Shavuot (meaning “weeks” in Hebrew) is both an ancient agricultural festival celebrating the wheat harvest in Israel, as well as a holiday commemorating the time when God gave the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai.
Shavuot takes place on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, which is exactly 7 weeks plus one day from the eve of the second night of Passover. This 50-day period (known as the Counting of the Omer) connects the moment of salvation — when God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt — to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai — when the Israelites pledged their loyalty and devotion to God.
There are a few theories as to why culturally we eat dairy products for this holiday. But the most common explanation is that sweet dairy foods recall the biblical line in Exodus 3:8:
“So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite.” 1
Because of the reference to milk and honey, many Jewish communities will make a point of preparing such dairy foods as cheesecake and cheese blintzes in the Ashkenazic world, or milk puddings known as Sütlaç/Sutlach in the Sephardic world or Mulhallabeya/Mahalabia in the Middle East.
You may also find more savory non-meat dishes prepared for Shavuot that don’t necessarily emphasize or even include dairy at all such as Marcoude (a North African potato-egg tortilla), fish with tahini sauce (in Lebanon and Syria), fish croquettes (in Greece) and couscous with vegetables (in Morocco).
The following is my family’s Syrian version of a honey-rice pudding from Aleppo. Interestingly enough Halab (the Arabic word for Aleppo) derives from the Arabic/Hebrew word meaning “milk.” The legend is that Aleppo, once the ancient capital of Syria, was where Abraham once milked his sheep to feed travelers and the poor. 2
(Syrian Rice Pudding with Honey and Rose Water)
Yield: Serves 5 to 7 (Makes about seven 1/2-cup servings)
For Rice Pudding:
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons long-grain white rice
2 cups cold water
3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup mild tasting honey (such as clover)
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons rose water
Ground cinnamon, cardamom, or nutmeg
1. Place the rice and water in medium-size saucepan or pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, and simmer over medium-low heat, uncovered, until most of the water has evaporated and the rice is soft (the water should be level with the rice), about 15 minutes.
2. Add the milk, mix well, and cook over low heat, uncovered, until the mixture starts to thicken, 50 minutes to 1 hour.
3. Mix in the honey, vanilla, and rose water, and stir well over low heat for 5 minutes.
4. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 30 minutes. Serve at room temperature sprinkled with ground cinnamon, ground cardamom or ground nutmeg (you may also refrigerate and serve chilled; it will keep up to 2 days).
2 Dan Ben Amos (2011). Folktales of the Jews, V. 3 (Tales from Arab Lands). Jewish Publication Society. p. 283. ISBN 978-0-8276-0871-9.