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Closed Kitchen

On Shabbat, the day of rest, cooking is prohibited. But for a chef-turned-rabbinical student, cooking is key to celebration, and food prepared in advance will never taste as good.

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When I decided to keep Shabbat, the prohibition against cooking was the hardest observance for me to follow.

After college, I spent a few years working in high-end restaurant kitchens in New York. Then I decided to go to rabbinical school. I did not grow up particularly observant—I have a deep, abiding love for BLT sandwiches—so my transition from harried, pork-belly slinger to postmodern halakhic man involved some serious lifestyle changes. While I didn’t find it particularly difficult to give up pancetta, turning off the stoves on Shabbat was a different story.

For as long as I could remember, celebration meant cooking and cooking meant doing it as well as I knew how. This was true long before I entered the food world professionally. When I was 11, I religiously watched Julia Child and other Saturday-morning cooking shows and cooked dishes I learned from them, like peppers stuffed with wild rice. In college, I commandeered the kitchen of my girlfriend’s dorm suite to throw an elaborate dinner party—fried lemon sole with capers and brown butter, and spinach salad with caramelized fennel, goat cheese, and candied nuts. Six years later, when my girlfriend became my wife, I collaborated with our caterers to perfect the mushroom hors d’oeuvre that would be passed at our wedding.

Observing Shabbat makes that approach untenable. The laws of food preparation on Shabbat are complex; they dictate what can be reheated and what cannot, what tools can be used, how vegetables may be sliced, even the proper way to make tea—first by pouring the water from the water heater into a pot and then pouring water from the pot over the teabag itself. Together, the rules can feel overwhelming for the uninitiated, and they certainly did for me.

But I had an even bigger problem: I didn’t want to give up on cooking as a form of rejoicing. And my apprehension persisted even after I began to feel reasonably confident in my understanding of Jewish law, halakhah.

For one, I knew that food I prepared halakhically wouldn’t be as good. Coming from the restaurant world, I was (and still am) accustomed to being involved in each dish until moments before it was eaten. If left to sit too long in the kitchen, a steak cooked medium rare will be medium by the time it reaches the diner. But traditional Shabbat observance requires most food to be prepared well ahead of time. Readying food too far in advance, and having too little control over the dish when it goes to the table, means that what my family eats on Shabbat is inevitably inferior to what we eat during the week. The skin on a piece of sea bass won’t stay crispy if it has to be cooked 30 minutes before dinner. Lasagna that has been drying out in the oven from a 4 p.m. candle-lighting until a 7 p.m. dinner doesn’t cut it for me, culinarily or spiritually. And the perfect roast chicken, a popular Shabbat dish in the Ashkenazi world, is technically impossible to serve if one is observant. (It needs an hour in a blazingly hot oven, half an hour to rest, and then it needs to be served immediately, ideally with mustard aioli and bitter greens; any more time and the poor bird begins to desiccate.)

Of course, there are workarounds. Some have been around for centuries, such as cholent, a dish that gets better and better the longer it cooks; poached salmon, best served at room temperature, is a Sabbath favorite too. Then there are innovations such as sous-vide cooking, which involves slow-poaching meat in hermetically sealed bags for long periods of time. But cholent gets tiresome and most of us don’t have vacuum sealers and immersion circulators in our home kitchens.

I am all for boundaries in the kitchen. Whether they’re halakhic (not serving rabbit) or culinary (traditional Italian cuisine frowns upon serving fish with cheese), limitations tend to inspire creativity. Still, without the speed, the tools, or the technical skill of a professional cook, it’s a tall order to complete the dishes by Shabbat’s arrival and to warm them in such a way that is halakhically permissible and non-detrimental to the food. The meal inevitably suffers.

It’s nearly impossible to serve anything that is both warm and green, for example. Reheated vegetables almost invariably lose their color. This means I can’t make the chive sauce I like to serve with cod, or sautéed spinach. This means my pea soup is inevitably brown.

Restrictions like these can make traditional Shabbat observance seem like deprivation. Shabbat is not conceptualized as an ascetic practice; rather, the obligatory nature of Shabbat and its attending constraints are supposed to usher in a higher luxury. Eating has always been central to that sense of luxury. Rabbinic literature is full of imaginative descriptions of Shabbat meals. In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer tells us that a man should always set a full table on Friday night, even if he only needs an olive’s worth of food. Likewise, many traditional Shabbat songs feature culinary themes. “It is an honored day,” writes Ibn Ezra in his poem “Ki Eshmera Shabbat,” “a day of enjoyment, of bread and good wine, of meat and fish!”

