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.”