Thursday, January 08, 2015


A number of years ago, when discussing the origin of the word daven, I said that in the future I would explain the origin of another early Yiddish word - cholent. Well, the future is now.

In the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks provides the following background for "cholent":

Cholent is a slow-simmered stew, often based on beans, that is served hot for Sabbath lunch.
Origin: France
Other names: Alsace and southern Germany: schalent; Austria: scholet; Hungary: sholet, solet; Lithuania: chulent; Poland: cholent; tshholnt
Sometime after the First Crusade, around the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, the Sephardic Sabbath stew, hamin/adafina, probably traveling by the way of Provence, eventually reached the Jews of France to become an indelible part of their Sabbath... From France, the stew moved eastward to southern Germany and later to eastern Europe. Among the French Ashkenazim, the stew received a news name, spelled schalet in Western Yiddish and tsholnt in Eastern Yiddish, probably from the Old French for warm, chald/chalt (chaud in modern French) or some contend, from chald-de-lit (warmth of the bed), Alternatively, some insist that the dish flowed to France directly from Spain, the name emerging from the Spanish escallento (warm).

In Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food (page 106), John Cooper quotes Max Grunbaum as saying it could also derive from the Spanish escalentar, "kept warm". Both the French and the Spanish derive from the Latin calentem - "that which is warm". This in turn comes from the Latin calere - "be hot". You can probably already guess that calere is the origin of word calorie (used to measure heat). Other heat related words sharing the same root include scald, cauldron, chowder (named for the pot it was cooked in), and my favorite: nonchalant - literally someone who doesn't get heated up.

Marks dismisses the folk etymology of cholent deriving from "shul ende", reflecting the time of day when the dish was eaten, because the name emerged in France before the development of Old Yiddish.

The Wikipedia article for cholent offers a few more folk etymologies:

One widely quoted folk etymology, relying on the French pronunciation of cholent or the Central and Western European variants shalent or shalet, derives the word from French chaud ("hot") and lent ("slow"). Another folk etymology derives cholent (or sholen) from the Hebrew she’lan, which means "that rested [overnight]". This refers to the old time cooking process of Jewish families placing their individual pots of cholent into the town baker's ovens that always stayed hot and slow-cooked the food overnight. Yet another etymology is Old French chaudes lentes hot lentils.

A similar dish to Ashkenazi cholent is shkanah - which Marks defines as "a dish of baked beans cooked overnight for Sabbath lunch." He writes that it originated in Spain, and the Jews expelled from there brought it with them to the Netherlands. In an interesting twist, he points out that the Pilgrims spent time in the Netherlands after they left England but before going to America. These Puritans tried to take the bible much more literally than other Christians at the time, and so they were eager to adopt this Sephardic dish, allowing them also to eat hot food on the Sabbath. This dish, when they came to America, became known as Boston baked beans (the British had no previous tradition of baking beans). And from there came Boston's nickname - Beantown.

I imagine many of my readers today would like an nice warm dish, and where I am the forecast for Shabbat is particularly cold. So enjoy your cholent!

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