Moishe Wendel, chef-owner of Pardes—an exciting new glatt kosher restaurant in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood—acknowledges the inherent drawbacks of Shabbat cooking. Before he became religious, he spent time cooking in non-kosher restaurants. He says that halakhic boundaries actually have the potential to improve the food, and not just spiritually. “When you work within limits, the parameters make your food better,” he told me, gulping a beer and wiping his face with his kippah after a busy night on the line. At Pardes, he cures his own lamb bacon, something he says he wouldn’t spend the time making if he could simply buy it. But he’s pleased with his results. “It’s trial and error like anything else,” he says about Shabbat cooking. “Sear off a steak to a nice bloody rare. Let it rest. Put it on top of two forks on the blech and you’ve got yourself a perfect cote de boeuf!”

I know that conceptualizing Shabbat as obligation is essential to ensure that Shabbat remains distinct from the rest of the week. A robust sense of religious obligation doesn’t allow for picking and choosing. Traditional Shabbat observance is powerful precisely because its boundaries don’t bend according to individual preference. Shabbat allows us, potentially, to experience something infinitely larger than ourselves.

Like all Shabbat restrictions, the necessity of having everything prepared beforehand is meant to elevate the experience itself. Shabbat dinner is supposed to be the best meal of the week, spiritually and culinarily. The sages say that so long as it is prepared in honor of Shabbat, even a humble dish like fish-hash pie is a delight.

I love humble dishes. Excellent mashed potatoes, perfectly fried eggs: These are some of my favorite meals. But anyone who has spent a long time in the kitchen knows it’s the humble dishes that require the most exacting craft. It’s not hard to make great food if you are starting with truffles or foie gras. Making transcendent fish-hash, though eminently possible with salt-cod, fingerling potatoes, garlic confit, and sweet onions, requires more finesse. And because halakhic observance makes finesse in the kitchen difficult, if not impossible, I simply haven’t been able to reach culinary and religious heights simultaneously—at least not yet.

There is a traditional Jewish impulse to try to answer difficult questions by telling a story, so I’ll repeat a parable from the Gemara.

Once, the emperor of Rome said to Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania, “Why does the Shabbos dish smell so good?” The rabbi replied: “We have a certain seasoning called the Sabbath, which we put into it, and that gives it a wonderful smell.” The emperor asked for some of it. “To him who keeps the Sabbath,” Rabbi Joshua said, “it is efficacious; but to him who does not keep the Sabbath it is of no use.”

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Jacob T says:

This wasn’t the kindest thing to post on Tisha B’Av…

it all comes out the next day or two and this man’s obsession with food, it’s preparation is based on childhood trauma and he is being nuerotic, as long as food is not over salted, over or undercooked, who gives a rats ass….no one cares, as our society celebrates the Big Mac and the pastrami sandwich…it is all a cooking conciet, nothing more.

Hershl says:

Jewish Theological Cemetery?

Give me a break.

Of course, he would be conflicted.

And, as Jacob T reminds us, this is Tisha B’Av.

Uriel says:

Benjamin if you ever write a cookbook that takes all these things into consideration when preparing Sabbath meals,I will be the first to buy the book.

Very nice piece… I hope you keep looking into this subject and share some kind of guide!

Wendy says:

Benjamin- May you be blessed with finding a way to blend your love of food preparations within the halachah of Shabbat. As Wendel said “when you work within limits, the parameters make your food better.” Shkoyach and good eating!!!

I LOVE the idea of a cookbook that guides cooks through great dishes that are perfect for Shabbat observers .

philip mann says:

People. If you know it`s Tisha b` Av…and you see the title of the article..then why read it ? hmm ?

Besides that ,if the author has some really different ways to make traditional shabbos food,let`s see them !

Oh man, thirded on the idea of a cookbook full of recipes that work for Shabbat.

Nechama says:

Wiping his face with his kippah? Disgusting and disrespectful.

Part of the way I’ve come to understand Shabbat – and to teach it, in turn – is that it’s in part an imaginative practice; the discipline creates a setting in which we can imagine the world as complete, where we no longer have to be agents of change; where we surrender our drive to perfect things. The ability to see the world as “good”, or at least “good enough” is a spiritual experience, and one that – at least for me – has less to do with the physical qualities of what I’m partaking of than the mindset I bring to it.

M.F.K. Fisher has a wonderful essay describing how so many of her friends are afraid to cook for her, fearing her disapproval of their imperfection, but that one of the meals she enjoyed most was made for her by a man who was a poor technical cook, but served the meal with great affection for her and joy at being able to be her host. She, I think, would understand Shabbat cooking.

