Cholent: A Heated Issue

16 02 2015

A little while ago, David Curwin over at Balashon mused upon the etymology of cholent. He offered a variety of different suggestions, and is no doubt correct in relegating all of them (or almost all of them) to the status of “folk etymologies” (“etymythologies”, as I have heard one scholar put it).

He does not note, although perhaps should, that the earliest reference in text to this food as “cholent” (known by Sephardim as chamin, “hot food”) is in the 13th century Or Zarua II:8, by Rabbi Yitzhak of Vienna, who mentions it in relation to the Jews of France. Whether or not that lends itself to one of the etymologies that derive the word from French, I cannot say.

Reference to cholent is fairly ancient, even if the Franco-Yiddish terminology cannot be traced back before the 13th century. In fact, not only is it ancient but it is something of a cause célèbre in rabbinic circles.

While the Torah does not expressly forbid cooking on Shabbat, it does prohibit the lighting of a fire. What is more, the textual proximity of the description of the tabernacle’s construction to a repeated stipulation that concerns resting on the seventh day was enough to suggest that anything required for the former must be prohibited on the latter. And, since the preparation of dyes for the tapestries required a process of heating and stirring, that effectively prohibits cooking on Shabbat.

While one might need to be a rabbinic Jew to accept the logic underlying this conclusion, one certainly need not be a rabbinic Jew to accept the conclusion itself. In fact, all available evidence would suggest that non-rabbinic Jews also abstained from cooking on the seventh day, be it for any reason other than the most obvious one: that cooking simply feels like “work”.

This is where things get a little complicated, since the rabbinic predilection for casuistry has resulted in careful delineations of precisely which aspects of cooking are to be so labelled. And while stirring is indeed a problem, in the event that the food is already at least one-third cooked, and so long as it is placed upon the flame before Shabbat has come in, and so long as one does absolutely nothing to adjust the flame in any way, to change the rate at which the food is being heated or to add anything further to it, it will be possible to eat a nice, hot meal for Shabbat lunch.

Understandly, this is something that non-rabbinic Jews can simply not accept. And equally understandably, the decision to make cholent has come to be viewed as a powerful statement as regards one’s faith in the rabbinic sages.

As such, Rabbi Zerachiah haLevi of Gerona, in his 12th century commentary to Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi’s Sefer haHalakhot, declares that all those who abstain from eating cholent should check their lineage, lest they turn out to be descended of sectarians! No doubt he had in mind the anti-rabbinic Karaites, who at the time that he was writing comprised some 40% of the world’s Jewish population, and with whom the rabbis frequently engaged in heated polemics of this nature. Only those who do eat cholent, Rabbi Zerachiah haLevi continues, are to be considered believers, and it is only they who will merit to see the end of days (Maor haQatan, Shabbat 38b).

These statements are quoted in a number of important rabbinic texts – such as Sefer Abudirham (§177) and Sefer Kol Bo (§31) – and their sentiments are adopted in several others. So, for example, in the midst of the Shulchan Arukh’s description of those items that may and may not be used to cover a pot (the concern being whether or not they will cause it to emit steam), Rabbi Moshe Isserles – a 16th century Polish scholar and contemporary of the Shulchan Arukh – interjects with a gloss:

ומצוה להטמין לשבת כדי שיאכל חמין בשבת כי זהו מכבוד ועונג שבת. וכל מי שאינו מאמין בדברי החכמים ואוסר אכילת חמין בשבת חיישינן שמא אפיקורוס הוא

We are commanded to cover [hot vessels] in advance of Shabbat, that we might eat hot food [chamin] on Shabbat, since this is [a fulfillment of the twin commandments of] honouring and delighting in Shabbat. And anyone who does not believe in the words of the sages and who forbids the consumption of hot food on Shabbat is suspected of being an apikorus.

