This week’s article will discuss how to keep food warm on Shabbos. Is covering the flame or heat source obligatory, or can food be left on an open flame? What is the purpose of covering the flame? Do knobs also have to be covered? Can food be removed from a pot on the fire? Can the pot be lifted, food removed, and the pot returned to the fire? What’s the difference between wet and dry foods? Are there differences between Sefardim and Ashkenazim on these issues? Different stages of cooking result in differences in halacha. How are the different stages defined? Do personal preferences have halachic ramifications? Of this and more in this article.
In this week parasha we read how G-d created the world in six days and rested on Shabbos. In commemoration we also abstain from all creative work on Shabbos. This week we will focus on one aspect of the creative work involved in food preparation– cooking.
Cooking or warming food on Shabbos can involve four separate prohibitions: A. Cooking B. Leaving on the direct source of heat, called shehiya C. Returning food to a heat source, and D. Insulating food to retain its warmth, called hatmana.
And now, for some details:
- The prohibition to cook includes any food that utilizes heat for continuing the cooking process. This includes lifting a pot off a flame (even for just a moment!), and then placing it back on the heat source.
- Leaving food on the heat source – shehiya is the prohibition to leave foods on a heat source on Shabbos. In certain situations, foods may not be left to continue cooking on Shabbos.
- Sometimes one is prohibited to return even food that is fully cooked back on the heat source from which it was removed.
- Insulating foods is a separate prohibition forbidding covering foods on Friday in a way that contributes to their heat. For example, a pot of food cannot be placed on a heat source while covered on all sides with a blanket to keep it hot till the meal. Insulating foods on Friday in a non-heat source (covering a pot with a banket only) is permitted. On Shabbos, all insulating is forbidden.
If we intend to only place our Shabbos food on a heat source on Friday and remove it on Shabbos for the meals with no replacing, one only has to be concerned with the prohibitions of shehiya and insulating. However, people who might have to remove some food from a pot and then replace it to leave its remaining contents for the next meal or for a latecomer — or even if the cover is lifted by mistake — the prohibitions of cooking and replacing also become relevant.
What are these prohibitions? What do they include? And how can we refrain from transgressing them?
Placing an uncooked food item on a heat source on Shabbos is a Torah prohibition. The Torah prohibition even includes any action meant to hasten the cooking process. Therefore, a pot that was lifted for a moment, cannot be replaced on the heat source. The same goes for the pot cover – if it was removed it may not be replaced — a fully-covered pot cooks faster than a half-covered one. In addition, a pot of partially cooked food cannot be moved to a hotter spot because that will cause the food to cook faster.
If the food in the pot is already fully cooked, the prohibition of cooking is rabbinic, and in some cases — fully permitted.
Cooking in Talmudic Times
While we may classify foods as cooked al-dente, or medium-rare, Chazal’s definition of doneness is divided into three levels: Ma’achel Ben Dursai (Ben Dursai’s food); a dish that improves with continued cooking; and a dish that is not improved by additional cooking.
What are these categories?
Ben Dursai was a famous wanted bandit in Talmudic times. Constantly on the run, he could never enjoy his booty, and even when cooking meat he’d cook it until it was just barely edible. This level of doneness is dubbed by Chazal maachal ben Dursai – how Ben Dursai would eat his food (Rashi, Shabbos 20a).
Food that improves with additional cooking is food that, albeit cooked, will become enhanced by additional cooking.
Food that spoils with additional cooking is food whose taste deteriorates after it is done.
Cooking Ma’achal Ben Dursai
One who, by mistake, cooked a dish till it was ready as Ben Dursai would eat it has transgressed a Torah prohibition and must bring a korban chatos (sin-offering) for atonement.
Cooking After Ma’achal Ben Dursai
The opinions are divided if cooking after the food was edible for Ben Dursai is a Torah prohibition.
The Ramban and other Rishonim (mentioned in Biur Halacha 318:4) maintain that after food has reached the minimal Ben Dursai-level cooking, one no longer transgresses a Torah prohibition in further cooking.
The Rambam and other Rishonim (also mentioned in Biur Halacha 318:4), though, disagree — since most people don’t eat undercooked food, added cooking is important. Therefore, cooking food that was previously cooked to some point between Maachal ben Dursai and total doneness also violates a Torah prohibition. Recooking is permitted only once food has completed the full cooking process and is generally consumed by most people.
Rabbenu Yerucham (volume III, 12) opines that every additional cooking that enhances food is a Torah prohibition. In his opinion, only once food reaches the stage that additional cooking actually ruins it does recooking become permitted.
