Ovens, Bread and Cholent

by עדי נמיה-כהן_ע…

Everyone in Jerusalem knows the mouth-watering scent of warm bread, wafting from the bakeries on Kanfei Nesharim Street and the morning ritual of stopping at the local market on the way to summer camp in order to pick up chocolate milk and a fresh roll.  But how was bread baked in Jerusalem before the establishment of the Berman and Angel bakeries?  And where is bread baked in the small, crowded city between the walls?  These questions can be answered in the writings of, Rabbi Moshe Poryat from Prague and Rabbi Gedaliah from Siemiatycze, two new residents of Jerusalem in the 17th century.


About Ovens and a Guide for the New Immigrant

Rabbi Moshe Poryat was a scribe who moved to the land of Israel from Prague in the middle of the 17th century and wrote a guide for “New Immigrants” from Europe. 

Rabbi Gedaliah from Siemiatycze, a town in northeastern Poland, moved to the Land of Israel as part of a large group coming with Rabbi Judah HeHasid from Siedice.  This aliyah was a large movement and part of the messianic ideology striving to bring redemption through moral behavior, prayer, fasting and asceticism.  At the beginning of the journey in 1699, the convoy numbered about 120 immigrants; during the journey at its height the caravan numbered about 1500 men.   Only 1000 people, however, succeeded in immigrating to the land of Israel; 500 others did not survive the journey and died along the way.  Rabbi Judah HeHasid and his convoy arrived in Jerusalem on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, October 14, 1700.  After 3 days, Rabbi Judah became sick; and on the fifth day after their arrival in Jerusalem, he died.  The death of Rabbi Judah HeHasid negatively impacted the monetary support promised to the members of the community by German Jews, and many of the immigrants returned to their home countries.   

Rabbi Gedaliah went on a mission on behalf of the members of the community, returning to Germany in order to ask for their help.  During his time in Europe, Rabbi Gedaliah saw that German Jews were eager to learn about life in the land of Israel and he published a small book called “Seek Ye the Peace of Jerusalem” where he described the lives of the new immigrants over their first six years in the country and the lifestyle in the holy city.

Rabbi Gedaliah and Rabbi Moshe Poryat described the ingredients, fruits, vegetables, baking and cooking techniques, water supply to the city, markets, bathhouses, and many other exciting details about daily life in the city.  From this we can learn many details about life at the time.

Next, we turn to baking and cooking in ovens.


Baking and Bread

Bread was and still is a basic need for people from every social stratum in the Middle East, poor and rich alike.  There were few ovens in the city, and most of the bread and the food stuffs were baked and cooked in commercial ovens - large ovens which were found on the streets of the city, with a fee for using them. From documents from the Moslem religious courts in 1583, permission was given to erect ovens in the Jewish neighborhoods: 

“...appearing in front of the court was Yosef ben Shaban, the Jew, responsible for the Jewish community living in noble Jerusalem.  [Yosef] stated that the Jews living in noble Jerusalem need a bakery in order to bake their bread; they have a room in their neighborhood near their market, and they want to erect in it a bakery, and therefore not to cause damage to any person...so they asked Judge Molana to remember the words of Allah, praise be unto him, and allow him to study and request erecting a bakery in the room mentioned, on condition that it will not cause damage to any person.”  (Amnon Cohen and Elisheva Simon-Pikali, Jews in the Moslem Religious Courts, p. 261)

It’s possible that this bakery, established at the end of the 16th century in the Jewish neighborhood, is the same bakery that Rabbi Moshe speaks about: (“And if there isn’t an oven in the home, they bring their bread and their challot for baking, and everything is completely kosher.  The ovens are near the Jewish Quarter, and are used for Jewish baking…” Rabbi Moshe Poryat from Prague (1650), from Travels in the Land of Israel, ed. Abraham Yaari, p. 281) 

Although the ovens were close to the Jewish Quarter, they weren’t necessarily owned by Jews, and therefore Rabbi Poryat stipulates that baking bread by these bakers - Jews or non-Jews - is completely kosher.  During the time of Rabbi Poryat, bakers held one of the most important, high-status positions in Jerusalem, and included Jewish bakers among their members.



