The Great Crock Pot Controversy

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This article was published originally in the American edition of Yated Neeman

It wasn’t the pot that was great, it was the controversy! But — how can a crock pot be controversial? It can be if it is Jewish, or at least owned by someone Jewish, as those who followed Jewish events about twelve years ago will remember!

Before we begin to explain how our crock pot or slow cooker got itself embroiled (pun intended) in a hullabaloo, we must first explain some of the laws of Shabbos. Chazal were concerned that someone might mistakenly stir the coals of a fire that is warming or cooking his food and therefore instituted the following prohibitions:

I. Shehiyah– leaving food on a fire, stove or oven when Shabbos begins.

II. Chazarah – warming or returning food to a fire on Shabbos. (Some poskim contend that this is prohibited for a different reason than that mentioned above — because it looks like one is cooking on Shabbos [Rashi, Shabbos 36b].)

III. Hatmanah– insulating food on or for Shabbos.

As we will see, each of these prohibitions has its own distinct rules determining when it is permitted and when not. After explaining the basics of these halachos, we will be able to understand what issues exist pursuant to use of crock pots on Shabbos.

I. SHEHIYAH – WARMING OR LEAVING FOOD TO FINISH COOKING

Chazal prohibited leaving food to warm or cook when Shabbos begins unless one fulfills any one of the following requirements:

A. COVERING THE FIRE

One may leave food cooking or warming as Shabbos begins if one covers the fire in a way that lessens its heat and also reminds one not to stoke the fire on Shabbos (Shabbos 36b with Rashi and Ran). In the days of Chazal one performed this either by gerufah, sweeping out the coals with which he was cooking, or by ketumah, sprinkling ash on the fire.

The most common method used today to accomplish this is to place a blech on top of the stove. Most poskim consider this method of covering the fire to be ketumah (Igros Moshe 1:93). (It is preferable that the blech also cover the dials to avoid inadvertently adjusting the stove [Igros Moshe 1:93].) A minority of poskim disagree, contending that ketumah lowers the heat significantly whereas a blech does not (Chazon Ish, Orach Chayim 37:9, 11). Those who follow the latter opinion require that the food be cooked until it is edible from before Shabbos. The majority opinion does not require the food to be completely cooked when Shabbos starts if one places a blech on the fire, since we now need not be concerned that he will forgetfully adjust the fire to make sure dinner is ready.

B. ADDING MEAT TO THE STEW

A second method one may use to permit cooking or warming food when Shabbos begins is to place raw meat into the pot immediately before Shabbos (Gemara Shabbos 18b). By doing so, one knows that the food will not be ready to eat for the Friday night meal, and it will certainly be ready for the Shabbos day meal, so the chef pays no attention to whether he needs to increase the heat of the fire. This accomplishes that we need not be concerned that he will inadvertently stoke the fire on Shabbos, and therefore one may leave this food on an uncovered fire on Shabbos. (By the way, several prominent late poskim [Chazon Ish 37:22; Rav Henkin Vol. 2, pg. 19] are reluctant to rely on this heter today for reasons beyond the scope of this article.)

C. FOOD IS COOKED BEFORE SHABBOS

A third approach is to have the food cooked before Shabbos begins. According to Ashkenazic practice, as long as the food is barely edible when Shabbos begins, one may leave it on an open fire. Sefardim follow a more stringent approach, allowing this heter only if the food is fully edible and, furthermore, only allow this heter for heating water and similar foods that do not improve by stewing longer. To prepare a cholent or similar food, a Sefardi must rely on one of the other two heterim mentioned before, whereas an Ashkenazi may leave his food on an open flame if it is edible when Shabbos begins.

II. CHAZARAH – WARMING FOOD ON SHABBOS

A second prohibition that Chazal instituted is called chazarah, which includes placing food onto a heat source on Shabbos to warm. The details of this prohibition are complicated, but for our purposes we will mention that they are permitted, even if the food is fully cooked, only in two general ways:

A. The food is still hot, one removed it from the blech intending to return it to warm, and one kept it in one’s hand the entire time it was off the fire. (Many Sefardim are lenient concerning the last two requirements provided the pot of food was not placed on the ground; Ashkenazim can be lenient to return the food to the fire if someone mistakenly ignored these requirements.) (Concerning how hot the food must be, Sefardim are stricter than Ashkenazim, contending that the food must be too hot to hold in order to permit returning. Ashkenazim rule that one may return the food as long as it is still warm enough to eat.)

B. Under certain circumstances, Chazal permitted warming dry food on Shabbos in a way that is radically different from the way one normally cooks food. I will provide one example: One may place a fully cooked a kugel on top of a cooking pot on the fire.

