The origins of cholent, the thick, slow-cooked savory Shabbat stew, the traditional Sabbath midday meal, go all the way back to the time of the Talmud. Indeed, its history takes it on a route so dispersed across centuries and cultures throughout the diaspora, that in different countries it’s alternatively known as hamin (Aramaic for warm, Hebrew for hot); or dafina or adafina (Arabic for “covered”). There are even variants in its Yiddish name, whether schalet in the Yiddish of Germany or shulet in the Yiddish of Eastern Europe. Recipes are as infinitely variable and adjustable as what’s available: combinations of meat, beans, vegetables, grains and herbs.
It’s a dish that “unites all Jews at least once weekly through the celebration of Shabbat,” says Kay Kantor Pomerantz, the author of three books of cholent “stories” and recipes. “It touches the heart of every Jew because it’s part of our tradition. Everyone has a cholent story tucked inside.”
If so, the reason may be that the story of cholent itself goes to the heart of Jewish history and tradition, beginning with the Bible. And it contains a paradox. On the one hand, the Bible commands, “You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:3). Moreover, cooking is listed among the 39 categories of creative work not allowed on Shabbat.
And yet, we’re also reminded by Isaiah to “call the Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13). And how better to do that during the course of the day than to enjoy a hot meal?
And therein resides the dilemma. “Not only does Jewish law demand or instruct the refraining from cooking, but also within the construct of the Jewish Sabbath is the Oneg Shabbat, the enjoyment of the day, and part of that oneg is to enjoy a hot meal,” explains Rabbi Gil Marks, the James Beard award-winning cookbook author whose forthcoming book is “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.”
To modern foodies, these conflicting goals may begin to sound like a dare worthy of an “Iron Chef” contest. In fact, this challenge was one for the sages: Two full chapters in one tractate of the Talmud are devoted specifically to the topic of keeping food warm so that it can be enjoyed warm on Shabbat, says Rabbi Judith Hauptman, the E. Billi Ivry professor of Talmud and rabbinic culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “One chapter focuses on the oven, specifying that you’re not allowed to stoke the flames or add more coal, and so on,” on Shabbat she says. That same chapter also explains that you are allowed to leave a pot of already (or, according to different opinions one-third to one-half) cooked food over the source of heat, so that the pot can continue to stay warm overnight. Similarly, another chapter details permissible ways to insulate food (one ancient equivalent of a thermos bottle included covering and wrapping dishes in sheep’s fleece) so that it will retain its heat for consumption on Saturday. “The main point is not to let the food cook further,” says Hauptman. “All you can do is keep it warm.”
Cover it and keep it warm: the Aramaic phrase, for that, toemnin et hahamin, appears in the Mishnah. And from that same phrase derives the Sephardic name for the Shabbat day stew, hamin.
But the question remains: what, exactly, should be kept warm? We know, from the discussion in the Talmud, that ingredients contained in such dishes kept warm overnight included various legumes — i.e., beans, which are often prominent in cholent. Eggs also come under a great deal of discussion and are another ingredient often found in Sephardic recipes. And meat and onions are mentioned, as well. Still, the Talmud lists no exact recipes, and the dish was not yet called hamin or cholent. Nor was such a stew as yet considered synonymous with the midday Sabbath meal.
It took a major controversy to do that. Jump from the Talmudic era to the early Middle Ages and the rise of the Karaites, a breakaway Jewish sect that rejected the rabbinic teachings of the Talmud and the Oral Law. According to their literal-minded reading of the Torah, the prohibition against kindling fires on Shabbat extended to deriving any benefit from fires lit even before Shabbat. Hence, the Karaites’ ban on eating warm food on Shabbat (or keeping themselves warm in winter, for that matter). And hence the custom, attributed to Rabbi Saadia Gaon, of breaking with the Karaites and showing allegiance to traditional rabbinic Judaism by making it a point to eat warm food on Shabbat. Some rabbinic leaders even began insinuating that “anyone who refrained from eating hot food on the Sabbath was drifting close to heresy,” according to food scholar John Cooper in his classic 1993 text “Eat And Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food” (Jason Aronson). Thus was codified the midday menu for Shabbat, the Sabbath stew.
And thus also began the next stage of the Sabbath pot’s journey northward, from Sephardic communities in the Middle East, Persia, Syria, Morocco, northern Africa and Spain, into France. That’s the likely birthplace, at the end of the 12th century, of the word “cholent” itself. “It’s from the old French word chauld for hot, or chauld de lit, the word for fireplace,” says Marks. In German Yiddish, the word became schalet¸ and in the dialects spoken further east it became chulent or tsholnt — or cholent, which according to Marks is the Americanized version of the Polish pronunciation.
But wherever the Jewish community was situated, in olden times (and before the age of the slow cooker) Friday mornings would find members or servants of Jewish families bringing their Sabbath pots to the communal bakery or oven, where their sealed pots would remain warm overnight. The next morning or mid-afternoon, these pots would be retrieved, and when the families gathered after Sabbath morning prayers, the oneg of Shabbat would be fulfilled with a warm meal.
In search of cholent recipes, this writer spent an entire afternoon perusing numerous cookbooks in the New York Public Library’s Dorot Jewish Division, brought up from the stacks by Roberta Saltzman, the division’s assistant chief librarian. And yet these volumes — not just in English but in German (printed in Gothic Black Letter German script and published in 1930), French and Hebrew — represented just the few she could get her hands on immediately, explained Saltzman, who is an expert on Jewish cookbooks. The reason, she says: In many cases, “cholent was considered so basic that these recipes weren’t always included.” In others, such as community cookbooks from Reform synagogues, none appeared because preparing Sabbath cholent was no longer part of their Sabbath custom. And in still others, cholent may have seemed too Old World or not sophisticated enough for modern-day cooks in search of newer tastes.
That perception of being old-fashioned has changed, however, perhaps in part due to renewed interest in Jewish culture and heritage — and also the international flavors and spices brought to the pot, and to the table, by Jewish communities around the world. And whether the dish is seasoned with the traditional Ashkenazic flavor of paprika, or with the spices chosen by Sephardic cooks, like cardamom, cinnamon, saffron and ginger or cayenne, the dish infuses the air with the fragrance of Shabbat.
Diane Cole is a contributing editor of U.S. News & World Report and author of the memoir, “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges” (Winedale).