It’s rich, warming, nourishing and immensely satisfying. It’s an entire meal in one pot. But, did you know that eating – or more accurately, cooking – cholent is also a sacred religious rite, a powerful statement of Jewish faith?
It all began when a group of Jews called the Sadducees broke with tradition, denying the sanctity and authenticity of the Oral Torah (the Talmud). They claimed the Biblical prohibition of lighting a fire on Shabbos was literal, and no fire could ever burn on Shabbos, making it impossible to eat any hot food on Shabbat day.
Through the interpretative, analytical process of the Oral Torah – a process with ancient roots going back all the way to Sinai – we know this assertion to be untrue. Under specific guidelines, a dish can be placed on the fire before Shabbat and continue to cook through to the next day. And so, to affirm and uphold their belief in the oral traditions passed down from Moses, the custom developed to have a hot dish on Shabbat day.
A hot, thick, steaming cholent has been classic Shabbos lunch fare for more than a thousand years. It is a tradition that has reached across the continents, from Morocco to Hungary, Iraq to France. The traditional cholent incorporates meat, potatoes, beans and barley, and other ingredients, which are slow-cooked overnight to produce its characteristic rich, sultry flavour.
The word cholent is typically used by Ashkenazi Jews, and there are various theories about its origins. Some say cholent is an amalgam of the French words chaud (hot) and lent (slow), or chaud lentes (hot lentils). Others believe it originates from the Latin, calentem, meaning "that which is hot", or the Hebrew word, she’lan, which means "that rested [overnight]". This refers to an ancient tradition that saw Jewish families place their individual pots of cholent into the town baker's ovens (which always stayed hot) where they would slow-cook overnight.
Sephardi Jews call the stew hamin from the Hebrew word cham (hot). Another possible origin of the Sephardi name is the Mishnaic phrase tomnim et ha’chamim (wrap the hot things).
In my synagogue, I have the honour of being chief cholent chef, and over the years, I have perfected the recipe. As I cut up the sweet potato, add baby potatoes, beans and barley, and various secret spices, I often think about what messages this ancient tradition carries.
Whenever I make cholent, I am reminded of a famous time management concept. Were I to fill up the pot with water first and add the barley and beans, there would be no space for the small potatoes and certainly none for the sweet potatoes. When I place the big ingredients into the pot first, however, the small kernels of barley or the water just slip through the various gaps and everything seems to fit. The big ingredients represent the things that are truly important – our spiritual and personal growth, our health, the time spent with loved ones, nurturing and strengthening relationships. But often we fill our days with the small stuff that we perceive to be urgent – and like the small ingredients, they consume us and leave no room for the things that really make a difference. Like the cholent, the sweet potatoes must come first, cementing into our schedule time for the really valuable life experiences. The small stuff will just follow and fit in somewhere.
Another message for me is the power of passion. By definition, cholent must be hot – and its fire represents the spark within our soul that inspires us to connect and grow, engaging in our Jewishness with excitement and enthusiasm. One of the most critical ingredients of personal growth is joy and passion. Apathy, complacency, going through the motions guarantees spiritual decline and degeneration. Warmth and happiness energises Jewish living, turning it into something vital and vibrant.
Perhaps the most obvious lesson in cholent is the importance of tradition itself. Jewish continuity depends on maintaining the foundations of our identity given to us at Mt Sinai over 3 300 years ago. Forgetting those beliefs weakens and ultimately threatens the continued existence of the chain of Jewish transmission. So many years after the Sadducees challenged the Sanhedrin – the great Jewish Sages upholding the integrity of the Torah – we are still eating cholent/hamin, a link in our unbroken chain of Jewish tradition.
Ultimately, I think cholent is a powerful symbol of the Jewish People. A mix of distinct, diverse ingredients, stewing together in a cosmic pot, each ingredient adding its own unique flavour to create something beautiful, of a piece and, frankly, delicious.
Cholent was first mentioned in 1180 in the writings of Rabbi Yitzchak of Vienna.
An ancient practice saw families bring their cholent pots on Friday afternoon to the town baker, whose oven was always kept alight. They would then pick them up on Shabbos morning.
Sephardic variations include whole shell-encased eggs and chicken instead of meat, while some Ashkenazim go cuckoo for kishke (a sausage casing or a chicken neck skin stuffed with a flour-based mixture).
Cholent’s unique Shabbos-necessitated cooking requirements were the inspiration for the invention of the slow cooker.
Rabbi Michoel Gourarie
Rabbi Michoel Gourarie is the founder and director of BINA – Sydney Australia. Born in South Africa and educated in the US and Australia, Rabbi Gourarie is a passionate educator and speaker. He lectures on a wide range of topics with a special emphasis on personal growth and self-development, including self-esteem, communication, conflict resolution and relationship building. He holds a master’s of education and was formerly the principal of Yeshiva Boys High School.