the Wilderness is an abandoned, desolate region belonging to no one; so too anyone who desires to learn Torah is welcome to come and acquire his own portion in it. Furthermore, just as the Wilderness is humble, modest and lacks any impressive features, so the Torah blossoms in a person who makes himself as a Wilderness—modest, unassuming, and open to change. It is specifically in the place that seems to lack any redeeming quality, that a person can begin listening and growing. In our ever frenetic, chaotic lives overflowing with media, new-fangled technology, materialism, color and possibility, we must shed our exteriors and choose the quiet and solitude of the Wilderness in order to grow and rebuild ourselves anew.
A Clean Slate
The expression ‘clean slate’ derivers from the Latin “tabula rasa” which signifies cleanliness, emptiness, and the potential to write and embed something new upon it. Italian, rooted in Latin, uses the world tabula for table; and Italians, who know a thing or two about food (did I mention ricotta and lasagna?!?) appreciate that the ultimate expression of cleanliness is a clear table. Incidentally, the Hebrew root of the world shulchan, table, is shalach, to send, like a shaliach, a messenger that carries on its back that which is most important. Like a desert, a table lacks its own features but serving as an excellent platform to present whatever one places upon it.
The Table Is All Set!
In honor of Shavuot, I prepared a mini table – setting exhibition in the comfort of my home and photographed it so you could enjoy and, perhaps, glean some new, creative ideas. I made use of my fanciest dishes, and my mother’s even fancier ones! All photography credits go to the one-and-only Meitav Imes, my talented, trusty partner-photographer (who just so happens to also be my daughter) All photos in the post were taken by Meitav… As the saying goes, ‘All in the family’…
I started in the kitchen which features my pistachio bar, a relatively recent addition, which I thought would serve as the perfect base for a table set in the spirit of bikkurim: A bar replete with fruits, vegetable, country breads and other Israeli delicacies. The plates I placed in straw baskets, and the silverware in the center of the table, surrounded by a colorful display of village-style accents.
Next came the dinette where I set the table in the theme of Chag Hamayim. The concept, naturally, inspired me to work with an array of blues and turquoises, glass wine bottles, candlesticks, crystal cups for tea-lights, and even blue flowers! As a background, I laid a pristine white tablecloth and mirrors, which would accentuate the varying blues… Both water and mirrors reflect, as written in Sefer Mishlei, “As water, one face to another…” To add a green element, I used the myrtle (hadassim) that grows in my backyard, and atop the mirrors laid the wine bottles, candles and flowers. After the dishes, the very first item placed on the table was a large pitcher of ice water with lemon…
The next display was inspired by the custom of eating dairy on Shavuot, which stirred the concept of white in my mind. A white tablecloth, white flowers, and even a white milk pitcher as the perfect backdrop for assorted cheeses and my mother’s gorgeous dairy table settings. A heavenly pasta dish was heaped generously on individual plates, and beside each portion I placed a bit of rosemary to complete the effect. Perfectly pristine!
Last but not least, in honor of the Giving of the Torah, I prepared a table of personal gifts, a hallmark of classic elegance. A black velour tablecloth, brass candlesticks — a family heirloom, wine, and personal gifts for everyone in a gold-wrapped box accented with a sprig of greenery.
Which one will I choose for the holiday itself? Presents or water? Bikkurim or dairy? It’s a good thing that this year, we’ve got both Shabbat and Shavuot, which gives us an opportunity to enjoy them all! And it’s also a good thing that I’ve got lots of dishes, because this time of year is a great opportunity to change the ambiance and concept with each meal. Hope you’ve been inspired to set your own tables for the Chag in the theme of the day! Looking forward to your responses – which was your favorite?
A Festival of Giving
Ending off this post with the metaphorical cherry on top, I’d like to give you a little gift – or actually a big one! Throughout the years, I’ve been asked countless times for my mother’s delectable cheesecake recipe – undoubtedly the best on the planet! Inasmuch as I’m no dairy fan, and I’ll take a thick, juicy steak any time of day (including breakfast! …I hope I’m not revealing too much of the masculine side inside me…) I can never resist my mother’s cheesecake. So, to you, dear readers, I’m pleased to present this heavenly recipe in honor of the Festival of the Giving of the Torah, along with my heartfelt blessings that we will all fashion ourselves into a tabula rasa – innocent, fresh and eager to grow and renew ourselves!