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May 2018 Rabbi Arnow's Article

Blintzes, Torah and Community

Shavuot has always been one of my favorite holidays, for reasons that have changed over the years. Growing up, I fastidiously observed a gastronomic Shavuot by eating mountains of cheese blintzes. My great-grandmother, who passed away in October of 2009 just a few weeks shy of age 107, was for my childhood, the blintz-maker par excellence. The blintz-making gene skipped a generation (and from my father’s side of the family to my mother’s), and my mother took up the mantle of blintz-maker. My great-grandmother would serve them with strawberries and sour cream. Leftovers I would eat with just a little sprinkling of sugar.

I never thought too hard though about why we eat blintzes and other dairy delicacies (like cheesecake) on Shavuot, and not meat, which is typical Jewish holiday fare. For me, the answer was always rather obvious—Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah, and blintzes look like Torahs. You will not be surprised to learn that this is not one of the explanations our tradition gives for eating dairy or blintzes during Shavuot. There are a variety of explanations for this minhag (custom)—Google “dairy on Shavuot” and see what you find!

While living in New York City in my twenties, the minyan which I attended had a fantastic annual Shavuot retreat. At the retreat (usually at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires), we played softball, ate blintzes, and most important, stayed up all night the first night of Shavuot and studied Torah together. The inspired idea of a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot—all-night study the first night of Shavuot—developed among the Kabbalists in Tsfat in the 16th century. It has subsequently caught on around the world, especially in recent years, including here in St. Louis. Late-night Torah study can generate an incredible energy of anticipation and excitement for the morning of Shavuot, when by reading the story in Exodus of matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), we effectively reenact receiving the Torah.

Blintzes are no longer the crucial element of Shavuot for me. And it used to be the Torah that was taught that long night that was the essence of the holiday for me. Now, it is the community that gathers every year at Bais Abe for a community night of study. Teachers and learners from Kol Rinah, Bais Abe, CRC, Neve Shalom, and Shir Chadash gather. It’s so rare that we all really come together to learn together, when we can learn from rabbis and teachers who are not from our own communities.

Join us Saturday night, May 20 at Kol Rinah at 7pm for mincha, a little learning with Rabbi Shafrin and me, and cheesecake, and then maariv at 9pm. And then meet us at Bais Abe at about 10pm for learning with the whole community. Stay as late as you can, as late as you want, and prepare to receive Torah like at Mount Sinai, with a broad, diverse group of Jews.

Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780