L'Chaim

Jewish World Review March 2, 2001/ 7 Adar 5761

Cholent: A Historical Perspective


By Rabbi Yisrael Rutman


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WHEN I was growing up in America in the 60s and 70s, blacks succeeded in seizing the cultural and moral high ground from white society. Between the moral dynamism of the civil rights movement and their cultural vibrance, they stole the show. On the spiritual plane, too, blacks had "soul," and whites were admiring---and a little jealous.

Jews were also in the ascendancy---white folks, but with a difference. The great triumph of the Six Day War was a source of pride for Jews everywhere; and the strides of Jews in every stratum of American society seemed to know no limit. The creative contribution of Jews in the fields of literature and the entertainment arts showed that Jews, too, could lay claim to having "soul" (even if it couldn't be as much as the creators of "soul music" and "soul food"). They even had their own "soul food," boasting lox and bagels, stuffed cabbage, knishes, and more.

But the foods associated with the Jews are only Jewish by association. These are dishes that Jewish immigrants brought with them from Eastern Europe -- dishes that had accompanied them in the exile -- but, truth be told, they have little to do with being Jewish. Unless, of course, Jewish identity is no more than a matter of where you go out to eat, of worshipping in the delicatessen of your choice.

There is, however, a kind of food that is intrinsically Jewish, and not something borrowed from the Russians or Hungarians. Cholent is such a food. For cholent was invented specifically to meet the unique requirements of Jewish law. Since cooking or baking on Shabbes is forbidden, in order to be able to enjoy hot food on the Seventh Day, it is necessary to prepare it and place it on the fire to keep warm -- already cooked enough to be eaten -- before sundown on Friday evening. For this purpose, cholent was invented.

At this point, efforts to define cholent begin to melt down. More than a food, it is a non-specific, multi-cultural, existential experience. Traditionally, a stew made of beans, potatoes, onions, and kasha (groats), it may also include pieces of meat, chicken, hot dogs, and anything else you may want to throw in. The ingredients vary not only from country to country, but from family to family. No two cholents are alike. Whether or not "everybody is entitled to his own truth" is arguable; but there is no question that everybody is entitled to his own cholent.

But if the definition of cholent is an enigma, its etymology is wrapped in mystery. Some suggest that it comes from the Hebrew word shelan, meaning to rest overnight, referring to the fact that the dish is kept warm on the stove over Friday night. Other linguists derive it from the medieval French chaud lentment, meaning "cooked slowly."

My own favorite theory traces the word back to its context as the meal eaten after Shabbes morning prayer services, when shul (synagogue) ends. According to this theory, "shul ends" evolved (presumably over billions of years) into cholent. Whether present estimates of the age of the earth would allow sufficient time for such a development (even when allowing for the factor of cholent eaters talking with their mouths full), has yet to be calculated.

Traditional as cholent is, however, not all Jews have been cholent-eaters. The schism is not just a matter of culinary preference, either; it touches on one of the most fiercely debated issues in Jewish history. For in the eighth century, a sect arose called the Karaites. These were Jews who rejected the teachings of the Talmud, also known as the Oral Law. They believed that only the Written Law, the Five Books of Moses, was authoritative. The name Karaites is Hebrew for "Scripturalists," since the literal reading of the Torah text was their guiding principle. Needless to say, their ideological stance had vast ramifications.

Without an Oral Tradition to complement the Written Torah, it is a closed book, since so many of the basic terms and concepts are presented without explanation in the text of the Torah itself. Such terms as lulav, tefilin, and shechita are complete mysteries wihout some outside tradition to explain them. The laws of Shabbes, too, are given clear definition only by the Talmud and its commentaries.

Having cut themselves off from the Oral Tradition, the Karaites had to make it up as they went along, and their interpretations often resulted in bizarre perversions of authentic Judaism. For example, since they took literally the verse that "you shall kindle no fires...on the Sabbath day," they spent the Seventh Day eating cold food in cold, unlit dwellings. Mainstream Judaism, on the other hand, always permitted the use of fire on Shabbes, as long as it is kindled before Shabbes begins, thus allowing for such all-time favorites as hot cholent on cold winter days. (Actually, the halacha, or Jewish Law, requires that one have something on the fire on Shabbes during the summer, as well, as an ongoing refutation to the fundamentalist way of the Karaites.)

It is written that the Written and Oral Torah are compared to the physical body (guf) and the immortal soul, neshama. The Written Torah, concrete and visible, is likened to the body; the Oral Torah, originally transmitted only from mouth to ear and forbidden to be written down, is likened to the soul. Therefore, cholent, which is permitted on Shabbes only by virtue of our faithfulness to the Oral Torah, is identified with the soul. It is, in a sense, the food of the Oral Torah, the soul food of the Jewish people.

The moral of the story is that any Jew seeking a more spiritual life need not search beyond the riches of our own tradition, of which cholent is only a small, though tasty, part. As the Psalmist says, "O taste and see that it is good!"


JWR contributor Rabbi Yisrael Rutman is an educator in Israel. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2001, Rabbi Yisrael Rutman