A Stack of Pancakes/A Mountain of Faith
Many years ago, atop Mount Sinai, Moses received the gift of the Torah. The celebration of that day is called Shavuot (which is translated to “weeks” to commemorate the end of the seven weeks of counting the Omer). As I discussed last year, it is customary to celebrate this holiday by eating dairy, especially cheese. One of the dishes closely associated to this tradition is that of cheese filled pancakes known as blintzes.
Origin of Pancakes and Blintzes
The ancient Slavic tribes would make pancakes at the end of the winter to help bring in the spring (the round and hot pancakes represented the sun – and the first pancake made was placed on a window for ancestors). A similar tradition may have been adopted by the Russian Orthodox Church, where pancakes are cooked to the day before the beginning of Lent, where observers could add all of the rich foods and desserts into the pancakes that they are to abstain from during Lent. The day is called Pancake Day, Pancake Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, and by many other names. The art of making filled pancakes, otherwise known to most of us as blintzes, was also spread throughout many cultures in Europe whom created their own signature changes upon the dish. In Russian, they are known as blini, in Yiddish as blintse, and in French it is called a crepe, but all have the commonality of something that tastes good inside of a pancake outer wrapping.
To find the origin of pancakes themselves, one must travel back to the Stone Age, 30,000 years ago. Evidence of starch grains was found on tools dating to this time. Scientists and researchers have proposed that these grains made a type of flour that was mixed with water and cooked on hot rocks that were possibly greased. It may not have looked (or tasted) like the pancakes we know of today, but it was a start. Pancakes were widely made during the Neolithic era (over 5000 years ago), and ancient Greeks and Romans dined on them regularly. In fact, the earliest known reference to pancakes (called tangenias – they were made with wheat flour, olive oil, honey, and curdled milk, and were served for breakfast.) is from the 5th century BCE by the poets Cratinus and Magnes. The word pancake itself did not come into use until the 15th century. [Fast fact: During the American colonial period pancakes were known as Johnny cakes and hoe cakes.]
Pancakes and Blintzes come in many forms and varieties, and differ from country to country or even between regions and cultures within the same country. I had originally intended on listing the many variations, but the list would be too extensive to include in this article. From crepes (France) to pfannkuchen (Germany) or pannenkoeken (Netherland) to jeon (Japan), there are pancakes to suit every taste and culinary mood.
But Why Blintzes for Shavuot?
As discussed in depth in last year’s article, it is customary to eat dairy/cheese on Shavuot. Some of the reasons behind this tradition are as follows:
- The Hebrew people were travelling around the dessert so long that all of their milk curdled and turned to cheese
- Israel, the promised land spoken of in the Torah, is also called “the land flowing with milk and honey” (אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָ֑שׁ אֶל־) (Exodus 3:8)
- There was a correlation between the time the Torah was given and the time that calves were born, meaning more suckling and an overflow of milk at this time.
- One of the Kabalistic sages determined there is a correlation between the numerical value of the Hebrew word for milk, chalav (חָלָב), and the number of days (40) in which Moses spent on Mount Sinai.
Although blintzes have been a favorite choice for the holiday since many contain cheese, I have been hard pressed in my research to discover any real correlation for including blintzes themselves. The resounding (and only) I had found specifically about blintzes is that they resemble Torah scrolls (remember: Shavuot celebrates the receiving of the Torah), and I would even stretch that to say, like the covered scrolls of the torah, there is a lot of greatness/sweetness inside. A few authors on the web came to the conclusion that we eat blintzes on Shavuot because, what else, it is a tradition (and the song from Fiddler on the Roof begins playing in the back of my mind).
In Search of Mount Sinai
The Torah was given to Moses and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai (Hebrew: Har Sinai (הר סיני). However, it seems that after receiving the Torah, and wandering the desert, the location had become lost in time. Over the many centuries there have been religious scholars and scientists that have sought out this location.
The Torah, however, is not completely silent on its location. However, it only provides a a very general description of its location in Exodus 3:1:
Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of G-d, unto Horeb.
What this tells us is that he was in Midian (which many scholars believe to be a region in Northwest Saudi Arabia), and the mountain he came upon was also called Horeb (חֹרֵבָה). This also is in collaboration with other verses that provide that Moses was wanted for killing an Egyptian, so probably fled to an area outside of Egyptian control. [The New Testament also backs up this theory by stating that “Now this Hagar is Mt. Sinai, in Arabia (Galatians 4;25).] A majority of scholars agree with this conclusion, but still disagree on exactly which mountain is THE mountain.
