A man bringing a pot of cholent to the baker’s oven, Poland, ca. 1930s. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

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The Sabbath was the focal point of the religious life of East European Jewry. Signs of its imminent approach were already evident in the frenetic activity that characterized Jewish households on Friday mornings and in the spare lunch eaten early on that day, so as to leave a good appetite for the sumptuous evening meal. Lunch was followed by the weekly visit to the bathhouse, “upon returning home from which it was customary to taste the fish that had been prepared for Sabbath,” according to memoirist Shemu’el Rappaport (Barukh, 1980).

Sabbath lamp. Poland or Ukraine, ca. 1900. Brass, cast, turned, chased. Inscribed in Hebrew: “To light the Sabbath candles.” (Gross Family Collection)

Both the Friday visit to the bathhouse and the tasting of the fish upon returning were colorfully described in the autobiographical stories of S. Ben-Zion (Simḥah Alter Gutmann), who was born in Teleneshty, Bessarabia, in 1870. Ben-Zion recalled that when his father pushed him up, as an adolescent, to the highest (and hottest) steps of the steam room, he said: “Get used to being a Jew.” Yosef Erlich, who grew up in Wolbrom, Poland, and migrated to Palestine in the 1930s, recalled in his autobiographical novel Shabes that upon ascending to the highest steps he would encounter the local rabbi “sighing happily” while Zisha the town shammes rubbed down the rabbi’s back. In the town of Voronovo, south of Vilna, in which Tsevi Shimshi grew up, it was Stas the “Shabes Goy” who on Friday would help the rabbi and community nobles undress and then take them up to the highest level of the steam room, where he would also wash them. Earlier in the day, Stas would pass through the village calling the women to bathe, and in the afternoon he would call the men. Yehudah Goor (Grasovski), who like Shimshi was born in 1862, later described the Friday afternoon visits to the bathhouse in his native Pohost (Polatsk), where the gentile custodian of the bet midrash also doubled as bath attendant and where the local barber would offer both haircuts and bloodletting.

During the summer months, however, the weekly bath could take place outdoors. Shmarye Levin (1867–1935) grew up in Swislowitz (Svisloch), Belorussia, adjacent to two rivers that ran parallel—the Swisla and the Berezina. “So, on a midsummer Friday afternoon,” he later wrote in his autobiography, “the women would be lying in the shallow Beresina, cooling off, and the men swimming about in the deep Swisla. Between the two naked crowds the town lay deserted and patient, waiting for its inhabitants to put on their holiday attire and flock to the Synagogue for prayers that usher in the Sabbath” (Levin, 1929, pp. 21–22).

Spice box. Moscow, 1880s. Silver: forged, soldered, filigree work. Ukrainian Museum of Historical Treasures, Kiev. Photograph by Dmytro Klochko. (MIDU Inv Nr DM-7373. Ukrainian Museum of Historical Treasures, Kiev)

For many East European Jews, Sabbath preparations—spiritual as well as physical—would begin well before Friday. One Hasidic master would not eat fish after Wednesday, so that he would eat them with greater relish on the Sabbath. S. Ben-Zion, in one of his autobiographical stories, has a housewife mixing the ingredients for her challahs and setting them to rise on Wednesday evening, and Etta Byer, who was born in Lida (near Grodno) in the 1880s, recalled that on Thursday evenings the family maid would be sent to the brewery to acquire liquid yeast. Prayer anthologies for women (tkhines), such as Seyder tkhines u-vakoshes Heb., Seder teḥinot u-vakashot), typically included prayers to be recited both before separating the dough for challah and before lighting the Sabbath candles.

For boys, Friday was traditionally the day of heder examinations, which could result in either reward or punishment—the latter usually of the physical variety. As recalled by Ben-Zion, these examinations took place in the morning, but when the boys returned to the heder on Friday afternoon “the freedom of the Sabbath already protected us” and a more relaxed feeling prevailed, as the upcoming Sabbath’s weekly Torah portion and the haftarah would be read with their cantillation.

