Thursday, January 19, 2012


Warm Shabbos Food and Drink

A commentor asked a question,

“maybe you can do a piece with more tips on how to stay warm during shabbos? how can you keep enough hot water ready for tea etc?”

For people inside the Jewish religious community, this may seem like a very basic question.  But for someone learning or striving to be a mitzvah observant Jew who’s not in a Jewish orthodox community, it’s a very serious and challenging question!  That’s for asking, and here we go…

It’s become a strong tradition that on Shabbat day one should have a hot primary food dish.  Further, it’s an Eastern European tradition to have a hot drink before going to synagogue, or even at synagogue (before the start of services) at some places.  I’m fairly certain that having a hot tea or hot coffee in some form during Shabbat is a tradition for sephardi Jews as well.

But arranging for a hot meal and a hot drink on Shabbat has many halachic (Jewish law) difficulties.  One cannot light a fire on Shabbos (meaning you can’t turn on the stove / burners), and one can’t cook on Shabbos (meaning even if you leave the fire on, you can’t put food or drink on it).  This even extends to using hot water from the faucet, doing so in the U.S. with always-on hot water heaters/tanks or instant hot water heaters or in Israel with solar heaters causes a Shabbos violation as new cold water is brought into contact with the pre-heated hot water, meaning the faucet is not an option.  So what is one to do?


For hot food one of the first and best choices is the Hot Plate.  For the Friday night meal one prepares ones dishes in advance and places them on the hot plate to stay hot from the start of Shabbos until the meal after Friday night synagogue services.

For Shabbos day, one places a stew-like food dish into a covered pot, pre/partially cooks it before Shabbos, and then places it on the hot plate to slow cook through Friday night and Shabbos day until the Shabbos day meal after synagogue services.

Two general Jewish law rules to know and remember: one cannot place food on the hot plate after Shabbos has started, nor can one return food which has been removed.  (There are specific exceptions and procedures for both of these points, but explaining those in detail is beyond the goals of this article.)

An electric crock pot or slow cooker pot is another good choice for slow cooking the Shabbos day hot dish (though one should make sure their electric pot DOES NOT automatically turn off after the food pot is removed).

urnFor hot water, the device of choice is an electric urn or electric pump pot.  The urn is filled and heated before Shabbos (a boil or heat setting) and then switched to a steady heat maintenance setting for Shabbos (meaning switched before Shabbos starts).

The urns tend to be large but not particularly energy efficient (they’re not insulated).  They are a good choice if you have a large family or many Shabbos guests.  These type of urns in very-large size are often found at weddings, conferences or even restaurants.

pump-popThe pump pots are well insulated and energy efficient but are smaller and present a possible Shabbos problem.  Some of them have an electric pump (you press a button to automatically get the water squirted out).  When selecting a pump pot, you must select one that also has a manual pump option.  Some of these pots are available with a “Shabbos mode”, which merely means the electric pump button won’t work if you accidently press it.

Pump pots are a good choice for individuals, couples or small families.  They’re also a good choice if you wish to keep a pot of hot water available at all times (due to their efficiency you can keep it turned on all the time), a particularly nice thing in cold climates.

27-samovarHistorically orthodox Jewish communities had other approaches to these problems, in line with the technology of the time.  Samovars for hot water which actually had a lower chamber or inner container for fireplace coals.  Large cast iron pots buried in the coals of the kitchen fireplace for a hot Shabbos day meal.  The Gemora discusses the community placing their Shabbos pots into the communal bakery oven, to cook their Shabbos meal and retrieve it after synagogue on Shabbos day.

(Photo - a wood coal based samovar from Russia.)

The above photos are from this U.S. store web site, which seems to offer a decent selection – though I have no idea if the prices are reasonable or not.  The samovar photo is from here, which has more and a discussion of Russian samovars.

These items are readily available in areas with a significant Jewish religious population, such as New York, Miami, or London, etc, as well as most electric item stores in Israel.


  1. It is my understanding that all food must be cooked before Shabbat starts. But you indicate it doesn't need to be. I use a crock pot and always make sure the stew is completely cooked before Shabbat. It has an automatic timer and it stays on warm until I turn it off after Havdala.

    So, its okay if the food in the crock pot is not completely cooked and the automatic timer switches to warm around noonish?

    Also, for hot water for tea, I leave a kettle on warm throughout Shabbat. Since its just me and my son its plenty. Is this okay?

  2. I faced a danger in writing this article, that general statements would be interpreted for each individual situation. In responding it's similarly problematic. The best thing to do would be to consult a competent orthodox rabbi to walk completely through your particulars.

    That said, here's some foundational responses to help...

    The general rule for "how cooked does food need to be" before the start of Shabbos is "1/3 cooked". That's cooked to the point of being just barely edible. If food continues to cook on Shabbos after reaching the 1/3 cooked point, that's fine. For example, for the Shabbos cholunt, if you seared a piece of tough beef in a pan, such that you could grab it and chew away at it, it's cooked even though by being left in the cholunt pot it will turn into a soft thoroughly cooked dish over Shabbos.

    The 2nd general rule to know is "ayn bishul acher bishul", there's no (action of) cooking after something's already cooked. This means we can take something that qualifies as cooked and put it in a situation where it's temperature will reached cooking temperature (known as yad soledet bo - hot enough to pull away your hand) to reheat on Shabbos.

    BUT, it's not so straightforward. Things that change form, even if cooked, are considered to be cooking (again). Examples - congealed fat on chicken, or a heavy stew which liquifies when heated.

    So yes, you can start Shabbos without fully cooking the food in the crock pot, but you can't set it to reheat on Shabbos if it's fatty, liquidy or congealed.

    Leaving a kettle on warm is fine, though if it's directly on a fire you can't put it back if it has to be picked up to be poured. The fire would need to be covered (a blech) to allow putting it back after pouring, and it would have to be picked up with the intention of returning it and maintaining a grip on it the whole time before return.


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