Jun 122016
 

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Today is Shavuot (שבועות‎‎) in certain Jewish traditions, translated as the Feast of Weeks in English versions of the Hebrew Bible and Pentecost (Πεντηκοστή) in the Greek Septuagint. It falls 50 days after the feast of Passover, and was the feast that evolved into Pentecost in the Christian tradition according to the Acts of the Apostles — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/pentecost/. By the Jewish calendar it falls on the sixth day of the month of Sivan.

The holiday is one of three Biblical pilgrimage festivals. It marks the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer, and its date is directly linked to that of Passover. http://www.bookofdaystales.com/counting-the-omer/

Shavuot is one of the less familiar Jewish holidays to secular Jews in the Jewish diaspora, while those in Israel as well as the Orthodox community are more aware of it. According to Jewish law, Shavuot is celebrated in Israel for one day and in the Diaspora (outside of Israel) for two days. Reform Judaism celebrates only one day, even in the Diaspora.

In the Torah, Shavuot is the season of the grain harvest, specifically of the wheat. In ancient times, the grain harvest lasted seven weeks and was a season of gladness (Jer. 5:24, Deut. 16:9-11, Isa. 9:2). It began with the harvesting of the barley during Passover and ended with the harvesting of the wheat at Shavuot. Shavuot was thus the concluding festival of the grain harvest. During the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, an offering of two loaves of bread from the wheat harvest was made on Shavuot.

The Talmud refers to Shavuot as Atzeret (עצרת‎‎, literally, “refraining” or “holding back”), referring to the prohibition against work on this holiday and to the conclusion of the holiday and season of Passover. Since Shavuot occurs 50 days after Passover, Hellenistic Jews gave it the name “Pentecost” (πεντηκοστή, “fiftieth day”).

In the Torah, Shavuot is the season of the grain harvest, specifically of the wheat. In ancient times, the grain harvest lasted seven weeks and was a season of gladness (Jer. 5:24, Deut. 16:9-11, Isa. 9:2). It began with the harvesting of the barley during Passover and ended with the harvesting of the wheat at Shavuot. Shavuot was thus the concluding festival of the grain harvest. During the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, an offering of two loaves of bread from the wheat harvest was made on Shavuot.

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According to tradition, in the largely agrarian society of ancient Israel, farmers would tie a reed around the first ripening grains in their fields. At the time of harvest, the fruits identified by the reed would be cut and placed in baskets woven of gold and silver. The baskets would then be loaded on oxen whose horns were gilded and laced with garlands of flowers, and who were led in a grand procession to Jerusalem. As the farmers passed through cities and towns, they would be accompanied by music and parades. I doubt that the specifics are accurate, but there’s no reason to doubt that general harvest festivals took place at this time of year in ancient Israel.

Shavuot is unlike other Jewish holidays in that it has no prescribed mitzvot (Torah commandments) other than traditional festival observances of meals and celebrations, and the traditional holiday observances of special prayer services and the required abstention from work. However, it is  characterized by many minhagim (customs).

A mnemonic for these customs is the letters of the Hebrew word acharit (אחרית, “last”). Since the Torah is called reishit (ראשית, “first”) the customs of Shavuot highlight the importance of custom for the continuation and preservation of Jewish religious observance. These customs, largely observed in Ashkenazic communities, are:

אקדמות – Akdamut, the reading of a liturgical poem during Shavuot morning synagogue services

חלב – Chalav (milk), the consumption of dairy products like milk and cheese

רות – Ruth, the reading of the Book of Ruth at morning services (outside Israel: on the second day)

ירק – Yerek, the decoration of homes and temples with greenery

תורה – Torah, engaging in all-night Torah study.

Akdamut (Aramaic: אקדמות) is a liturgical poem extolling the greatness of God, the Torah and Israel that is read publicly in the synagogue right before the morning reading of the Torah on the first day of Shavuot. It was composed by Rabbi Meir of Worms, whose son was murdered during the Crusade of 1096. Rabbi Meir was forced to defend the Torah and his Jewish faith in a debate with local priests, and successfully conveyed his certainty of God’s power, His love for the Jewish people, and the excellence of Torah. Afterwards he wrote Akdamut, a 90-line poem in Aramaic which stresses these themes. The poem is written in a double acrostic pattern according to the order of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition, each line ends with the syllable “ta” (תא), the last and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet, alluding to the endlessness of Torah. The traditional melody which accompanies this poem also conveys a sense of grandeur and triumph.

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Dairy foods such as cheesecake, cheese blintzes, and cheese kreplach among Ashkenazi Jews, cheese sambusak, kelsonnes (cheese ravioli), and atayef (a cheese-filled pancake) among Syrian Jews; kahee (a dough that is buttered and sugared) among Iraqi Jews; and a seven-layer cake called siete cielos (seven heavens) among Tunisian and Moroccan Jews are traditionally eaten on Shavuot, although this practice is not universal. In keeping with the observance of other Yom Tovs, there is both a night meal and a day meal on Shavuot. Meat is usually served at night and dairy is served either for the day meal or for a morning kiddush.