Halacha follows the Rambam’s approach (Shulchan Aruch 318:4; Mishna Brura footnote 26). As long as the food is usually not eaten by most people, continuing to cook it is forbidden. From this stage onwards, although it is enhanced by additional cooking, cooking is not forbidden (if it was returned in a proper manner). Bedieved-after the fact, the Mishna Brura writes that even food that was cooked from Ma’achal Ben Dursai till completion on Shabbos may be eaten. Although foods cooked on Shabbos are generally forbidden for consumption on Shabbos, in this case, since there are different opinions on the matter, one can rely on the lenient position.
Rewarming dry, fully cooked food is permitted. Wet foods, however, if cooled off, are the subject of dispute. The Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 318:4) rules that since the most important facet in wet foods is rewarming the liquid, when it is no longer too hot to touch any rewarming is forbidden.
The Rama, though, (Orech Chaim 317:15, according to the Chazon Ish 37:13 and Igros Moshe IV chapter 74:2) rules that fully cooked liquid foods are permitted to be recooked if they still retain some heat from their cooking.
Dry After Wet, Wet after Dry
Is dry-cooking or baking permitted for foods cooked in liquid? The Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 318:5) mentions two opinions on the matter, and rules that one should be stringent.
Cooking – Summary
Putting something back on a fire; re-covering a pot that was uncovered (either intentionally, or by mistake); or moving a cooking pot on the hotplate is permitted, provided that the food is fully cooked. Liquids, or foods that were cooked and are being placed on the hotplate without their liquids and vice versa depend upon the above-mentioned opinions.
Today, different people like their steak at different levels of preparedness. Some like their steak well done while other prefer it medium, medium rare, or very rare. Many people ask how it would play out on Shabbos – can you serve a medium-rare steak on Friday night? Some mention that upscale restaurants never grill meat beyond medium-rare unless the diner specifically requests it. Does this determine the accepted norm for fully cooked meat?
And if one likes his meat only well-done, does that determine what fully-cooked meat is for him, while for the rest of the world it could be something else? How is the Talmudic term of Ma’achal Ben Dursai defined in modern terms?
It depends on the accepted norm, says Rav Elyashiv (Shevus Yitzchok, IX chapter 26:2) and the Tzitz Eliezer (XVIII, 32:2). If a specific country has a different norm, halacha would be different in that locale.
Determining when food is getting overcooked depends upon the cook’s personal preference, though. For further details, see below hilchos shehiya.
As for determining when meat is considered Ma’achal Ben Dursai, cooked, and fully cooked, it is hard to use the universal terms of rare, medium-rare, and well-done because they determine the grilling level of meats, and there is an essential difference between different types of meat. The fact that upscale restaurants generally serve medium-rare is only because they use very specific cuts of meat that can get by with minimal care. Housewives who grill their meat to that level won’t necessarily come away with an edible dish. Therefore, saying that very-rare is equal to Maachal Ben Dursai is problematic because few people can eat it, certainly not with most commercially sold cuts.
In addition, there are various cooking methods for similar foods (while salmon requires fifteen minutes of direct heat, gefilte fish needs an hour and a half of boiling). Therefore, it is difficult to make blanket statements regarding different cuts of meat. Cooks can usually discern when food is just edible (potatoes can be pierced by a knife), even if they may like to have the food cooked longer (mashable potatoes).
Leaving Food On Heat Source – Shehiya
Chazal forbade leaving food that still requires cooking upon a direct source of heat out of concern one may pass by and see the food is not ready and by mistake stir up the coals (or turn up the flame) to hasten the cooking. Leaving food on a heat source is permitted on Shabbos, on the following conditions:
1) The food is fully cooked. According to the Shulchan Aruch food must be cooked to the extent that additional cooking will only make the food worse (Orech Chayim 253:1). This level of doneness ensures that the only reason the food is on the fire is to keep the food warm and there’s no concern one might stir up the coals.
A fully cooked dish which is enhanced by extra cooking but shrinks in volume to the cook’s chagrin (e.g. evaporating soup when there may not be enough left to serve) may also be left on a fire (Sha’ar Hatziyun 253:9).
The Shulchan Aruch mentions an opinion that permits leaving Ma’achal Ben Dursai-level cooked food on a heat source. Since it is edible, even if just barely, one is not concerned he will have nothing to eat, and the possibility of food not being so tasty is not enough of a reason to forbid leaving it on the source of heat.
