The priceless spice

By Rabbi Matt Rutta
Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei

As y’all enjoy the Dallas Kosher Chili Cook-off this weekend, please note that there is one spice that is missing, but you won’t find it on your shelf! More valuable than saffron, vanilla, cardamom, salt and pepper combined, it is beyond priceless! This spice, however, can be found in your Shabbat cholent.

Chili can be really tasty, but it isn’t cholent! If you haven’t been blessed to eat this manna from heaven, cholent is a slow-cooked (appropriately, it’s a portmanteau of Old French words: chaud, hot, and lent, slow) stew that combines meat, beans (nota bene: unlike Texas chili), potatoes, barley and a hodgepodge of other ingredients and spices; our ancestors traditionally threw in anything that was available. The late Max Glauben told me that his Friday afternoons in Warsaw would involve bringing a pot of raw cholent to the bakery (possibly my family’s bakery!) and placing it in the bread oven along with all the other Jews’ cholents, fetching it after Saturday morning services for his family’s lunch. I have heard identical stories about the experiences of Jews in North Africa and pre-state Israel with the similar dishes chamin and dafina. It is obvious that the slow-cooked Shabbat stew, integral to Jews throughout the world, predates our parting in the Diaspora.

In this week’s Torah portions, Vayakhel-Pekudei, we learn in Exodus 35:3 something that translates to “Do not kindle fire throughout your habitations on the Shabbat day.” There was an ancient group of Jews who interpreted this literally to mean that one could not have flames for light nor heat in their homes, that Shabbat was a day to sit in the dark and eat cold food. The rabbis were aghast! Shabbat, in the words of the prophet Isaiah (58:13-14), is a day of oneg, delight! Cold food “enjoyed” in darkness is NOT enjoyed! So the rabbis commanded that lights be kindled BEFORE Shabbat (though it is not explicitly commanded in the Torah as one of the 613 mitzvot, we say a blessing on lighting Shabbat candles as if it were a Torah mitzvah) and that hot food be prepared before Shabbat in its honor. Mishnah Shabbat 2:7 ends by instructing us to make sure our hot food (Hebrew: chamin) is insulated by sunset. Ashkenazi legal codifier Rabbi Moshe Isserles, in his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 257:8, goes so far as to say, “It is a mitzvah to insulate food for Shabbat so that one will have hot food to eat on Shabbat, for this is an honor and delight of Shabbat. Whoever does not believe in the words of the sages and forbids eating hot food on Shabbat may be suspected of being a heretic.”

In fact, hot cholent is praiseworthy! In 1851, German poet Heinrich Heine wrote a poem, “Princess Shabbat,” in which he takes us through the 25-hour transformative journey from the kindling of Shabbat candles to the extinguishing of the Havdalah candle. At the apex of his poem he writes that, for lunch, in compensation for all the restful restrictions of Shabbat, we are given pure and divine ambrosia to eat, that cholent was given by God to Moses at Sinai in thunder along with the Ten Commandments. He rewrites the lyrics to “Ode to Joy,” predicting that its poet, Friedrich Schiller, would have literally changed his tune had he ever tasted cholent and that the prince who enjoys the cholent will be made into a psalmist.

The Talmud Shabbat 119a records a tale of the Roman emperor asking Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya why his food smelled so good. Rabbi Yehoshua told Caesar that the Jews have a spice called Shabbat. When Caesar demanded he relinquish the spice, the rabbi responded it would be pointless because it only flavors the food of those who keep the Shabbat; it wouldn’t impart its taste to those who don’t enjoy Shabbat’s rest and delights.

So as y’all enjoy the hot and spicy chili at our Dallas Kosher Chili Cook-off this weekend, don’t forget the lingering taste of Shabbat cholent and its priceless spice that encourages Shabbat rest and powers the week ahead!

Rabbi Matt Rutta, M.A.Ed., is the director of Jewish student life at the Hillels of North Texas and is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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