Joe Schwartz says:

Fantastic piece, Ben! I really look forward to reading more. (And the story you end with made me cry the first time I read it; your taste in aggadah is as discerning as your palate.)

Benjamin, I really enjoyed your article – much “food for thought”, indeed!

And with regard to the snotty comment about the seminary in which Benjamin is studying: The increasingly-frequent comments in Tablet that – either implicitly or explicitly – denegrate any of us who are not Orthodox are becoming extremely frustrating, irritating, and polarizing. I may not agree with how an individual observes or practices, but I will respect their right to do so at long as no one is being treated in a manner that is either disrespectful, illegal, or dangerous.

Tablet is certainly not the only place on-line in which Jews are mocking, belittling, or calling into question the “validity” of our fellow-Jews’ faith. And, almost without exception, it is the Orthodox, the “pious, righteous” contingent, who aggressively mock, demonize, and marginalize those whose level of observance does not pass muster. I certainly don’t think that all of those who are Orthodox – or even a majority – are this judgemental of those of us who are non-Orthodox, but it’s been occurring more and more frequently lately.

And, in this instance, Benjamin has elevated is level of observance; he’s consciously trying to “toe the line” more halachically, and he is studying to become a Rabbi. And, STILL, there are those for whom that is not enough, those who choose to mock him? I may not be Orthodox or shomer Shabbat, but I can at least say that I’m kind and that I respect others whose beliefs are not cookie-cutter replicas of my own.

@Benjamin, I’m really sorry to have hijacked your comments thread. I’d just

(sorry, I hit “submit” by mistake”) –

Again, @Benjamin, sorry for the hijack. I’ve just had enough of the hypocracy and blatant nastiness on this and other forums.

To those who would exclude or denigrate me: I’m proud and happy to be Jewish, and my (Jewish) husband and I are raising a teen-aged son who loves being Jewish (and is currently having a wonderful time celebrating his Jewishness at a URJ overnight camp) – please accept us and respect us for who we are, and focus on what we have in common, rather than hating or pitying us for how we come up “short” in your eyes.

To RS:
Let me explain it to you. First, I am Israeli, and not “Orthodox” but simply traditionalist. Which does not really exist in the USA but in fact encompass most Israelis – meaning people who keep some mitsvah, kkep and like the tradition, and when they do it, they do it the traditional way – what you would call “orthodox”.

So the problem is first that you think there are three (or more) “denominations” , that are various and equally legitimate ways of practising Judaims. That is very nice but that’s false.

There is only one tradition. You like it or not. You respect it or not. Each one does whatever he wants. But you don’t invent a new religion and call it “Judaism” like the “Reform” did. A religion that is more American than Jewish, and in fact when Jewishness is much more than just a religion. Jews are a people.

That’s why I (and others)do mock the “non-Orthodox” – because they may be Jews, but what they call Judaism is a parody.

@Ben, thanks – I suppose – for the explanation. You’ve sadly proven my point.

So I guess that the real question here is whether Tablet’s target audience encompasses just “traditional” Jews, or whether it’s also inclusive of those of us who fall within the range of what Ben has so thoughtfully termed “parody” Jews (i.e., we don’t observe or believe as Ben and other traditionalists do).

If the former is true, then a tagline or a mission statement within the masthead would be appropriate; in that way, non-traditionalists would know to “enter at our own risk”. We’d be unequivocally aware that “our kind” are not welcome and that we will be likely to be greeted with derision.

But if Tablet is intended for Jews across the entire spectrum of observance and belief (sorry, Ben), then perhaps *that* should be made clear on Page 1, and its editorial policies ought to reflect that. That “open door” policy should also include, I believe, more stringent Terms of Service for commenting here. Do the editors here even *read* the comments sections?

If I started railing about “black hats” who are unable to think for themselves, and saying that I thought their beliefs were based on “hocus-pocus” and fairy tales, there would be an uproar. And rightly so. But somehow it’s acceptable to be similarly intolerant and blatantly disrespectful toward non-traditional Jews?

For those who clutch their pearls (or their tallit) in dismay about the declining number of Jewish people, just take a scroll through the comments sections of the articles in this magazine. Maybe if the “my way or the highway” sentiment and in-fighting weren’t so pervasive, and maybe if the supposedly-enlightened group would stop being so stridently judgemental of those who don’t “measure up” … people would be less likely to back away in search of a spiritual “home” that is more inclusive and welcoming. And maybe some would even eventually move to a more halachic level of observance as the author did.

You really did not understand what I wrote.