Oven firing techniques and baking description by Rabbi Gedaliah:

“When bread is made in the market for sale, they don’t make a thick loaf like in other countries, but a thin one and they sell it by weight.  The oven is in the market, and there they bake and sell.  The order of firing the oven is as follows: take many small stones and throw them in the oven during firing so that they become white; and after the oven is hot, arrange the stones until they are next to one another.  On top of them place the thin, wafer-like dough to be baked, which has been perforated with many small holes.  The reason for using stones is that wood is expensive.  The owner of the bakery who bakes his own bread, however, makes thick loaves like in other lands.  There are no ovens in homes, only in the street; and the street ovens are very large.  The owner operates the oven every day, and everyone who has a loaf to bake brings his loaf to the oven, and the owner of the oven operates it until the baking is done." (Yaari, Travels, p. 338)

From the writings of Rabbi Gedaliah, you can learn the order of baking.   First fire the oven; because wood was expensive, the ovens were often heated by animal dung.  Afterwards, throw small stones into the oven until they are hot.  The stones were gathered in the oven and arranged as a kind of bed.  At the end, the dough was placed on the stones, which gave the bread flavor.  The dough was prepared at home and sent to the baker who baked the bread.  The thin bread was also called by a more familiar name - pita

Who Moved the Cholent?

Rabbi Moshe writes that it was also possible to bake cakes, cook dishes in pots, and fry various foods in the neighborhood ovens as well as bake bread. 

“Various cakes and dishes were baked and cooked and fried by the baker at any time during the week, according to each person’s needs, and the cost was affordable.  The baker fired up the oven when he arose in the morning and kept it running until the evening, and whoever wanted any small or large thing could come during the day.”  (Yaari, Travels, p. 281)

Every day of the week and at all hours of the day, the ovens in the streets of the city were active, and people would send their bread and foodstuffs for baking, cooking and even frying.  In honor of Shabbat, the women prepared challah bread as well as other bread, and sent them to be baked in the oven.  In addition to the challah bread, dishes for Shabbat were sent to the oven.  Cholent, as it was called by German Jews, is a dish Jews placed in the ovens to cook on Friday night - every community according to its own recipe - and on Shabbat day the cholent would be taken out of the oven. 

Imagine the line of people walking with their hands full of pots to the oven in the neighborhood.  They deposited their main Shabbat food in the oven on Friday afternoon, taking care that the oven wasn’t too hot (or too cold), as that would cause people to lose their food for Shabbat.  On Friday night, therefore, it was important that the oven was closed properly: “After welcoming in the Shabbat, the gabbai was sent to see if the oven where the community put their cholent, was closed properly, so that no one would come to violate Shabbat, heaven forbid.” (Yaari, Travels, p. 288)


Adventures of Cholent in the Holy Land

Taking care of the cholent was so important that it also appears in folk literature.  In one of the many stories about cholent, one tells of an angel whose job it was to watch over the shofar blasts on Rosh HaShana.  Because this job was limited to only a few days during the year, the angel also was assigned to watch over the cholent - from the minute it was placed in the oven, until it was eaten - so that it wouldn’t burn.  When Rosh Hashanah comes on Shabbat, therefore, we don’t blow the shofar in order that the angel can continue to watch over the cholent.  (Idit Pintel-Ginsberg,  The Angel and the Cholent, p. 144) 

In a special account, Rabbi Gedaliah tells of the adventures of cholent in the Holy Land:

"And thus the dish for Shabbat morning, which is called Cholent, is brought from the oven, and sometimes there will be a hundred or two-hundred pots standing one on top of the other.  On Shabbat morning, many people come to take their dish, and everyone knows his own and takes it, because each one is cooked in a copper basin.  But we, most of the group of Rabbi Judah HeHasid, were very poor, and we placed in the oven ceramic pots.  Once I went to bring the dish from the oven, and the dish was leg of lamb with beans, and I was so happy that I had something to eat, because on some weeks I didn’t have even hooves because I had switched my pot with another poor person and when I brought it home I didn’t find any meat at all.  As they say:  the poor have no lack of poverty.”  (Yaari, Travels, p. 338)

From these accounts, it is possible to imagine the oven full of the clay pots of the poor  and the copper pots of the middle class; the parade on Shabbat morning returning home from the oven, with everyone carrying their pots back to the house and everyone at home sitting in anticipation around the Shabbat table.  And when Rabbi Gedaliah gave this testament, whether as a reflection of reality or whether it was designed to warm the hearts of merciful German Jews to give a bit more to the community of Rabbi Judah HeHasid - we can see a spark of humor in the face of bitter disappointment.

Translation: Leiah Jaffe