– Orach Chayim 257:8

The apikorus is a curious category of person, but for all practical purposes he (or she) is somebody who has forfeited their right to inherit the world to come (mSanhedrin 10:1). The suggestion that one might be suspected of being an apikorus on no stronger ground than an aversion to cholent is a powerful one, but it is not the fiercest statement made in cholent’s defence.

That dubious honour belongs to another contemporary of the Shulchan Arukh: Rabbi Mordekhai Yoffe. One of a number of people who disliked the Shulchan Arukh, Rabbi Yoffe is almost alone in having utilised his dissatisfaction with the text to produce an alternative. It is known as Levush Malkhut and it spans ten volumes, the first five of which only are devoted to an exposition of rabbinic law.

To properly understand the nature of this work, it is important to appreciate that it effectively functions as a commentary upon another. The text that serves as its foundation is the monumental Arba’ah Turim of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher: a 13th century German scholar, who condensed all of rabbinic law into four broad categories – the first of which, “Orach Chayim”, covers the laws of Shabbat (amongst other things).

Rabbi Mordekhai Yoffe was far from being the only person to have authored a commentary on this magisterial work. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, whom we have already mentioned, wrote a commentary on the Tur called Darkhei Moshe. And Rabbi Yosef Caro, who was later to pen the Shulchan Arukh, wrote a commentary on the Tur called Beit Yosef.

The Beit Yosef is a vast and thoroughly comprehensive exposition of rabbinic law – too vast for the average person to make good use of, and more comprehensive than a text of that nature may be required to be. It is a tremendous resource and encyclopedic in scope, but thoroughly in need of an abridgement. Rabbi Caro’s Shulchan Arukh is precisely that abridgement: an expurgated and abbreviated version of his Beit Yosef, designed for easier use.

It was the opinion of the Levush that this abridgement was a little too abbreviated, and he sought to create a work of Jewish law that would fall midway between the Beit Yosef and the Shulchan Arukh: a commentary, in other words, upon the Tur that would not be too encyclopedic, but would neither be too casual in its presentation of the sources.

It is a masterful work and, sadly, too little studied. The section that corresponds to the laws of Shabbat is titled Levush haChur and there, in Orach Chayim 276:8, he concludes rather strikingly:

מצוה להטמין לצורך שבת כדי שיאכל בשבת מאכל חם וזהו מכבוד ועונג שבת. וכל המפקפק על התמנת חמין לשבת שאינו רוצה לאכול חמין בשבת משום טעמא שנתבשל בשבת ואינו מאמין בדברי חכמים הרי זה נקרא מין ומלעיג על דברי חכמים וחייב מיתה

We are commanded to cover [hot vessels] for the sake of Shabbat, that we might eat hot food on Shabbat, and this is [a fulfillment of the twin commandments of] honouring and delighting in Shabbat. And anybody who casts aspersions on the covering up of hot food [chamin] in advance of Shabbat, since he does not wish to eat hot food on Shabbat – for the reason that he considers it to be cooking on Shabbat – and who does not believe in the words of the sages is called a sectarian and one who scorns the words of the sages, and is deserving of death.

One wonders what a person ought to do if he doesn’t like cholent! Fortunately, such people have long existed, and it has long been noted that if the consumption of hot food is disagreeable to somebody than he is forgiven for eating cold food on Shabbat. That’s something of a relief, but strong words require strong counter-words, and so it is fitting that Rabbi Eliyahu Shapira (a 17th century Polish scholar who authored a commentary on the Levush) has the following to append to Rabbi Mordekhai Yoffe’s sentiments:

אבל מי שכואב לו החמין ועונג שלו לאכול צונן לא יצער נפשיה באכילת חמין. ומי שאין אוכל כהאי גוונא צונן עליו נאמר כסיל בחושך הולך – קהלת ב:יד

But one who is pained by eating hot food, and for whom eating cold food is enjoyable, should not cause anguish to himself by eating hot food. Concerning somebody who under these circumstances doesn’t eat cold food, scripture states: an idiot walks in darkness (Ecclesiastes 2:14).

Who would have known that cholent could be so polemical!




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