The practice of tasting the Sabbath foods on Friday afternoon was mentioned as early as the sixteenth century by Mosheh Mat of Galicia—though he did not limit it, as later authors did, to the fish. The special status of fish is evident nonetheless from the custom of Mat’s teacher Shelomoh Luria (d. 1573) to partake of that food only at Saturday lunch but not at dinner on Friday evening, in order to emphasize that (in his view) the former meal held higher status. Yesha‘yahu Horowitz (d. 1630), by contrast, felt that all three of the Sabbath meals should include both fish and meat. By the eighteenth century, the custom had emerged, on kabbalistic grounds, of reserving fish most particularly for the third Sabbath meal, se‘udah shelishit, which in Hasidism took on great spiritual significance. Perhaps the most famous description of the third meal in early Hasidism is that of the Galician maskil Yosef Perl, who observed that “though the entire Sabbath is considered a time of special divine favor which is best spent in the rebbe’s court, it is the period of the third meal which is thought to be the most desirable time for the bonding of the Hasid with his rebbe.” Perl added that when there was no rebbe in the city, it was customary to have the se‘udah shelishit at the home of a prominent Hasid (in Nadler, 2005, p. 198).

Jewish soldiers from Ostrołęka, at a Sabbath meal, Łomża (now in Poland), 1905. The Hebrew inscription reads: “Soldiers eating kosher food.” Marked with an x: J. Stolin, who later immigrated to America. (YIVO)

At a later point in the history of Hasidism, it became customary to share part of the Friday evening meal with the rebbe, and to partake of the leftovers on his plate—shirayim, particularly of the kugel (baked pudding). Of the last rebbe of the Slonimer dynasty, Shelomoh David Yehoshu’a (d. 1941), it was reported that at his tish (table), “he would distribute the kugel to all of the assembled from his own hand, specifically indicating . . . which person should receive each and every piece” (Nadler, 2005, pp. 204–205). Indeed the kugel, which came in both noodle and potato varieties, was described by the Yiddish scholar Yehudah Elzet as the crown of all Sabbath foods.

If this was indeed true, there were certainly close competitors. The noted French gastronome Edouard de Pomiane traveled through Jewish Poland early in the twentieth century and later wrote about its characteristic foods, among which he included carp, particularly in its jellied version that he claimed appears on all Sabbath luncheon tables. In de Pomiane’s opinion, this dish epitomized Jewish cooking. Yet as he himself realized, the Sabbath dish known as cholent was also central to Jewish cooking. In his Cuisine juive, ghettos modernes (1929), de Pomiane explained—perhaps for the first time to a non-Jewish audience (certainly in the French language)—the background and techniques of cholent preparation.

Since fires cannot be lit, and one must still eat, and eat well because it is a holiday, preparations are made on Friday. The food which is to be cooked is put into a large pot. The pot is hermetically sealed and taken to the baker on Friday before sunset. When the bread has been baked, the baker puts all the containers which have been entrusted to him into the oven. The oven is still very hot; it retains quite a high—though falling—temperature until midday Saturday. Throughout this period, the food is steamed. (de Pomiane, 1985, p. 42)

"Mimkomo" (Mi-Mekomo). Words: Traditional. Music: A. Dunajewsky. Peformed by Cantor Sholom Katz with Chorus, conducted by Seymour Silbermintz. Sabbath in the Synagogue, Jewish Music Documentary Society JMDS 5714, New York, 1954. (YIVO)

De Pomiane observed that this method of cooking, which he compared to that of preparing tripes à la mode Caen, gave the ingredients a special “gently simmered flavor,” adding that “it can be consequently said that cholent cookery is excellent.” He also observed that “infinite combinations of ingredients can go into these pots.”

Bringing the cholent home, as described by de Pomiane, ideally required an ‘eruv hatserot—that is, that the neighborhood be marked as a single “blended” domain in which carrying on the Sabbath was thus permitted, usually within an area demarcated by wires and poles, and this was sometimes a source of unrest between Jews and their neighbors. In July 1882, the police chief of the Gostyń district in northern Poland reported that some local Jews had moved the ‘eruv without permission, and this led to a confrontation between Christians and Jews. Peace was restored when the police restored the ‘eruv to its original place and fined the Jews who had moved it. A more serious incident occurred in Płock, where Jews, apparently with the permission of the local authorities, used the city’s barriers for an ‘eruv. In June 1903, enraged Catholics tore the markers down, precipitating a disturbance. In the end, the governor of Płock condemned the local authorities for permitting an ‘eruv to be erected, and he imprisoned the mayor for two days.