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There are five books in Tanakh that are known as Megillot (Hebrew: מגילות, “scrolls”) and are publicly read in the synagogues of some Jewish communities on different Jewish holidays. The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot because King David, Ruth’s descendant, was born and died on Shavuot according to the Talmud, Shavuot is harvest time, and the events of Book of Ruth occur at harvest time.

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According to the Midrash, Mount Sinai suddenly blossomed with flowers in anticipation of the giving of the Torah on its summit. Greenery also figures in the story of the baby Moses being found among the bulrushes in a watertight cradle when he was three months old. For these reasons, some devout Jewish families decorate their homes and synagogues with plants, flowers and leafy branches in honor of Shavuot. Some temples decorate the bimah with a canopy of flowers and plants so that it resembles a chuppah, as Shavuot is mystically referred to as the day the matchmaker (Moses) brought the bride (the nation of Israel) to the chuppah (Mount Sinai) to marry the bridegroom (God); the ketubah (marriage contract) was the Torah. Some Eastern Sephardi communities actually read out a ketubah between God and Israel as part of the service.

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By common Rabbinic tradition, nowadays Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses (thence to the people) on Mt Sinai after the Exodus, rather than the wheat harvest, even though this tradition has no basis in the Torah, for fairly obvious reasons. It would be logically paradoxical to have the giving of the Torah to the Israelites described within the Torah, just as it is logically impossible for the Torah to have been written by Moses, yet to have his death described within it. But since the majority of Jews did not live in agricultural communities following the Diaspora, the celebration of the giving of the Torah largely replaced the harvest festival.

According to the Jewish mode of reckoning, Shavuot began this year (2016) at sundown yesterday, to be celebrated with a meal with meat. Today is the time for dairy products (without meat). A breakfast of cheese blintzes would be fine. Here’s a recipe for phyllo pastries with a cheese filling that are common in Sephardic and Middle Eastern households for Shavuot. There should be a mix of at least 3 cheeses (preferably 4) for the filling and they should be a mix of harder and soft cheeses – although the harder cheeses should melt easily and be well grated. Feta, Gruyere, Ricotta, and Parmesan is a good combination, but the choice is yours. You can make either triangular pastries or rolls.

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Cheese Phyllo

Ingredients

2 lb (1 kg) mixed cheeses
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 lb (500 g) frozen phyllo, thawed
6 oz (175 g) butter, melted
4 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 egg yolks, beaten (for glazing)
vegetable oil (for greasing)

Instructions

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F/175°C.

Mix the cheeses and the beaten eggs together well.

Cut the phyllo dough into squares and brush generously with melted butter. Place 2 tablespoons of the cheese filling in the center of each square, for triangular pastries, or in a straight line down one side for rolls. For triangular pastries, fold one corner to the opposite, diagonally and press the edges together with your fingers. For rolls, turn the pastry over the filling so that the package looks like a cigar with the filling in the middle. Press the loose side down into the roll to seal.

Place the pastries on a greased baking tray and brush the tops with a little egg yolk. Bake for 25 minutes, or until golden. Cool a little on wire racks, and serve warm.

Jun 102016
 

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Tonight after sundown is the last night of counting the Omer among certain Jewish sects. Today is also the date in 1947 on which their first motor car prototype was unveiled by the Saab company, which previously had been solely an aircraft manufacturer.  In keeping with this year’s theme of moveable feasts in this blog, I’ll go with the former.

Counting of the Omer (ספירת העומר, Sefirat HaOmer, sometimes abbreviated as Sefira or the Omer) is the verbal counting of each of the forty-nine days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot as commanded in the Hebrew Bible in Leviticus 23:15–16:

15 From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks.

16 Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord.

Chapter 23 in Leviticus sets out all the holidays that Jews should observe and their dating, and this particular span refers to the distance between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot (coming up). Whether an observant Jew is supposed to literally count each day out loud is a matter of dispute among rabbinic scholars. My reading of the Hebrew leads me to the conclusion that the text is simply saying “make a calculation,” and not literally calling for a daily count. But the tradition of counting day by day got established at some point and has stuck.

There is something to be said for religious periods of anticipation and preparation – firmly established in the Christian traditions of Advent and Lent (leading to Christmas and Easter respectively), and rooted in the Jewish tradition of periods of prayer and fasting before significant events. I’ve said many times, here and elsewhere, that I find big celebrations to be much more satisfying if they are approached slowly and carefully, rather than by just coming upon them with a big bang. However, times of preparation are not popular in the modern – breathlessly hurried – world, so that counting the Omer is a rare practice nowadays, confined only to the most observant of religious Jews. Observant Jews sometimes have a device or calendar as a concrete reference to what day it is within the Omer.

