Foods of Shabbat: Come for the Kugel

What is there to love about Shabbat? It's a day to rest? It's a day to sleep? Or perhaps, like thousands of of men and women profess after their first full Shabbat experience, it's the food! Challah and fish, chicken and kugel, perhaps chocolate cake for dessert. What's not to like! Some Shabbat food is so delicious, one might even forget to check one's Blackberry!

Here's a verbal taste of a Friday night feast, and a sampling of the deeper meaning of these traditional foods.

Fish: Considered both a reminder of the creation of life (since fish were the first animals created) and of the Messianic Age (when it is said that the righteous will feast upon the Leviathan, a giant fish), fish has almost always held a special place of honor at the Shabbat table. In the Talmud (Shabbat 118b), fish is specifically mentioned as a way in which one can demonstrate delight in Shabbat, even if it is simply a bit of chopped up (gefilte) fish. Generally served as an appetizer, fish, which is never eaten together with meat, is served on separate plates and eaten with separate "fish forks" in accordance with the prescription of Maimonides.

Soup: Chicken soup's place in Jewish life is rooted in Shabbat. Ashkenazi Jews in the shtetls of Europe were often impoverished, and a chicken (or part of a chicken) boiled together with vegetables or noodles and made into soup was a special delight that could be shared with the entire family. While chicken soup does not enjoy the same status in Sephardi culture as it does in Ashkenazi homes, Sephardi cuisine also has many delicious chicken soup recipes.

Meat/Chicken: It is a mitzvah to enjoy Shabbat. The sages often relate the feeling of oneg (enjoyment and pleasure) to eating meat. Since meat was often financially prohibitive, chicken became a frequent substitute.

Rice/Kugel: In Sephardi homes, it is customary to have a dish that is made with rice. In Ashkenazi homes, one is often served kugel, traditionally lokshin (noodle) or potato. Kugel, similar to "pudding," is a dish that varies greatly in its ingredients, depending upon family preferences.

(Remember, the actual fare of Shabbat dinner varies, depending on custom and personal taste. Many people simply serve their favorite foods, while others stick to the traditional Shabbat cuisine.)

Obviously, one can enjoy a grand feast at any time. But a fascinating discussion in the Talmud points to what sets the Shabbat feast apart from any other feast:

"The Emperor [Hadrian] said to Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania: 'Why does the Shabbat dish have such a fragrant odor?' 'We have a certain seasoning,' replied he [Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania], 'called Shabbat, which we put into it, and that gives it a fragrant odor'" (Shabbat 119a).

The Talmud does not specify to which singular Shabbat dish the emperor was referring. However, it is not hard to imagine that it was similar to cholent or chamim, a stew that simmers from Friday evening until the Shabbat day meal.

Cholent could be perceived as the original "protest" food, since it was noted by 10th century Jewish scholars that the purpose of a hot stew on Shabbat day is to underscore and emphasize our belief in the Oral Tradition of the Mishna and the Talmud.

During the time of the Greeks and the Romans, there was a sect of Jews called Saduccees who denied the authority of the Oral Law. While the Saduccees, as a group, did not survive the Roman exile, their belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible, without the instruction and explanation of the Oral Law, was revived during the Gaonic period (eighth to 10th centuries) by the Karaites.

The Oral Law explains that a Jew is permitted to have a fire burning on Shabbat, it just can't be lit, transferred or enhanced on Shabbat. The literalists, such as the Saduccees and the Karaites, maintained that the prohibition of fire on Shabbat was total, i.e. that "You shall not burn fire in all your houses" (Exodus 35:3) excluded allowing even a fire lit before Shabbat to continue burning.

Whereas hot food on Friday night could remain warm from before Shabbat, having hot food at Shabbat lunch signifies the use of a fire that existed from before Shabbat. That is why Jews all over the world developed a dish which some call chamin, meaning hot, and others call cholent (which is a combination of two Old French words for hot and slow).

Partaking in the delightful delicacies of Shabbat is just one of the many ways in which Jews around the world celebrate Shabbat. This Friday night, March 2, more than 500 synagogues and Jewish organizations will be celebrating Shabbat Across America and Canada, a program of Jewish unity sponsored by the National Jewish Outreach Program (Click here to fnd a participating location near you).

NJOP also wants to know about the beautiful individual Shabbat celebrations that are also taking place across the continent. Their new My Shabbat Project is an interactive board that lets individuals "pin" their locations and share with the world their own exciting plans for Shabbat.