Jewish customs carry with them much depth and richness of meaning. What could be a deep meaning in a stew?!
This custom goes back thousands of years in Jewish history. During the end of the second Temple period there was a sect of Jews called the Karaites. This sect claimed to believe in the Written Torah but not the Oral Tradition, known as the Mishna. This sect caused a tremendous amount of strife and infighting in the Jewish people and swayed many away from the rabbinical traditions of the Torah.
We believe that the Oral Torah was given at Sinai along with the written and that the Written Torah is unintelligible, practically speaking, without the Oral. There’s not a single mitzvah in the Torah that one could possibly know how to observe properly without the Oral Tradition providing the explanation, guidance and details.
For this reason, the Karaites took many verses literally which the Oral Torah says are not to be. For example, we wear the Tsitsis strings on the Tallis we wear in synagogue or the smaller garment under our shirts to fulfill that mitzvah, which applies only when one wears it. The Karaites, however, said that the verse commanding us to put the strings on a four-cornered garment says nothing about wearing it. So… they put strings on a four-cornered garment which they hung on the wall!
Similarly, they took literally the verse which says “You shall not light fire in your homes on the day of Shabbos” They understood it to mean that no fire could be lit at all on Shabbos, so they sat in the dark on Friday night, and only had hot food Friday night which remained hot from before Shabbos. Shabbos day they ate a cold meal as there was no fire to keep anything hot.
The Oral Tradition, however, teaches that the meaning of that verse is not as they understood; rather one cannot light a fire on Shabbos. If the fire was already lit before Shabbos, there’s no problem for it to remain lit on Shabbos. We sit in a brightly lit, enjoyable atmosphere on Friday night. We can also eat hot food Shabbos day which was put on the fire before Shabbos.
During that time of Jewish history, it became widespread among all those who were true to the Oral Torah to be sure to leave hot food on the fire to enjoy during the day meal, to publicize the true understanding of the verse and to show they were not of that sect.
Hence began the custom of Chulent, having hot stew which was left on the fire, by which to proclaim the truth of Torah, (and to enjoy some delicious food!)
Chulent has many names and styles, [many of the Sefardic Jews call it “chamin”, or “hot stuff”]. The common denominator is that Jews of all countries have their own variation of the same concept, eating hot to show they believe in the truth of our Oral Tradition.
What seems like a simple custom is, in truth, an example of the rich tapestry of Jewish life woven together by the plethora of Jewish customs which carry within them the richness of Jewish life.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried