As a child, I remember being invited with my class to our rebbe’s house for Shabbos. What stood out to me about that Shabbos was the hot dogs in the cholent. It was my first introduction to this staple Jewish dish. In high school, I would eat the cholent my mother made which had all the basics, like barley, beans, meat and spices. As an adult, my mother changed her recipe, to more of a soupy cholent with just barley. Is there a right or wrong cholent?
How cholent and the Oral Law coincide
One thing is for sure, cholent was a dish that came to prove the Karaites wrong. The Karaites followed the Written Law literally and rejected the Oral Law as the true interpretation of the Bible. Therefore, according to them when the Bible said not to light a fire on Shabbos, that meant fire could not be used at all. Of course, the Oral Law allows cooking on Shabbos as long as it was warmed up beforehand and cholent represents this idea as it’s already somewhat cooked before Shabbos arrives. The halacha is so concerned with these practices of the Karaites that it recommends having a hot dish on Shabbos. Rabbi Yehuda ben Barzilai Habarceloni, in the 12th century, said, “And everyone that doesn’t eat hamin [cholent] on Shabbat is a renegade, the ways of the heretics are in him.”
The history and varieties of cholent
Gil Marks, a food historian, gives a timeline for the evolution of cholent. He says, “The dish comes out of the Middle East, and then it spreads to North Africa, and by the 9th century, it’s already found in Spain.” It took hold in France in the 1300s and one derivation of the name is from the French words chaud lent, “warm slowly.” After the French Jews were expelled from their land, they brought the rich tradition of cholent to Germany where it took hold.
In Germany, cholent becomes such an iconic food of the Jews, that in a parody of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” which was adopted by Beethoven for his Ninth Symphony, the great Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine, writes:
Cholent, ray of light immortal!
Cholent, daughter of Elysium!
So had Schiller’s song resounded,
Had he ever tasted Cholent.
For this cholent is the very
Food of heaven which, on Sinai,
God Himself instructed Moses
In the secret of preparing.
Cholent has since spread across the globe and been adapted in many forms.
The five basic categories of cholent are schalet, hamin, skhina and dafina, osh savo and tabeet. Of course, many other variations exist in other regions. Schalet is the Yiddish word for cholent and represents the Eastern European Ashkenazi style of cholent that contains beans, barley, meat and spices. Often kishke is added. Hamin, which means hot in Hebrew, represents the general Sephardi style cholent that hails from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East. In this cholent, chicken is used, not meat, and eggs are included. In Morocco, it’s called skhina. It’s made with chickpeas, rice, meat, potatoes, eggs and spices. This kind of cholent was called dafina in Spain and the Maghreb (North Africa). Osh savo is served by Bukharan Jews, consisting of sweet and sour rice. Tabeet is served by Iraqi Jews and consists of a whole chicken stuffed with rice. Spices are added as well.
The symbol of cholent
Rabbi Michael Gourarie, the founder and director of BINA, shares in a blog post some magical ideas of what cholent means to him. He says that when preparing cholent it’s necessary to first put in the larger ingredients and then fill it with the smaller ingredients. To him, this means that in life, you must focus on the large things first and only after that address the small details. He also says that it conveys the theme of passion, for cholent requires fire. I believe there is another powerful message that can be derived from the making of cholent. Cholent symbolizes the idea of warmth in the beginning and then a larger heat spreading that ultimately melts all the parts together. The message is to show warmth to your neighbor which will in the end bring a melting of personalities and a lasting unity.
Personalize your cholent with Solomon’s Beef Franks
The beauty of cholent is that every geographic location has created its own form of cholent. This welcomes experimentation to make it your own. To be creative, one can experiment with hot dogs in their cholent. There is also an advantage. A hot dog, unlike other meats, has a consistency and crunch that stands out. There’s a specific way that some manufacturers attain near perfection in this area and it involves the mixing of two types of meat from two different continents. American meat is very fatty and South American meat very lean. It is the practice in the hot dog industry to mix both of these meats to get the necessary consistency and crunch that the consumer so much values. OU-Glatt Solomon’s Beef Franks has this consistency and can enhance your cholent.
Halachic considerations relating to cholent
The cholent must be at least half-cooked before the beginning of Shabbos, otherwise, one must cover the fire with a blech. On Shabbos, one should not ladle out cholent from the pot while the pot is still on the fire. This is an issue of hagasah (stirring a pot) which may not be done while the pot is on the fire. Instead one should pick it up off the fire, or out of the crockpot and then ladle out the cholent. If one wants to put the remainder back onto the fire or heating element, there must be some sort of blech (cover on the fire). If part of the cholent is not fully cooked, one may not put the cholent back on the fire. If one eats a potato from cholent made with meat, even if they do not eat any of the meat, they must wait 6 hours. If one heats their challah on top of their meat cholent, the challah can become fleishigs.
Joan Nathan, a frequent contributor to the New York Times, told the Forward, “Cholent changes, depending on the locale and the customs. In America it is Americanized, and in other countries, like France, it is French-ified. We all add our ingredients that make it ours.” This really captures the essence of cholent. We must make it ours in every way. Just like the Oral Law mandates the acceptance of the notion that fire to some degree is allowed on Shabbos, we must inculcate that into our being. We must embrace the idea that cholent endured, despite the different challenges that Jews of different cultures experienced. And finally, we must absorb the message of cholent: show “warmth” to your neighbor in order to achieve a bond of unity with him.
Click here for a Lamb Cholent Recipe by Eileen Goltz courtesy of OU Kosher.