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As soon as it is definitely night (approximately thirty minutes after sundown), the one who is counting the Omer recites this blessing in Hebrew:

Baruch atah A-donai E-loheinu Melekh Ha-olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al S’firat Ha-omer.

(Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.)

Then he or she states the Omer-count in terms of both total days and weeks and days. For example, on the 23rd day the count would be stated thus: “Today is twenty-three days, which is three weeks and two days ‘of’ [or] ‘to’ (לעומר) [or] ‘in’ (בעומר) the Omer”. The count is usually said in Hebrew but it can be said in one’s native language.

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In Kabbalistic Judaism the period of the counting of the Omer is considered to be a time of potential for inner growth – for people to work on their good characteristics (middot) through reflection and development of one aspect each day for the 49 days of the counting. In the Kabbalah, each of the seven weeks of the Omer-counting is associated with one of the seven lower sephirot. The Hebrew names do not have an easy English translation, and they have very complex associations in the Kabbalah:

Chesed (loving-kindness)

Gevurah (strength)

Tipheret (adornment)

Netzach (endurance)

Hod (glory)

Yesod (foundation)

Malchut (sovreignty)

Each day of each week is also associated with one of these same seven sefirot, creating forty-nine permutations. The first day of the Omer, for example, is  associated with “chesed that is in chesed” (loving-kindness within loving-kindness), the second day with “gevurah that is in chesed” (strength within loving-kindness), and so on.

Symbolically, each of these 49 permutations represents an aspect of each person’s character that can be improved or further developed. If you are interested there are numerous books and websites devoted to daily interpretations and practices, such as Simon Jacobson, The Spiritual Guide to Counting the Omer, or Yaacov Haber and David Sedley, Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement through Counting the Omer, or go here http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/276672/jewish/Spiritual-Guide.htm

As it happens, the night of the final count this year is also the beginning of the Shabbat, so a special dinner is in order. In Britain and the United States, certain dishes are traditional for Shabbat dinners and are referred to as “Jewish” cuisine. As I have said before here, this is a misnomer. Many Jews in the U.S., especially the northeast, descend from Germanic or eastern European Jews, and their cooking reflects the heritage of these cultures, not something that is uniquely Jewish, although it is important to keep kosher, so that there are no dishes that use pork products, or mix meat and dairy.

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Here’s a Sephardic dish, Moroccan Lemon Chicken, that I like. Chicken, and chicken soup, are proverbially Jewish dishes in the U.S., and this is one of my favorites.

 Moroccan Lemon Chicken

Ingredients

1 chicken (4 lbs), skinned and cut in 8 pieces
½ tsp powdered saffron
1 tsp cumin
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
cayenne pepper (to taste)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 qt chicken stock
2 lemons
fresh chopped cilantro (for garnish)
salt and pepper

Instructions

Mix the saffron powder, cumin, paprika, turmeric, ginger, cayenne pepper and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Rub the spice mixture evenly on the chicken pieces.

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a deep skillet large enough to hold all the chicken pieces in one layer. Sauté the onions until they are softened. Add the garlic for an additional minute, and do not let it take on any color. Add the chicken pieces in a single layer.

Pour the stock over the chicken pieces so that they are barely covered. Add the juice of the lemons and the peel, thinly sliced. Bring to a very gentle simmer, cover and cook for about 60 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. Cooking time is highly variable depending on the quality of the chicken and your personal tastes. I tend to stop once the chicken is fully cooked and no more.

Remove the chicken pieces to a warm plate, and bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce for about 2 minutes. You can add extra lemon juice at this point if you like. Taste first!

Place the chicken pieces over boiled basmati rice on a serving platter. Pour the reduced sauce over the chicken pieces, and garnish with cilantro.

May 152016
 

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Today is the Feast of Pentecost in the Western Christian tradition. It is one of several major feasts that is tied to the date of Easter. It falls on the 7th Sunday after Easter Sunday which, counting inclusively, is 50 days, hence the name in Greek, πεντηκοστή, which means fiftieth. Originally the name referred to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) which falls 7 weeks (“shavuot” is “weeks” in Hebrew) after Passover. Shavuot was at one time a harvest festival on which the faithful brought loaves of bread to the temple.  So the scene is set in Jerusalem. Jesus was crucified near Passover. According to Mark’s gospel he was crucified on the day following Passover, and according to John’s gospel he was killed at the same time that the Passover lambs were being sacrificed.

