The days are short. The nights are cold. And if there is one perfect Jewish food for the season, it’s cholent. Since cooking is forbidden on Shabbat, cholent is pre-cooked on Friday and left to simmer overnight. On Saturday, the fragrance of the Jewish stew permeates the home and by midday, it’s ready.
But cholent is far, far more than just a Shabbat staple. Tucked away in this meaty stew, you’ll find clues about Jewish law, history and the migration of Jews around the world.
According to Leah Koenig, necessity is the mother of cholent.
“People of most other cultures would not have conceived of a dish such as cholent, because… they are free to cook seven days a week. Perhaps that is why some scholars identify cholent as one of the few authentically ‘Jewish’ recipes in a food repertoire known for adapting to and borrowing from the many different countries in which Jews have lived throughout history.”
Eliezer Segal suggests that this humble food is actually “a sublime expression of Jewish identity.” When the Roman satirist Juvenal depicted Jewish poverty, he said Jews only owned “a basket and a box of hay.” In fact, that “box of hay” is described in the Mishnah and Talmud as a way to insulate cholent on Shabbat.
And perhaps most fascinating, cholent actually became a marker of one’s faith. During the Spanish Inquisition, tips were issued to help recognize Conversos who were practising their Judaism in secret. People were warned to keep a close watch for acts like “cooking on Fridays such food as is required for the Saturday, and on the latter eating the meat thus cooked on the Friday, as is the manner of the Jews.”
Does refraining from cholent make you a heretic?
It may be folly to abstain from cholent, but is it sacriligious to not eat the food? Actually, it is. Sort of. There is a rabbinic injunction to enjoy a hot dish on Shabbat. Rav Zerachiah HaLevi who lived in 12th-century Gerona, Spain, said that whoever does not eat a hot meal is suspected of being a heretic. Although cooking is forbidden on Saturday, keeping a pre-cooked meal warm on that day is not. However, Karaites deny this tradition and refuse to eat any hot dishes on Shabbat. Rav Zerachiah warned that someone refusing to eat cholent or a similar food is suspect of a heretical interpretation of the Torah. Gulp.
In 1851, German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine composed “Princess Sabbath“ in which he extoled the transcendent qualities of the mighty dish he referred to as “Schalet”:
…Dearest, smoking is forbidden,
For to-day 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 to-day of schalet!
Schalet, ray of light immortal!…
Food of heaven, which, on Sinai,
God Himself instructed Moses
In the secret of preparing…
And then there is the etymology of the word. An Ohr Somayach rabbi suggests “cholent” could come the French “chaud-lent” meaning “hot-slow.” Another etymology is Old French chaudes lentes, “hot lentils.”
Rabbi Naftali Falk says the word derives from the Hebrew “sh’lahn,” meaning “that it stayed” overnight Friday on a fire. Whereupon Shimon Goldstein chimes in that cholent comes from “shul end,” because, in many communities, people didn’t have private stoves, so before Shabbat, they all put their cholent in the baker’s oven. On Shabbat morning after shul ended, thay went to the baker to pick up their cholent.
A cholent recipe may be a closely guarded family secret, but I never expected that this Jewish stew might appear on the radar of the United States intelligence community. During World War II, while Warren Shulman was serving in the navy, he sent his aunt a postcard that he had a 10-day leave and was coming home to Chicago. And to have some cholent ready.
His cousin Betsy Katz continues the story. “A few days after receiving his card, Dinah’s doorbell rang. When she answered it, she found two big, burly, serious men standing there. They showed their FBI identification cards and demanded to know what cholent was. While they stood there, very official-like, Dinah explained the entire process of making the special stew. After a detailed description, the men turned away, apparently satisfied. She never heard from them again, and Warren was able to come home for his leave and enjoy his cholent peacefully.”