After the fish and/or cholent would come the customary Sabbath nap, which was not always limited to sleeping. Later on Saturday afternoon, fathers would often test their sons on what they had studied during the week. Shmarya Levin described his first such examination as a boy, on the first portion of Genesis, “immediately after my father rose from his nap.” Levin’s older contemporary Ahad Ha-Am (1856–1927), who grew up as Asher Ginzberg among Sadagora Hasidim in Kiev province, recalled similarly that “it was the custom of my father to examine me himself every Sabbath after arising from the noonday sleep.” This was not a very pleasant experience:

In accordance with his system of education he would always end his examination by slapping my face whether I deserved it or not. The same moment my mother would open the door . . . and would say to him “Hitting him again! May the thunder hit you!” That was the almost invariable end of the examinations, after which I would be free to go out and play with my friends until the time of the afternoon prayers. (Horowitz, 2004, p. 150)

Ironically Ahad Ha-Am, as is well known, later coined the famous phrase: “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.”

The Sabbath Rest. Szmul Hirszenberg, 1894. Oil on canvas. Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum. (Image courtesy Ben Uri Gallery)

Although some modern authors describe women’s Sabbath reading as consisting typically of such pious works as Tsene-rene and Yiddish translations of the Bible, Etta Byer, whose formal education ended at the age of six, recalled that on Saturday afternoons “girls and women used to come to our house and listen to the stories I read them” (in Yiddish translation) from such books as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Daniel Deronda. She also captured beautifully in her memoir the bittersweet feelings at the end of the Sabbath, as “all . . . daily worries returned” and a “new and sad week arrived” (Byer, Transplanted People, 1955, pp. 22, 30).

When the future Hebrew poet Ephraim Lisitzky (1885–1962) arrived in Boston from Slutsk in 1900, it was on the Sabbaths, he later recalled, that he felt most nostalgic for the world he had left behind. “I have never forgotten the impression of my first Saturday in Boston,” he wrote in his autobiography Eleh toldot Adam (1949):

I compared it to the Sabbath in Slutsk, and my heart bled. Actually there was no comparison, for Slutsk, though poverty-stricken, dressed up in glorious raiment in honor of the Sabbath. Even the horse grazing in the pasture . . . his forelegs bound so that he might not frisk beyond the Sabbath limits, was permitted to enjoy Sabbatical rest. . . . But in Boston very few Jews observed the Sabbath. . . . I was seized with a longing for Slutsk. In my mind’s eye I saw its streets, its houses, its people, its meadows, gardens, and orchards—and it appeared to me like a heavenly city in an ethereal world. (Ribalow, 1965, p. 169)

Suggested Reading

Y. L. (Yitsḥak Leib) Barukh, ed., Sefer ha-shabat (Tel Aviv, 1980); Edouard de Pomiane, The Jews of Poland: Recollections and Recipes, trans. Josephine Bacon (Garden Grove, Cal., 1985); Joseph Erlich, Sabbath, trans. Shmuel Himmelstein (Syracuse, N.Y., 1999); Moshe Hallamish, “Ha-Mashma‘ut ha-kabalit shel akhilat dagim be-shabat,” in ‘Ale shefer: Meḥkarim be-sifrut ha-hagut ha yehudit, pp. 77–82 [Hebrew section] (Ramat Gan, Isr., 1990); Elliott Horowitz, “Sabbath Delights: Towards a Social History,” in Shabat: Ra‘yon, historyah, metsi’ut, ed. Gerald J. Blidstein (Ya‘akov Blidshtain), pp. 131–158 (Be’er Sheva‘, Isr., 2004); Shmarya Levin, Childhood in Exile, trans. Maurice Samuel (1929; rpt., New York, 1975); Abraham Ezra Milgram, ed., Sabbath: The Day of Delight (Philadelphia, 1965); Allan Nadler, “Holy Kugel: The Sanctification of Ashkenazic Ethnic Foods in Hasidism,” in Food and Judaism, ed. Leonard J. Greenspoon, Ronald A. Simkins, and Gerald Shapiro [Studies in Jewish Civilization 15], pp. 193–214 (Omaha, 2005); H. U. Ribalow, ed., Autobiographies of American Jews (Philadelphia, 1965).