Well Said - Cholent: The Very Food Of Heaven

On Saturday mornings, the smell of slow-cooking meat, potatoes, and beans wafts through the air. This savory stew, called tsholnt (more commonly spelled “cholent” in English), has been a way for observant Jews to enjoy hot food on shabes, the day of rest, for centuries. Al pi halokhe, according to religious laws, it is forbidden to light a fire and cook food on the Sabbath day. How, then, does one keep food warm in the cold winter months? The raw ingredients are assembled in a pot on Friday afternoon, before sundown, and then left in the oven to cook over a low flame overnight, providing a hot meal the following day.

Tsholnt comes in all varieties and has been a staple of Jewish cuisine both among Ashkenazim and Sephardim (though the latter group, of course, uses a different term for the dish — hamim). Aside from the ingredients already mentioned, the stew might include any combination of barley, eggs, rice, chicken, carrots, and onions, for example, depending on both the personal preference and geographical origins of the cook.

There are almost as many theories about the origins of the word tsholnt as there are varieties of the food. Both the word and the food were introduced to Ashkenazi Jews in France around 800 years ago (see Gil Marks’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Food for more about the historical context, pp. 127-129). From France, the dish traveled to Germany and later Eastern Europe, and immigrants from these areas, in turn, brought it with them to North America, Australia, South America, and anywhere else Ashkenazi Jews settled.

Scholars agree, then, that the word tsholnt comes from Old French, though opinions differ greatly about its exact parsing. The most commonly accepted etymology comes from Max Weinreich’s History of the Yiddish Language, in which he traces the word to “calentem” (that which is warm), the present participle of the Latin verb “calere” (to be warm) (Volume I, p. 400). In Old French, the initial “c” was transformed to “ch,” pronounced as the “tsh” in “tsholnt.” Other theories include the French “chaud / lent,” literally meaning “warm, slow,” alluding to the cooking process (in French, the final “d” of “chaud” is not pronounced), and still others interpret the word pair as an abbreviation for “warm lentils” (“lentilles” in French), alluding to the ingredients.

Among the average tsholnt eaters, however, who may have been unfamiliar with the word’s Romance origins, a number of folk etymologies were popular. In the United States, for example, the word was interpreted as coming from “shul ende,” since the dish was eaten upon returning home from synagogue services (the end of shul). A less common notion holds that “tsholnt” comes from the Hebrew “she’lan,” or “that which rested,” referring to the stew’s low-maintenance preparations.

One of the most inventive etymologies was recorded in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, in 2008 by the Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories (AHEYM). Isaak Nibulskiy, born in Poninka (in the Volhynia region of Ukraine) in 1926, tells the interviewers about the tsholnt that his grandmother used to serve at special shabes meals hosted by his grandfather. He explains that “tsholnt” originates from the consonant Slavic word “chulan,” meaning closet or pantry. In a Jewish home, this pantry might contain the oven in which the stew was kept warm. Isaak’s theory does not hold water, however, as the word’s usage predates the addition of the Slavic component to the Yiddish language.

Associating the dish with the location in which it was cooked is not unique to Nibulskiy’s dialect of Yiddish. For a number of Yiddish speakers in the neighboring region of Podolia (also in Ukraine), tsholnt has referred not to the food itself, but to the special oven (or sometimes the pot) in which it was kept overnight. While in some areas, the balebostes (homemakers) brought their tsholnt to be kept warm in the oven of the town’s bakery, other areas had adequate ovens in the home. To keep the temperature up, the openings of these ovens were often sealed with clay.

Whether you have yours with beef, chicken, or (kholile!) even vegetarian, be sure to enjoy your tsholnt while it is still warm. Although the origins of the word have been hotly debated, all agree that the cold leftovers are inedible on Sunday.

*The title comes from Heinrich Heine’s famous poem “Princess Sabbath,” in which he declares, “For this schalet [cholent] is the very-/ Food of heaven, which, on Sinai, / G-d Himself instructed Moses in the secret of preparing” (trans. Charles Leland).

Asya Vaisman is director of the Yiddish Book Center’s Yiddish Language Institute. She has taught Yiddish at Indiana University and Hampshire College.