However, there is conflicting (or perhaps, more re-defining) statements in a later portion within the Torah in Numbers 10:29 and 10:30. Moses has Medianite in-laws, and asked them to stay with them while they were in Sinai. They refused, saying that they were returning to their own land (Midian). If they were going back to Midian, then obviously it could not be where Mount Sinai was located. In addition, Moses’s father-in-law Jethro), a Median priest had met with Moses at Mt. Sinai and then gone back “to his own land” in Exodus 18:27, which also confirms that the location cannot be within Median.
In the 1990s, a popular idea had emerged in the believe that the site of Mount Sinai is that of a mountain called Jabal Al-Lawz in Northern Arabia. This was based on the findings from an expedition reported by Base Institute. Some of their observations of the actual area supposedly correspond to biblical passages. On the other hands, other modern biblical researchers such as Gordon Franz have vehemently rejected this idea.
Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson, in one of his articles, provided a spiritual perspective as to why Mount Sinai cannot be found. He states that it may be because the location was of not relevant in the first place, it is the event itself that was of most importance (the mountain went back to being mundane after the Hebrew people left), as opposed to other locations that we had worked hard at building, like the Holy Temple. It should not matter where the Torah was given and we should focus on the fact that it was given.
For this month, I am going to provide a very basic recipe for pancakes. Just mix the ingredients, and heat on a griddle/pan.
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
3 ½ tsp baking powder
1 ¼ cups milk
½ tsp salt
1 tbs sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 lg egg
4 tbs melted butter
1) Mix ingredients
2) Oil griddle/frying pan and place over medium heat
3) Add batter and cook until both sides are brown
- “About Shavuot” (Alan Lucas: The Rabbinical Assembly) @ http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/story/about-shavuot?tp=376
- “Ancient World Pancakes (Tagenites /Attanitai)” (Stella Nenova: Ancient World Alive: 2015) @ http://www.ancientworldalive.com/#!Ancient-Greek-pancakes-Tagenites-Attanitai/c16ee/557eb46d0cf2eb01de3e1994
- “Battle of the Pancakes: American Pancakes vs. European Crepes” (Noah Charney: FindingLovers.com: 2013) @ https://www.finedininglovers.com/stories/battle-of-pancakes/
- “Beyond Blintzes” (Forward.com) @ http://forward.com/articles/13450/beyond-blintzes-a-culinary-tour-of-shavuot/
- “Biblical Mount Sinai” (Wikipedia.org) @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_Mount_Sinai
- “Blini” (Wikipedia.org) @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blini
- “Blintz Festival for Shavuot” (Ellen Zimmerman: Jewish Holidays In A Box: 2015) @ http://jewishholidaysinabox.com/blog/blintz-festival-for-shavuot/
- “Blintzes” (Claudia Roden: MyJewishLearning.com) @ http://www.myjewishlearning.com/recipe/blintzes/
- “Celebrating Jewish American Month with Blintzes” (TheThreeKitcheneers.com) @ http://www.threekitcheneers.com/blog_post.cfm?BlogID=134
- “Cheese Wrapped in Tradition: Blintzes Are Worth It for Shavuot” (Jewish Telegraphic Agency: 2007) @ http://www.jta.org/2007/05/03/jewish-holidays/shavuot/cheese-wrapped-in-tradition-blintzes-are-worth-it-for-shavuot
- “Hot off the Griddle, Here’s the History of Pancakes” (Rebecca Rupp: NationalGeographic.com: 2014) @ http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2014/05/21/hot-off-the-griddle-heres-the-history-of-pancakes/
- “Midian and Midianites” (Isidore Singer and M. Seligsohn: Jewish Encyclopedia @ http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10804-midian-and-midianites
- “Mount Sinai” (Base Institute) @ http://www.baseinstitute.org/pages/mt_sinai/18
- “Mt. Sinai is Not at Jebal El-Lawz in Saudi Arabia” (Gordon Franz: 2001) @ http://www.ldolphin.org/franz-ellawz.html
- “Question: What is the Location of the Real Mount Sinai?” (GotQuestions.org) @ http://www.gotquestions.org/mount-Sinai.html
- “Seeking the Lost Mountain of Sinai?” (Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson: Chabad.org) @ http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1228881/jewish/Seeking-the-Lost-Mountain-of-Sinai.htm
- “What is Shavuot?” (Chabad.org) @ http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/609663/jewish/What-Is-Shavuot.htm
- “Where to Blintzes Come From?” (JoePastry.com) @ http://joepastry.com/2011/where-do-blintzes-come-from/