Dairy dishes, such as a spinach and ricotta-stuffed challah, are traditionally served during Shavuot.

Dairy dishes, such as a spinach and ricotta-stuffed challah, are traditionally served during Shavuot. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Last weekend, we left the city behind and drove about an hour south to my mother-in-law's kibbutz to see the rolling fields of ripening wheat ready to be harvested just before the Shavuot holiday, exactly like it was in ancient times.

Shavuot, starting this year at sundown Tuesday, is a festival with three names: Shavuot, which means "the feast of weeks"; Hag HaKatzir, or "harvest holiday"; and Hag HaBikkurim, meaning "the holiday of first fruits," when the tribes of Israel were obligated to bring their fresh wheat, barley and certain fruits to the Great Temple in Jerusalem.

As with today, grains were the mainstay of the ancient diet; in this part of the world, the grains were primarily barley and wheat. Barley, a hardier grain, always ripened around Passover, and wheat was harvested seven weeks later at Shavuot, making this season the agricultural highlight of the year — not surprisingly, as success of the crops meant feast or famine in the year to come.

Back in biblical days, the holiday's menu no doubt included a goodly number of grain-based dishes, but culinary traditions today revolve around dairy products. Why the difference?

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As with almost all the Jewish holidays, the key lies in how the rabbis of the Talmud coped with the destruction of the temple in AD 70 and the exile of the Jewish people. Searching through the Bible like employees at a "CSI" crime lab, they found clues that proved to them that the ancient harvest festival had actually coincided with a crucial "spiritual harvest" as well: What the Israelites "reaped" at Shavuot was the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

Even the foods we eat on Shavuot today, such as cheese blintzes, cheesecake and cheese-stuffed pastries, reflect their decision. Dairy foods symbolize the purity associated with the Torah, and as the rabbis suggested, a way for the children of Israel to purify themselves before receiving the Torah and kosher dietary laws on Mt. Sinai. Some credit the custom to a line in the Song of Songs that reads, "Honey and milk are under your tongue," believing the connotation was to compare the Torah to the sweetness of milk and honey.

In fact, a very old European Orthodox Shavuot tradition was to distribute honey cakes inscribed with passages of the Torah to children, as an incentive to introduce them to the Torah.

And so, throughout the centuries, special dairy holiday foods emerged (which, not coincidently, coincides with the fact that in spring, when livestock give birth, there is an abundance of milk). In the dairy regions of late 19th century Russia, the Jews adapted traditional Russian dishes such as cheese-stuffed knishes, varenikes and kugels for their Shavuot table. In Ukraine, schav borscht, made from tender spring sorrel leaves enriched with sour cream and egg yolk, is a favorite.

In the Sephardic world, sweet or savory filo and puff-pastry delicacies are still popular with feta or ricotta-type cheeses, and Bulgarian Jews often add roasted eggplant to the filling. Some Moroccan families continue the tradition of baking challah in the shape of a giant key to help "open the gates of heaven."

A delightful custom, evoking those ancient processions of farmers to Jerusalem, is to decorate the holiday table and home with green leaves and branches. In medieval times, and even in some congregations today, Jews scatter precious spices and roses on the synagogue floors — echoing the legend that when the Torah was given, all herbs, flowers, grasses and trees vied with one another for a seat on Mt. Sinai to witness the revelation of the law.

Another ancient custom with kabbalistic roots is an all-nighter called Tikun Leyl Shavuot, based in the kabbalistic belief that at midnight on Shavuot, the skies open for just a brief moment and God hears all prayers.

So what's to eat? Bread or dairy? One of the great sages said, "Without bread there is no Torah," equating the two because wheat is nourishment for the body and the Bible is nourishment for the soul. But butter and cheese taste so good.

Maybe what's most worth celebrating is that we don't really have to choose.

food@latimes.com