HATMANAH – INSULATING FOOD

In addition to the two prohibitions mentioned above, Chazal also prohibited insulating food to keep it hot on Shabbos. The reason for this prohibition was to make sure that a person does not insulate the pot in hot ash, and then mistakenly stoke the ash on Shabbos to reignite it (Gemara Shabbos 34b; Rosh, Shabbos 3:10; Sefer HaYashar, Chapter 235). Chazal prohibited two types of hatmanah:

A. Before Shabbos and

B. On Shabbos.

A. Insulating food before Shabbos.

Before Shabbos, Chazal prohibited insulating food in a way that increases heat, such as with hot ash, fertilizer, or the pulp of olives or sesame, all of which increase heat.

PRACTICAL EXAMPLE

The urn is not keeping the water as hot as I would like it. I would like to drape a towel over the top of the urn in order to keep it hot. If the towel thereby covers the entire top and sides of the urn, this is prohibited and one may not even do this before Shabbos. I once saw a woman prepare her electric hot water urn by draping a cloth sleeve made especially for the urn and embroidered with the words “L’kavod Shabbos.” I asked her why she did that and she said, “It keeps it hotter.” When I told her she can’t use it because of hatmanah, she was incredulous, and responded, “but it says ‘lekavod Shabbos!’” Unfortunately, the label on the cloth does not permit its use. We will soon discuss whether I may do this if the towel covers only the top of the urn.

By the way, there is a simple solution for avoiding this problem. If there is some space in between the urn and the towels, then this is not considered hatmanah and it is permitted (Chayei Odom 2:5). One may place an item on top of the urn that is wider that the urn and drape the towel over the item. In this instance, one may leave the towel there all of Shabbos, and one may even place the towel there on Shabbos itself, since the towel is not resting flush against the urn. Since it does not rest against the urn this is not included in the prohibition of hatmanah.

B. Insulating food on Shabbos.

On Shabbos itself, Chazal prohibited covering the food even with something that does not increase heat, such as clothing.

PRACTICAL EXAMPLE

One may not take the cholent or kettle and wrap it in towels on Shabbos so that it should stay hot. One may wrap them in towels before Shabbos since the towels do not add any heat.

SLIGHT HATMANAH

The Rishonim dispute what constitutes hatmanah. Does leaving food on a fire to continue warming when Shabbos arrives constitute hatmanah? Although this does not fulfill our usual definition of insulating, it warms the food on Shabbos by maintaining physical contact with a source of heat. According to many Rishonim, placing food so that it touches the fire is included in the prohibition of hatmanah (Baal HaMaor, Ran, beginning of Shabbos, Chapter 3). In their opinion, if one heats food on a wood fire and intends to leave the food that way into Shabbos, one must place the food atop a tripod or other device that raises it above the burning wood and coals. Placing the pot of food on the tripod avoids the prohibition of hatmanah (but may still involved the prohibition of shehiyah) since the food is no longer touching any heat source. Failing to do so violates the prohibition of hatmanah and the food may not be eaten on Shabbos.

According to other Rishonim, hatmanah is prohibited only when the pot of food is covered completely or mostly (see Tosafos, Shabbos 36b s.v. lo; Sefer HaYashar, Chapter 235).

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 253:1) rules like the first opinion that one may not warm food by leaving it into Shabbos touching the flame or hot coals. Thus, Sefardim, who follow the Shulchan Aruch’s decisions and customs, may not leave food for Shabbos touching the heat directly even if it is otherwise exposed to the air. The Rama follows the latter opinion that permits partial hatmanah on Shabbos; he therefore permits placing a pot into warm coal from before Shabbos as long as the lid is not covered by the coals.

PARTIAL HATMANAH

How much of the pot may be covered according to the Rama’s ruling without violating the laws of hatmanah? The Pri Megadim (259:3 in Mishbetzos Zahav) discusses whether it is sufficient that the top of the pot be exposed, or whether it must be exposed in a more sizable way. He demonstrates from a ruling of the Taz (258; however, cf. Taz 253:14) that one must leave most of the pot exposed to avoid violating hatmanah. However, we will see that some poskim rule more leniently.

The Taz (258:1) rules that it is only permitted if part of the sides is uncovered such that most of the pot is still left exposed. If most of the pot is covered, he contends that this is prohibited and the food that was in that pot cannot be eaten on Shabbos. For this reason, the Taz prohibits immersing a cup of cold water on Shabbos into a pot of hot water even just to remove its chill unless the cup is partly above the water level of the pot.

The Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Kuntrus Acharon 257:3) disputes the Taz’s ruling, contending that as long as the pot lid remains uncovered one may cover the sides of the pot. He permits placing a basin into a pot of hot water before Shabbos provided that the lid of the pot is above the water level. He would similarly permit wrapping a cholent pot on Shabbos with towels provided the pot lid is not covered.

