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An Ode To Cholent

03/01/2019 12:35:38 PM


Cholent means different things to different people.

But did you know, that cholent is the gatekeeper protecting the entire Jewish tradition?! I know, it sounds exaggerated, so let me explain:

For those living on a different planet, cholent is a traditional Jewish stew, which simmers overnight and is eaten during Shabbat lunch. There are many variations to cholent – Ashkenaz, Sephard, and everything in between – but the general spirit of cholent is equal for all. G-d instructs us to delight in pleasure on Shabbat, and eating a hot meal is a perfect method to achieve this.

We find early records of cholent from the 12th century in Europe. Before the advent of electricity and household ovens, each family would bring their pot with the uncooked ingredients to the local bakery before sunset on Fridays. The lids of the pot were sealed with a paste of flour and water to ensure proper cooking. The baker’s oven was fired up and all the cholents simmered overnight. The next day, on their way home from Synagogue, everyone would pass by the bakery, pick up their pots, and bring them home for lunch.

Cholent became the magical ingredient which connected Jews with their Tradition, their families, or to anything somewhat Jewish. In fact, even the Jewish-German poet Heinrich Heine (19th century), who at age twenty-eight converted to Lutheranism, wrote a poem titled ‘Princess Sabbath’ in which he rhapsodized about cholent:

“…She allows her lover all things / Save this one, — tobacco-smoking: / "Loved one! smoking is forbidden, / "For today the Sabbath is. / "But at noon, in compensation, / "Thou a steaming dish shalt taste of, / "Which is perfectly delicious — / "Thou shalt eat today some Schalet!" / Schalet is the food of heaven, / Which the Lord Himself taught Moses / How to cook, when on that visit / To the summit of Mount Sinai, / Where the Lord Almighty also / Every good religious doctrine / And the holy ten commandments / Publish'd in a storm of lightning…”

But it goes even deeper than cholent’s seductive powers and tantalizing effects. So much so that in the 12th century, the prominent Rabbi Zerachia Halevi of Girona, Spain, wrote: “Whoever doesn’t each cholent on Shabbat acts as a renegade and follows the ways of heresy.” Why?

A verse in this week’s Torah portion Vayakhel seems to challenge the very permissibility for making cholent. In many places the Torah instructs about not performing labor on Shabbat. But only once, in this week’s portion, does the Torah specify a prohibited labor. “You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”

The Karaites (the Jewish sect which recognized only the Tanach [the Written Torah] as authoritative and rejected the Oral Torah Tradition) pointed to this verse as proof that making cholent is forbidden. They understood the verse to outlaw any fire burning in one’s home during Shabbat. Which is why they refused to light Shabbat candles, they sat in the dark on Friday night, and slept in an unheated home during the winter.

The traditional Rabbi’s, however, taught a different interpretation. The Torah only prohibits kindling a fire on Shabbat. But if a fire was kindled before the Shabbat, it may continue to burn during the Shabbat. Therefore, if a cholent pot was placed on the fire before Shabbat, the cholent may continue to cook overnight and be eaten the next day. (Okay, there are a few more important details to this, so be sure to contact your local Rabbi.)

Now we can understand why the Rabbis were so ideologically forceful about eating cholent on Shabbat. If one were to not eat cholent, it would raise suspicion that they were following the heretic Karaitic tradition. The process of cholent making was thus viewed as a testament to the authentic Jewish Tradition!

To be sure, Rabbi’s over the centuries have ruled that if eating cholent is harmful, or if you simply dislike cholent, then you need not force yourself to eat it. The goal is to increase in your pleasure of Shabbat. But be sure to make clear that you in no way identify with the Karaites.

Which brings me to an event in our Shul this week. We are hosting our Super-Cholent-Bowl IV. We have eight teams who have each prepared their unique cholent. Tomorrow, everyone is invited to join our kiddush-luncheon, as we all get to taste each cholent and vote for the winner.

Beyond the immense amount of fun we will all have, I am proud of our community, as we continually champion traditional Jewish values and innovate creative and enjoyable ways to celebrate them!

Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784