Question: If one sees the Chulent pot drying out on Shabbat, may one add some boiling water to the pot?
Answer: Many households customarily leave a pot of Chulent cooking on the electric hotplate (or crockpot) from Friday afternoon until Shabbat morning. Many times, people mistakenly do not put enough water in the pot at which point the Chulent begins to dry out. Some individuals add boiling water to the pot to prevent the Chulent from burning.
The Opinion of Rabbeinu Yonah
The first one to address this issue is Rabbeinu Yonah in his Igeret Ha’Teshuva where he writes as follows: “Some people have the mistaken practice of preparing a pot of hot water before Shabbat in order to pour this water into a pot of food when in begins to burn. Even if the water is boiling, when the water is poured out of the teapot, the boiling subsides immediately wherein it is no longer capable of cooking and it then gets cooked (boiled) again in the pot. This is included in the prohibited work of cooking on Shabbat.”
This means that since the water in the teapot cools off somewhat when it is poured out and later becomes reboiled in the pot of food, this constitutes a forbidden form of cooking on Shabbat. (The Poskim offer explanations of this opinion at length.)
The Opinion of Rabbeinu Nissim
As opposed to Rabbeinu Yonah, the Ran (Rabbeinu Nissim, Shabbat 145b) writes that this is not prohibited, for this water has already been boiled before Shabbat and we have a great rule that “there is no cooking after cooking,” meaning that since this water has already been cooked, there is no longer a prohibition to cook this water again, even if it cools off somewhat as it is being poured into the pot.
The Halacha follows Rabbeinu Yonah’s View
Nevertheless, as we have discussed above, although we rule that “there is no cooking after cooking,” this only applies to dry foods, such as meat, fish, or bread. However, the prohibition of cooking does apply to liquid foods, such as soup or water, even if has already been cooked. (This applies especially to water, for according to some opinions, all opinions agree that the prohibition of cooking applies to them.)
Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 318) therefore rules: “One should protest against those who pour boiling water into a pot of food on Shabbat, for this constitutes a forbidden form of cooking.”
The Ashkenazi and Moroccan Customs
Some communities indeed act leniently in this regard, especially our Ashkenazi brethren, based on the ruling of the Rama (who rules leniently only regarding boiling water but not regarding cold water). However, the Sephardic custom is to be stringent and not pour boiling water into the Chulent pot on Shabbat.
Although several Moroccan cities customarily rules leniently in this regard and this custom was certainly instituted by great and pious Moroccan luminaries, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l deals with this matter lengthily (in his Chazon Ovadia-Shabbat, Volume 5, page 390) and concludes that since the custom in Israel is to act stringently in accordance with the ruling of Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch, thus, all must rule in accordance with the custom in Israel and act stringently.
Advice for Adding Water in a Permissible Fashion
There is indeed an idea by which one can avoid all doubt and that is by placing a cooking bag filled with water into the Chulent pot before Shabbat. If the Chulent is lacking water on Shabbat, one may puncture the bag and the water will thereby flow into the food and prevent it from burning.
Summary: One should not act leniently and pour boiling water into the Chulent pot on Shabbat. There is room for leniency, however, if one leaves a cooking bag filled with water in the pot before Shabbat and if one sees that the Chulent is burning, one may puncture the bag and the water will flow out into the Chulent on its own.