One of the many distinctive features about the holy day of Shabbat is its full menu. This naturally varies among the different ethnic groups that comprise the Jewish people. As a descendant of Lithuanian Eastern European Jews, I actually associate Shabbat with gefilte fish, chicken soup and hot cholent. Now that may not have been the menu for Jews in Yemen or in Iraq, and I readily acknowledge that fact, nevertheless to me these foods are inextricably bound to the holy day of Shabbat.
Much of life and memory is composed of physical associations. Special and unique foods have always marked the commemoration of Shabbat in the Jewish world and throughout Jewish history. The Talmud records for us that a certain rabbi served cholent or some other form of that food on Shabbat to his Roman guest. The Roman was so impressed by this dish of hot food that he took the recipe and requested his own court prepare this for him on a Tuesday.
Naturally, the dish did not taste the same and was not nearly as good. When he complained to the rabbi, the rabbi told him that one ingredient was missing in the recipe that the Romans were using. And he told him, the missing ingredient was Shabbat. So it is not only that food influences and makes Shabbat for us, but it is equally true that Shabbat influences and enhances the food that we prepare and eat on that holy day.
Shabbat is, in itself, one of the ingredients that make up the food that we serve at our Shabbat meals.
The Talmud makes a special point about the necessity for hot food and/or drink to be consumed on Shabbat. Since there were sects of Jews who mistakenly denied the authenticity of the Oral Law and did not allow for any fire whatsoever to be present in their homes on Shabbat, these Jews necessarily ate only cold food on the holy day.
In order to reinforce the belief of the Jewish people in the interpretations of the Oral Low and in the traditions of Rabbinic Judaism, the rabbis of the Talmud insisted that Jews must eat/drink hot foods or hot beverages on the Shabbat. Differing ethnic groupings located in the widely scattered countries of the Jewish diaspora fulfilled this obligation with differing types of food.
In the Eastern European Ashkenazic world, a pot roast of potatoes, barley, beans and meat was concocted and given the name of cholent – a name of origin as uncertain as the recipe for the delicacy itself. Cholent has the wondrous characteristic that it never tastes the same, in spite of using the exact same ingredients and recipe from one Shabbat to the next. As a longtime expert on the matter, I can testify that it is never the same in taste and in the nuance of flavor from house to house and family to family.
The common denominator is that it is always hot food and somehow delicious, no matter what ingredients one may have used in preparing it. Again, it is apparent to me that Shabbat itself is the main ingredient in that traditional stew.
There is a halachic basis for serving gefilte fish on Shabbat as well. If one serves regular fish, unless it is extremely well fileted, there will always be the problem of dealing with the bones that of the fish being eaten. One of the prohibitions of work on Shabbat is removing part of the fish – the bones – from the edible flesh of fish itself.
In order to avoid this problem the fish itself was ground-up so that all of it now became edible, and the problem of removing the bones was obviated. I still remember both as a child and later as a very young husband setting up the hand grinder for the fish on Thursday nights and proceeding to grind the raw fish from which my mother, and later my wife, rolled into balls, spiced and then cooked. This gefilte fish became one of the staple delicacies of my Shabbat life.
My mother never used the frozen fish loaves to make her delicious fish. It had to be freshly ground or otherwise it was not fit for the Shabbat table. My wife was also very reluctant to use such a time-saving creation but upon my prodding to do so – since I began to feel it beneath my dignity to have to grind raw fish on Thursday nights – succumbed to the advances of our progressive era and used the fish loaves. But both she and I agreed that our gefilte fish never quite tasted the same