The highlight of many Shabbat lunch tables is cholent, a hot stew which simmers overnight in a crockpot, on the stove or in the oven. Known also as chamim by many Sephardim, cholent is the original “protest” food — the purpose of having a hot stew on Shabbat day, as mentioned by tenth century Jewish scholars, is to underscore and emphasize our belief in the Oral Tradition of the Mishna and the Talmud.
During the time of the Greeks and the Romans, there was a sect of Jews called Saduccees who denied the authority of the Oral Law. While the Saduccees, as a group, did not survive the Roman exile, their belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible, without the instruction and explanation of the oral law, was revived during the Gaonic period (8th – 10th centuries) by the Karaites.
The Oral Law explains that a Jew is permitted to have a fire burning on Shabbat, it just can’t be lit, transferred or enhanced on Shabbat. The literalists, such as the Saduccees and the Karaites, maintained that the prohibition of fire on Shabbat was total, i.e. that “Thou shalt not burn fire in all your houses” (Exodus 35:3) excluded allowing even a fire lit before Shabbat to continue burning. They therefore sat in the dark, ate cold food, and froze in the winter.
Whereas hot food on Friday night could remain warm from before Shabbat, having hot food at Shabbat lunch signifies the use of a fire that existed from before Shabbat. That is why Jews all over the world developed a dish which some call chamin, meaning hot, and others call cholent (which is a combination of two Old French words for hot and slow)*. What unites these dishes is not the ingredients, but the purpose, which is to enjoy the Sabbath and to confirm our belief in the Oral Tradition.
*The Moroccan version is called Dafina.