Contemporary Sefardi poskim rule leniently on this matter, noting that the accepted custom is not to follow the Shulchan Aruch (Kaf Hachaim 253:23; Yabia Omer VI Orech Chaim 32:2; Or Letzion II 17:5).
The Mishna Brura, on the other hand, writes (Biur Halacha 253) that it is preferable to be more scrupulous and follow the first opinion and only leave fully cooked food that will not be enhanced by additional cooking on a direct heat source. However, in extenuating circumstances one can take the more liement approach.
Therefore, one can, mi’ikar hadin, leave a pot of food directly on an open flame even if it was barely edible before Shabbos. However, preferably, non-fully cooked foods should not be left on an open flame or direct source of heat without a blech or hotplate. If food must be left on a direct source of heat it should be fully cooked.
2) Uncooked meat: leaving a pot of raw food on a fire is permitted because the food is clearly not intending for the night meal, and for it to be ready for the day meal, no blowing on coals is necessary to ensure the food will be fully cooked by mealtime.
There are, however, two conditions that restrict the possibility to very specific circumstances:
- A) Many poskim (Mishna Brurah 253:10; Minchas Shlomo II 34:9) stipulate that the meat must still be totally raw at sunset. This is quite uncommon, because raw meat in a boiling pot will have begun cooking in the twenty minutes between kindling the Shabbos candles and sunset (see Chazon Ish, Orech Chaim 37:22).
- B) According to the Mishna Bura (Biur halacha 253) this option cannot be utilized if the food will be edible by the Friday night meal (chicken, for example). If the meat, however, will be ready later, although still during nighttime, it is permitted.
Practically, this solution can be utilized if frozen, raw meat is placed in a pot of food intended for the day meal just before Shabbos. Since there’s no way the meat will have defrosted and begun cooking by sunset, and it will certainly not be ready for the Friday night meal, but will be ready by the day meal, it is permitted.
- C) Covered: Chazal permit leaving uncooked food on a covered flame. This is called grufa v’ktuma – when the coals have been removed and cooking occurs thanks to surrounding retained heat. Another option is scattering ash on the coals in order to minimize the fire’s heat. Once these actions are taken, one will not come to try and rush the cooking process because he will remember that it is Shabbos.
Most contemporary poskim agree that the modern day blech or electric hotplate have the same status as gerufa u’ketuma that was used in Talmudic times, and dishes may be left on them for warming. Since the blech is intended to lower the fire’s heat, if the flame was turned up after covering, the blech should be raised and lowered again.
Covering the knobs or buttons, though, is seemingly unnecessary. However, the Igros Moshe writes (Orech Chaim I, 93) that since the rationale behind the institution is to prevent people from shifting around the coals to increase the heat if one may see that the food is still not fully cooked, the knobs should be covered in addition to covering the direct heat to ensure one will not fiddle with the settings. The opposite, though, of only covering the knobs – i.e. setting up a reminder is insufficient.
Uncooked Food on a Covered Fire
The Mishna Brura writes (Biur Halacha 253) that food that is not Maachal Ben Dursai cannot be left even on a grufa v’ktuma fire.
Food may not be placed on a direct source of heat even if there is no cooking prohibition. Replacing food that was on the source of heat and removed is possible if the following conditions are in place:
- The fire must be grufa v’ketuma. This is commonly made possible today by using a hotplate or blech.
- Removal of the food from the heat source occurred on Shabbos.
- There is no prohibition of cooking involved (according to Sfaradi rulings the food must still be at the temperature that is too hot to touch, while according to the Ashkenazi poskim the food must still be reasonably hot (i.e. people would enjoy eating it for warmth).
- The pot has not been placed on the ground.
- According to the Rama the pot must still be held, and its removal must have been done with the intention of replacing it.
This point will not be discussed here in depth. We will only mention that insulation is forbidden according to the Shulchan Aruch even if the covering is partial; and according to the Rama only a full covering is forbidden.
Leaving a pot of food on an open flame for continued cooking until mealtime is permitted provided the food is already edible (Ma’achal Ben Dursai), although it should be preferably cooked in full. Another option is leaving the pot with raw meat that will not have begun cooking by sundown and will not be ready until the end of the night meal.
All sources agree that placing an undercooked pot of food (Ma’achal Ben Dursai) on a covered flame or hotplate is permitted. Once the food is fully cooked it can be removed and replaced on the heat source, as per the above-mentioned conditions.
It is preferable for all foods to be fully cooked before Shabbos so they can be covered again if uncovered by mistake.