There is a never-ending debate about the date of the crucifixion, and you have to come to your own conclusion. I tend to side with Mark and believe that the Last Supper was a Passover meal and that Jesus was crucified the next day. John’s gospel is artfully and deliberately theological, hence he equates the crucifixion with the slaughter of the Passover lambs. In the 1st century there was much concern within the young church over the death of Jesus.  Why was this evidently holy and peaceful man condemned to such a hideous death? There were various answers. John, coming late to the discussion, gives a theologically satisfying, but probably historically inaccurate, answer. Christians go round and round about this, not least because the two gospels are in direct conflict here and they can’t both be right.

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In my second year at Oxford my tutor assigned me the essay, “Was the Last Supper a Passover Meal?” In those days when I had thought very little about the issue, and the Anglican church dominated theology at Oxford, I took the easy path and sided with my tutor who was a high church dean and, therefore, given to prefer John over Mark. Nowadays I am much more skeptical, and value history over theology. In any case, Passover and Shavuot are 50 days apart in the Jewish tradition, so Easter and Pentecost are also 50 days apart. Passover and Easter parted company a long time ago, and almost never coincide any more. For one thing, Easter has to be a Sunday (on the third day after Good Friday), whereas Passover follows the Jewish lunar calendar and can begin on any day of the week.  Also the calculation for the date of Easter is quite different from the calculation of Passover even though both have ties to the full moon.

The first Christian Pentecost took place in Jerusalem on Shavuot; people were gathered for Shavuot when this happened – as described in Acts of the Apostles:

2 1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Here the word “Pentecost” is Greek for the Hebrew “Shavuot,” signifying that the first Christians were still devout Jews following Jewish law. This accords with the purposes of the author of Acts whose primary intent is to show how Christianity shifted from being a Jewish sect to being a separate Gentile religion. The book shifts from being a record of the first disciples in Jerusalem centered on Peter, to the evangelizing work of Paul, first in the Middle East and then to Europe, ending in Rome.

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One contemporary branch of Christianity is labeled “Pentecostal” because it focuses on the events of the first Pentecost, and, in extreme cases, places great importance on “speaking in tongues.” Other denominations place importance on Pentecost, but not to the same degree. Because of the Biblical reference to tongues of fire, the ecclesiastical color of the day is red, and congregants are encouraged to wear red, orange, or yellow. As an active Presbyterian pastor I used to get into the swing of things in this way because I think that physical symbols can assist the spiritual. The Protestant Church moved a long way away from such practices during the Reformation, but has drifted back towards them somewhat (provided that the emphasis is on the spiritual, not the physical). You can do what you want. I’m not an active pastor any more, but I’ll wear red anyway.

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Foods to celebrate Pentecost are highly variable worldwide. Shavuot (which I will get to on 11th June) is now a dairy tradition. Originally it was more associated with wheat and bread. If you are inclined to merge the Jewish and Christian traditions you could have bread and cheese. I’m more interested in color. In English, Pentecost can be called White Sunday or Whitsun, so white foods would be appropriate. I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow when I celebrate Whit Monday. Today I prefer red foods. This gives all manner of options because so many foods – fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish – are red.  For simplicity’s sake you could go with pasta in a red, tomato-based sauce. I’ll be a little more adventurous and suggest red colored pasta.

Pasta making is not for the faint hearted. You’ll find my standard recipe under my HINTS tab. Colored pasta is even more of a challenge. If you don’t want to make it from scratch you can often find it dried in markets. The major problem with this pasta, made with beets, is that the dough can sometimes end up too dry, but I work around this by kneading for longer than with ordinary egg pasta, and adding a small amount of beet cooking water if need be.

Beet Pasta

Ingredients

2 cups flour
2 small beets (about 350g)
3 eggs
1 tbsp olive oil
salt

Instructions

Poach the beets in a little water for about 40 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon, let them cool a little and then peel them. When they are fully cooled, dice them and place them in a food processor or blender with the eggs, oil, and a little salt. Process until the mixture is completely smooth and homogeneous.

Mound the flour on your counter top and punch down the middle to form a hollow “volcano.” Add the beet mix a little at a time and incorporate the flour with your hands. Getting the dough to the right consistency takes practice. Once the dough has formed into a ball, knead it with your hands on a lightly floured surface until it is elastic.

After the initial kneading, you can continue to knead by hand for 10 to 20 minutes, or you can use a pasta machine. I do the latter. I set the machine on the widest setting, force the dough through, double it over, and repeat until it is silky and pliable. Otherwise you have to knead and roll it by hand. If you are using a machine, reduce the width of the rollers, one step at a time, until you reach the thickness you want.

When you have a flat dough cut it into strips and let it rest for a few minutes. Bring a pot of salted water to the boil, plunge in the pasta, and cook for about 2 minutes. Fresh pasta cooks very quickly, so be extra vigilant. It can get soggy very quickly.

Serve with the sauce of your choice. This pasta is flavorful, so I usually just toss it in a little extra virgin olive oil and garlic, then top with freshly grated hard cheese such as Romano or Parmesan.