The Smells of Shabbat

What did I miss most from a typical Shabbat during Covid?

The quarantine period lasted, depending on your level of isolation to avoid pandemic-related contagion, about two years. Two years without hosting friends—which I, as a single, divorced guy, had done infrequently—or going to friends’ homes either in the Greater New York area or a train-ride or bus-ride away—which I had done more frequently.

To be safe, I didn’t invite myself anywhere for a long weekend for most of 2020-2022, and no one invited me.

Week after week I spent Shabbat by myself in my Queens apartment. I didn’t mind that; I’m basically a loner. What I did miss to varying degrees was the familiarity of davening in shul; the camaraderie around the Shabbat table; the chance to read stories to kids.

But what I missed most—not that I would tell my friends—was the smell of Shabbat. The aromas that filled a kitchen when you showed up at someone’s house on a Thursday evening, when the preparations for the Day of Rest were underway; or on a Friday night, when the I’d come back from shul and take my place at the table. The chicken soup. The kugel. The brisket. The other Ashkenazic staples.

All that was absent until the Covid restrictions loosened a bit in mid-2022 and the Shabbat invitations and acceptances resumed. Until then, no olfactory evidence of Shabbat was present in my apartment. My gas stove was inoperative; without a blech, I couldn’t heat up my food anyways. My Shabbat menu was prepared meals—some meat or vegetables or knishes from a neighborhood purveyor, eaten cold. No problem with that; I didn’t mind cold food.

Then, when I started going away for Shabbat again last year, I dined on the delicious cholent made by my hostess in Cherry Hill, near Philadelphia. She made it in a crock pot—a “slow cooker” in some people’s parlance—whose succulent aromas rivaled the taste of the final product. I complimented the hostess on her culinary skill and inquired about the degree of difficulty that using a crock pot required.

Not much, she said. She told me how effortless the process is. You chop some stuff, you put in the crock pot, you turn it on and forget about it till lunchtime (or breakfast-time, if your resistance is weak) the next day.

She offered to buy me a crock pot.

I accepted.

Once the cold days of winter approached, the crock pot hasn’t had a day of rest on Shabbat.

In my old days, living at home with my family in Buffalo, I did a lot of cooking and baking. I would decide on a dish I wanted to produce, go through a bunch of recipes, subtract some ingredients, add some spices and come up with a concoction of my own.

The crock pot became a 120-volt fountain of youth. Each week I chose some entrée, either chicken breasts or ground beef, that would warm my soul and my stomach that Shabbat. As before, I would consult several recipes I found online, maybe a dozen or so, and design my own recipe. Chicken with orange and pineapple marmalade. Spaghetti and ground beef and frozen spinach. Honey-mustard chicken. And so on.

The food was decent—not gourmet, but definitely acceptable. And healthful. No salt, no high-cholesterol ingredients. In my kitchen, I had total control. I had forgotten how much fun cooking was, how satisfying it had been when friends at my meals asked for seconds.

I had forgotten that you only get out of Shabbat what you put into it.

And I had forgotten how much work was involved; I realized that I had taken my hosts’ and hostesses’ efforts for granted, had not paid enough attention to the lengths they had gone to make a beautiful meal, had not complimented them adequately. I’ll be more considerate, I hope, when I start accepting Shabbat invitations in the future.

In the meantime, my crock pot will be busy. My Shabbatot will be more Shabbosdik.

While Shabbat is above all a spiritual experience, is also a sensory one. The taste of the Next World is supposed to be served and eaten warm, not cold. Now, my Shabbat meals are the proper temperature. The sounds of Shabbat fill my apartment on Friday afternoon. While I am making my final Shabbat preparations, I turn on a YouTube album of Jewish or Israeli music on my laptop computer.

I may not have friends to join me in singing Shalom Aleichem or niggunim, but my apartment sounds like Shabbat.

And with the recipe du jour bubbling away in my crock pot, it smells like Shabbat.


Steve Lipman, who lives in New York, is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.

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