These two scholars would similarly dispute to what extent one may drape towels over an urn either before or on Shabbos. According to the Taz, one may do this only if the sides of the urn are predominantly exposed. According to the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, it is sufficient if the sides are partially exposed.

CROCK POTS

With this introduction, I can now explain the controversy surrounding the use of crock pots to cook Shabbos meals. There are many models of crock pots, all of which have three basic parts: a pot, an electric heating device, and a cover. However for our purposes, we will divide the various models into two categories: One is a pot that one places on top of, but not inside, the heating device. It is possible, but unlikely, that this type of crock pot is prohibited according to the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, who prohibits leaving a pot resting on the fire or coals when Shabbos begins. Although the pot rests immediately on top of the heating device, it does not rest directly on the element, but on a base, which should be comparable to the tripod recommended by these poskim as an acceptable way to warm or cook food.

According to the Rama, this type of crock pot may be used on Shabbos as long as the food is edible by the time Shabbos arrives. The latter requirement is to avoid the problem of shehiyah discussed above, and could also be avoided according to most opinions if one places raw meat into the pot immediately before Shabbos as explained above.

In the second type of crock pot, one inserts the pot into an apparatus that surrounds the sides of the pot. According to some poskim, use of this crock pot constitutes hatmanah, thus violating a rabbinic prohibition. Using this crock pot depend on the above-mentioned dispute between the Shulchan Aruch HaRav and the Taz whether it is sufficient to leave the lid exposed or whether one must also leave some of the side exposed. According to the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, since the lid is not covered, use of this type of crock pot should be permitted on Shabbos, whereas according to the Taz who contends that hatmanah applies even if the sides are partially exposed, it should be problematic.

However, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Elyashiv both hold that even the Shulchan Aruch HaRav prohibits using this crock pot since is a regular method of cooking (Orchos Shabbos pg. 542; (Otzaros HaShabbos pg. 517). In their opinion, the Shulchan Aruch HaRav permits partial hatmanah only when one does not usually cook this way, such as by draping towels over an urn or submerging a pot of cold water in hot water. However, Chazal did not permit allowing food to cook on Shabbos by resting on a heat source.

There are prominent poskim who dispute Rav Shlomo Zalman’s and Rav Elyashiv’s conclusion. Rav Vozner rules that according to the Rama and the Rav Shulchan Aruch one may use the controversial crock pot. He maintains that the halacha is like the Rav Shulchan Aruch that hatmanah is prohibited only if the entire pot, including the lid, is covered. However, if the warming substance covers the sides of the pot, but not its cover, then there is no prohibition in keeping the food heated this way on Shabbos. As a result, although he agrees that there are poskim who prohibit this use of a crock pot since it covers most of the pot, the accepted halacha is to permit it (Orchos Shabbos pg. 543).

A totally differing approach permitting the use of a crock pot is advanced by Rav Chayim Pinchas Scheinberg shlit”a, whereby he contends that since the pot does not lie flush against the heating apparatus, this is not considered hatmanah, and is permitted on Shabbos. (The dispute between these scholars is probably in interpreting the words of the Shaar HaTziyun 257:43). He is also not concerned that we should prohibit its use since it is a regular form of cooking. Rav Scheinberg reasons that although indeed this may be true, we see no evidence of Chazal prohibiting this on Shabbos and we do not create our own prohibitions today (Otzaros HaShabbos pg. 519).

Some suggest that according to Rav Shlomo Zalman one may line the area between the crock pot and the pot with some aluminum foil to permit this. This is an error. Although the aluminum foil might remind someone not to adjust the flame, there is no evidence that a reminder permits an activity that is otherwise prohibited because of hatmanah (Orchos Shabbos pg. 113).

There is a method that permits use of the crock pot according to all poskim – by placing a piece of metal or stone inside the apparatus that thereby elevates the pot so that it no longer touches the sides of the heating part. In the models I have seen, placing a stone or metal inside the heater raises the pot part so that it does not touch the sides anymore (Orchos Shabbos pg. 113). This approach should permit use of the crock pot even according to the Shulchan Aruch that slight hatmanah is prohibited and even according to Rav Shlomo Zalman’s approach that normal use of a crock pot is hatmanah and prohibited as a regular method of cooking. In our instance, the propping up of the pot avoids both problems since this is no longer the typical use of the crock pot and the apparatus no longer insulates the pot.

As we see, the rules Chazal established to allow proper Shabbos observance of hot food are extremely complicated. Yet one should strive to eat a proper hot meal on Shabbos, enhanced by the fact that it was cooked and warmed following the myriad details of halacha. This is indeed the true oneg Shabbos, celebrating Shabbos through a meal that is delicious and also elevates the soul.

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