Why Do We Eat Cholent On Shabbat?
In many Jewish households, Shabbat lunch is
synonymous with cholent, a hot stew-like dish consisting of beans, meat
and potatoes. It's well known that this particular custom, like many of
our customs, developed from a very basic, practical question:
namely, how do we serve hot food on Shabbat when we are halachically
forbidden to cook on that day? Cholent became the solution to
this problem. The reason is that it's put on the fire before
Shabbat begins and cooks continuously until it is served Shabbat
afternoon. To fully appreciate this tasty dish and the reason it became
so popular, we must first understand the nature of the problem a bit
The melacha of bishul, cooking, is one of the
thirty-nine activities that we are forbidden to engage in on
Shabbat. All thirty-nine are derived from the Torah's description
of all the activities that were involved in the fabrication, assembly
and dismantling of the Mishkan, the mobile sanctuary that Bnei Yisrael
used in the desert. There were two types of cooking done in the
Mishkan. The first was the cooking of different plants and herbs to
make dyes for the different fabrics used in the construction of the
Mishkan. The second was the baking of bread for the lechem hapanim, the
show bread that was placed on the golden shulchan. There is some
controversy among the very early halachic authorities, known as the
rishonim, as to which of these actions is the actual source of the
Torah prohibition of cooking on the Shabbat. However, all are in
agreement that bishul is one of the thirty-nine melachot and is,
therefore, definitely prohibited on Shabbat.
An essential mitzvah of Shabbat is that of oneg,
enjoyment of Shabbat. One basic enjoyment that is common to everyone is
a nice hot meal. To this end, every household needs to make
preparations before Shabbat to be able to have hot food on Shabbat.
Indeed, our rabbis considered this to be so essential to oneg Shabbat
that any person who didn't do so was suspected of being a heretic. This
was due to the influence of a certain sect within Judaism known as the
Karaites who did not believe in the Oral Torah. They took the
commandment not to light a fire on Shabbat quite literally; they sat in
the dark and ate only cold food. Hence, anyone who didn't keep this
universal aspect of oneg Shabbat was suspected of being a Karaite
and therefore, a denier of the Oral Torah.
It seems that the earliest mention of cholent is in
the Sefer Or Zarua authored by Rabbeinu Yitzchak ben Moshe who died
around 1260 CE. In the midst of a conversation about re-warming food on
Shabbat, he writes that he had seen in the house of his teacher, Rabbi
Yehuda, a particular permissible way to re-warm cholent.
So you see, the history of cholent goes way back! It's just one
example of how our traditions and customs have formed and enriched the
fabric of Jewish life and how they have been faithfully preserved and
passed down throughout the ages.
Rabbi Eliezer Kessler