Shabbat Guidelines for our Community
The Laws of Cooking and Heating Food on Shabbos
Compiled by Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman
Note: This information serves as guidelines for our community on the proper ways to prepare food before Shabbos, and heat food on Shabbos. Please contact Maharat Ruth at MaharatRuth@ostns.org if you have any questions.
Cooking on Shabbos
It is permissible to initiate a process that is a melacha (action that violates Shabbos) if it will continue on its own accord on Shabbos before Shabbos begins (like setting an electric timer to turn on a light on Shabbos.) This is true of cooking, as well, but with certain limitations. See below for a discussion of these limitations.
Thankfully we live in a time where we have refrigerators, and we are able to cook food before Shabbos, put it in the fridge, and then heat it up for lunch. Until recently, however, communities did not have access to these devices, and any food that was going to be eaten on Shabbos day needed to cook throughout Shabbos in order for it to be edible at lunch. Our modern day example is chulent, so we will use that as a model. A crockpot is considered a cooking device, and therefore comparable to an oven, which is the most common example of a cooking device in halachic literature.
Our Sages were worried that if we left food to cook for the duration of Shabbos, we might be tempted to stoke the coals. In other words, let's say that we have an oven, which consists of a metal frame over a pile of coals, with a groove on top to accommodate a pot of food. If I set up a pot of food over this oven before Shabbos, even though it can cook by itself, I may be tempted to stoke the coals to increase the fire, which would be a Biblical prohibition. Therefore, it is only permissible to leave food to cook over Shabbos in an oven whose coals are cleared out, so that we retain the heat while removing the opportunity to increase the fire. Therefore, we may use a cooking device to cook food on Shabbos (if, of course, the process was fully initiated before Shabbos) if we remove the opportunity to increase the flame. We accomplish this today by covering the knobs on our ovens, stovetops, and crockpots. So, it would be perfectly fine to start a chulent before Shabbos starts and leave it cooking on Shabbos, or to put something in the oven before Shabbos and leave it there until lunch as long as one covers the knobs with tin foil, or special plastic knob-covers (often used for child safety.) That way we are cooking in a permissible way because we have removed the temptation and ability to change the temperature.
It is only permitted to use cooking devices if the cooking process begins before Shabbos. Therefore, one may not heat food up on the stovetop, in an oven, or in a crockpot if one is putting the food in on Shabbos. That is why we have platas (electric warming trays) and blechs (a metal sheet to cover the stovetop and retain the heat of one burner, which is left on for Shabbos.) These are not cooking devices, so putting food on them on Shabbos is not considered cooking, and it is therefore permissible to warm food on them. However, if one is using a blech, one should not put food directly on the part of the metal that is directly over the flame.
Unfortunately, using an oven on the "warm" setting is not permitted, because the oven is still a cooking device. However, it is permitted to use the warming drawer of an oven if you do not use the warming drawer for cooking purposes.
- It is only permissible to heat foods that are not liquidy. The definition of liquidy is if the dish has liquid in it when it is at room temperature.
- While it is permissible to leave food in a crockpot before Shabbos, one should not stir the food while it is on the cooking device, for this is connected to cooking. One should also not stir food while it is on the plata or blech, because it has the appearance of cooking.
- Because cooking on Shabbos is a biblical prohibition, a Gentile may not heat food for us on Shabbos using a cooking device. That is why all of the food that we serve at Ohev for lunch is warmed on a heating tray. We will be studying the laws of using the help of Gentiles on Shabbos next.
- There are many warming plates (platas) available on Amazon. Please note that if you purchase one with multiple settings, the knobs must be covered. Isra Heat makes one specifically for Shabbos purposes, and it does not have any knobs.