First I don’t speak for Tablet, they do whatever they want. I am just commenting here.

Then to the point: you do what you want. I have no problems with atheists and secular. But they don’t claim that what they believe is “Judaism”. By the way, most seculars in Israel feel the same way toward “non-Orthodox Judaism” as I do: they see it as an American nonsense.

The Jews are declining outside of Israel (but increasing overall with Israel) – mainly because of people like you and the false Jewish culture that you created, that is empty, that is non-national, and is alienated from our 4000 years old tradition. People want truth, they want something authentical, not some PC leftist stupidities that have nothing to do with being Jewish.

Jewish identity is 3 things: the People of Israel, the Land of Israel, and the Torah of Israel. Your “non-orthodox” things have not even one of them.

stanen says:

I guess when you grow up in a traditional home you don’t seem to to think that having something both warm and green at your Shabbat table is somehow going to make a huge difference. My mother made amazing meals with loads of dishes that tasted just as good as at any restaurant. Delicious salads, wonderful cold fruit soups in summer, and in the winter, hearty soups bubbling away all night in the crockpot, I could go on and on. In my own home I never feel deprived because my green vegetables are served at room temperature with fresh herb marinades. One needs to rethink what one cooks for Shabbat as being in one arsenal, and what one cooks during the week in another. Both are options worth celebrating! Shabbat Shalom!

Shifra says:

Some really silly and ignorant comments (not surprising however). Don’t read a piece on cooking for food on Tisha B’Av; did anyone force you to come to this page? I’ve seen even the so-called most religious Chasids do things that pale in comparison to wiping ones face with a kippah – I’m quite sure you probably live in a glass house. And if you have a problem with the JTS, keep it yourself.

Keep the focus on the article itself, or forever hold your piece. Remember why we Tisha B’Av is observed and learn to bite your tongue.

Hedy Shulman says:

I admire the lengths you’ve gone through to be observant. Ignore the critiques and continue to grow as a creative force in Jewish cooking with your creative and professional training. Have our paths crossed in the past, perhaps?

Thank you sir for your lovely article .I also love cooking it is the way I love and serve all those around me .I was so intrested by all you went thru to follow your love for G-d and and that was also inspiring thank you so much sir.

Hey Ben,

I’m a bit confused about the restrictions you have over cooking for Shabbes. Given that the Friday night dinner, obviously the centerpiece of a Shabbat meal, comes before the halachic restrictions, I seem to be missing where you’re giving up on culinary excellence in exchange for the holiday.

Unless, you’re talking about a Saturday afternoon lunch or post Shabbes dinner. I could even understand the latter, but would just think that it would be something you could start later.

I’m also going to raise the question about cusiene. There are many different regions in the world, and I’m surprised that only one, what appears to be European Continental (perhaps as restricted as French) seems to be the only school of culinary craft that would reach your heights of delight. Especially in the days of the revival of the ‘slow food’ cooking movement.

I’m also going to toss my 2-cents in to the talkback chatter started by Herschel.

It was needlessly nasty, and on all days to post such snark. As for Ben in the talkbacks, Your mocking is foolish in its own right. Claiming that ‘Secular Israelis’ mock non-Orthodox Jews is blatantly ignorant in its own right given the number of Israelis who I know in non-Orthodox shuls.

More than that, the idea that Secular Israelis can go order ‘white steak’ in Israel, and be proud of it, hardly seems in tune with the idea of keeping tradition and the mitzvot, while denigrating American Jews who do the same as more than a little hypocritical.

But this is not a column to reignite the ‘who is a Jew’ argument, just a point to make that denigration of others will hardly strengthen whatever argument it is you were trying to make.

I have to agree with Stanen. I used to watch Julia Child religiously on weeknights on channel 13 as a 4 year old and I’ve been cooking for Shabbat for over 20 years, ever since my first roast duck at age 9 (came out perfect because I drained the fat with some carefully placed toothpicks). I grew up in a traditional home- we ate room temp medium rare shoulder roast on Friday night and cold shabbat day, so it wouldn’t dry out. Braised chicken and meat stews (another word for “tagine” if it makes you feel more gourmet) works wonderfully on shabbat. I just made a wonderful plum/peach chicken with red wine and shallots. I made the sauce on the stove and then baked it in the oven. It came out moist browned and delicious and tasted great the next day. Brisket is the ultimate shabbat food! You can grill it slowly and then serve pulled beef sandwiches on challah.

Sorry, i’m not seeing what all the soul searching is about. Yes, the hyper precise food you cook in a restaurant probably doesn’t work in a kosher kichen on shabbat. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton of great food to make for shabbat. Read Claudia Roden and Gil Marks for great sephardic recipes and Elizabeth David for the rest. I think you need to understand the difference between restaurant and home cooking. Good luck.

Jacob,

“Claiming that ‘Secular Israelis’ mock non-Orthodox Jews is blatantly ignorant in its own right given the number of Israelis who I know in non-Orthodox shuls.”

Knowing that the overall number of people in non-orthodox shuls in Israel is close to nothing (less than 1% of the Jewish population) – I guess we can take you very seriously.

“the idea that Secular Israelis can go order ‘white steak’ in Israel, and be proud of it, hardly seems in tune with the idea of keeping tradition and the mitzvot, while denigrating American Jews who do the same as more than a little hypocritical.”

Most secular Israelis don’t eat pork for some reason (cultural I guess), but they are free to do whatever they want. The difference is these secular Isralies know they are not religious and that they are breaking the Jewish law while your American Jews think this is a legitimate Jewish thing.

lazer says:

I am sad to go to the same school with someone so judgmental as Ben. In every article or comment he publishes on Tablet he reveals how much of a jerk he is. For a movement trying to be modern, you don’t make conservative Judaism look very nice. Then again, you come from a country which outlawed the use of Yiddish, so your mindset might be a little skewed, though that’s not your fault.

@lazer

You must be confusing me with someone else:
- I don’t go to school, I am 36 years old.
- I am not part of conservative Judaism, as I am explaining that for me all these American “denominations” are a total nonsense.
- I don’t know any word of Yiddish. I am a traditional Sefaradi Israeli Jew living in Jerusalem.

Ah, my mistake. I thought you were the author of this article. Anyways, your views sound a lot like his; that is, offensive.

The author’s comments regarding making tea on shabbat seem incorrect. Many authorities (though not all) would say that pouring the hot water from a second vessel (the pot) over the tea bag would still be ‘cooking’ on shabbat. The more appropriate methods would be to put the teabag into the hot water in a third vessel (say, your cup — but not pouring hot water over it) or to make essence before shabbat and add it to hot water in a second vessel. Sorry to be so obscure, but one might be led astray by a casually erroneous comment.

I think you’re article is very interesting. My wife and I are always struggling to find the best way to cook/prepare dishes that will come out perfect for Friday night or Shabbos lunch. While it’s a continuous struggle, that’s not to say that it diminishes from the meal itself. I understand why you would be frustrated that the roast chicken isn’t as awesome as it could have been, but to me the meal is so much more than complete perfection in one or all of the food. For me, sitting down to a Shabbos meal, with nothing else on my mind except enjoying a meal with good company, and good food is what makes the meals on Shabbos special, even though the chicken could have been a little better.

why don’t you just eat earlier?

Here are some ideas on what to serve at lunch for Shabbos:

-Fried chicken served room temp
-Shnitzel served warm (it is dry enough to be reheated in an oven or on a hot plate/ blech
-Brisket
-Beef shoulder served hot with bbq sauce
-Quiche or frittata served room temp
-The aforementioned roast chicken (might not be as good as piping hot, but still damn good)
-Chili in a crock pot served with corn bread.
-Make your own Thai wraps
-Make outrageous deli sandwiches
-tacos (meat or beans in slow cooker) Just don’t serve cheese!

Might not be gormet, but still yummy! Plus, everyone I know makes the most amazing salads which is mainly what I eat on Shabbos anyway. Who needs meat?

Thanks doll,
The Glamorous Housewife

Chanie says:

Interesting article.
I agree, it is definitely an issue. Whenever I see a recipe that says “tastes best the next day to allow the flavors to develop”, or like I once saw on a paella (vegetarian) recipe – “best if you allow a slight crust to develop on the bottom, and bake a bit longer” I mentally file it away for Shabbat. Between that, and salads, and getting creative in general – we manage to eat quite well on Shabbat. I agree that it is strange to limit the ‘best’ to non-shabbat, but the limitations may inspire creativity.

I never get tired of cholent – it comes out different every time! Seriously, I love Shabbos food – if a person’s “food needs” are really affecting his/her “Oneg Shabbes” then perhaps food plays too important a role in his/her life. OTOH, perhaps he is Hashem’s tool for helping us eat even better on Shabbes!

Miriam says:

Two words: Slow Food. Seriously, have you never heard of slow brazing?

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Closed Kitchen

On Shabbat, the day of rest, cooking is prohibited. But for a chef-turned-rabbinical student, cooking is key to celebration, and food prepared in advance will never taste as good.

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