The Tisch: The charm of cholent

Preparing and eating cholent – or any of its many variations – is a statement of faith and fidelity to Jewish tradition.

The German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) called the cholent dish ‘a ray of light immortal' (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) called the cholent dish ‘a ray of light immortal'
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
One of the most famous staples of the Shabbat culinary experience is a warm dish that in Yiddish is commonly called cholent or chulent (depending on Yiddish pronunciation). While cholent sounds like a decidedly Ashkenazi dish, there is a Sephardi equivalent commonly called hamin.
Other communities have variations of this Shabbat stew. Hence cholent comes in a range of varieties and under a variety of names. Thus, for instance, the western Yiddish cholent-equivalent is called schalet. In modern Hebrew parlance hamin seems to be the most popular term in use today. All cholent varieties, regardless of their ingredients, have a few basic features in common: The dish is prepared before Shabbat, it cooks over Shabbat, and it is served warm during the day.
Hassidic masters lauded the esoteric valence of this Shabbat cuisine.
In a succinct passage, Rabbi Hayim Elazar Shapira of Munkatch (1871-1937) quoted his grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo Shapira (1831-1893), on the spiritual potency of eating cholent: “The warm food that we prepare [before Shabbat] and then eat on Shabbat day is a charm for complete faith and faith in the words of the Sages. Indeed, someone who abstains from them” – referring to cholent or more generally warm food on Shabbat day – “we are concerned perhaps etc.” Without completing the sentence, Shlomo Shapira was referring to a passage in the classic code of Jewish law – Shulhan Aruch – where it is stated that we are concerned that such a person is no less than a heretic! The Munkatcher Rebbe continued with his grandfather’s words: “And since our Sages, of blessed memory, stated that the portion of goodness is greater than the portion of punishment (Yoma 76a), therefore one who eats it” – again referring to cholent or more generally warm food on Shabbat day – “faith will gravitate toward that person.” Thus eating cholent on Shabbat day is a charm for increased faith.
The truth is that Shlomo Shapira was not the first person in his family to talk about the mystical power of cholent. His grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech of Dynow (1783-1841), commonly known as the Bnei Yissachar, by the title of his most famous work – also related to the mystical valence of warm food on Shabbat day. Zvi Elimelech referred to the 12th-century Provençal scholar, Rabbi Zerahya Halevi, who stated that one who eats warm food on Shabbat day will be blessed, no harm will come to that person, and the person will eventually merit to be among those revived from the dead.
Other hassidic masters also lauded cholent. Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar (1887-1979) felt that parents’ responsibility to their children included serving cholent on Shabbat. Even young children should taste cholent on Shabbat as part of their upbringing. One should not be lenient about this educational responsibility – opined Reb Yoelish – for it is a matter of faith in God.
While the hassidic masters focused on the mystical impact of cholent – faith in God, belief in the words of the Sages and the promise of resurrection from the dead – they were actually expanding upon an age-old notion that predated the advent of the hassidic movement.
This tradition emphasized the religious (but not the mystical) importance of cholent. Moreover, the dish was even cast as a symbol of fidelity to Jewish tradition.
The tale of cholent begins with the interpretation of the biblical prohibition against fire on Shabbat (Exodus 35:3). The Sages understood that it was forbidden to kindle fire on Shabbat; fire that was lit before the onset of Shabbat could continue to burn. The Karaites, however, understood the biblical verse as forbidding burning fire on Shabbat – even if the fire was lit before Shabbat.
As a result of this dispute, warm food on Shabbat morning became a touchstone for affiliation. Those who abstained from eating warm food on Shabbat morning were aligning with the Karaites and denying rabbinic authority. Those who ate cholent were demonstrating their allegiance to rabbinic tradition.
Ironically, at the same time that the hassidic masters were extolling the virtues of cholent, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) – the German-Jewish poet who converted to Christianity – also lauded cholent in his poem titled Prinzessin Sabbath. The poem was published in the original German in 1851, and has since been translated into other languages. The excerpts below are from a translation by Margaret Armour that appears in The Standard Book of Jewish Verse, compiled by Joseph Friedlander, edited by George Alexander Kohut (New York 1917). Regarding Princess Shabbat, Heine wrote:
She denies her lover nothing
Save the smoking of tobacco;
“Dearest, smoking is forbidden,
For today it is the Sabbath.
“But at noon, as compensation,
There shall steam for thee a dish
That in very truth divine is –
Thou shalt eat today of schalet!
Heine continues, calling the dish a “ray of light immortal” and describing its origins: For this schalet is the very Food of heaven, which, on Sinai, God Himself instructed Moses In the secret of preparing, At the time He also taught him And revealed in flames of lightning All the doctrines good and pious, And the holy Ten Commandments.
Like the belief that the Torah was given at Sinai, preparing and eating cholent – or any of its many variations – is a statement of faith and fidelity to Jewish tradition.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. He is a postdoctoral fellow with the Inter-University Academic Partnership in Russian and Eastern European Studies.