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Beit Midrash Series Bemare Habazak - Rabbis Questions

Crock pot use on Shabbat

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Question:
I have questions about crock pot use on Shabbat. I have heard of people covering the heating element with foil, placing something to prop up the pot, or covering or removing the knob. What is correct? May I add hot water on Shabbat if the chulent is drying out?


Answer: There are many legitimate positions. Let us explain and put things in perspective, regarding the three main issues: shehiya, hachzara, and hatmana.
Shehiya (leaving on the ‘flame’): Chazal were concerned that with food cooking on a flame, one might stoke the coals to hasten the cooking. Tannaim (Shabbat 36b) dispute if this concern applies when the food was minimally cooked before Shabbat. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 253:1) and Be’ur Halacha (ad loc.) lean toward stringency, whereas the Rama (ad loc.) seems to lean toward leniency. Rav M. Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OC 1:93) raises further logic for leniency - the fuel in our gas stoves work (electricity is similar) does not resemble the coals of former ages but the more lenient case of straw (where one increases the flame by bringing more fuel). In any case, the minhag is to require a blech, certainly if it is not minimally cooked.
What needs to be covered? Igrot Moshe (ibid.) says that one covers the heat source to show he is reducing the heat and does not plan to raise it. Rav Aharon Kotler required covering the knobs, as a reminder not to adjust them. Many blechs cover both, as Igrot Moshe recommends. Regarding a crock pot, foil over the coils is not discernable and, more importantly, does not significantly reduce the heat. (The rocks or metal balls some use do allow heat to escape.) Therefore, it is necessary and reasonable to rely on Rav Kotler (along with the other indications for leniency) and cover the knobs. Removing the knobs or putting enough tape to make it difficult to turn is even better (see Shabbat 18b).
Hachzara (returning to a flame): If one removes the pot insert and wants to return it, there are many more necessary requirements, not specific to crock pots (fully cooked; still warm; holding the pot; having in mind to return it; a covering). A major issue for crock pots is that one may not return a pot to a closed oven (Shulchan Aruch, ibid. 2), which a crock pot resembles in some ways (as heat comes from the sides in addition to the bottom). There are, through, grounds for leniency beyond our scope (see Am Mordechai, Shabbat 4).
Hatmana (insulating): In one of his last rulings, Rav S.Z. Auerbach claimed that a crock pot is a form of insulation, apparently because the pot (the ceramic insert) is surrounded relatively tightly by additional walls. Since additional heat is entering the system (mosif hevel), one may not leave the food there even though it is set it up before Shabbat (Shulchan Aruch, OC 257:5). The minhag among crock pot users for years was not this way and the standard halachic assumption is that hatmana is only when there is an extra covering on all sides (a crock pot has only a single, standard cover). However, the idea of stones was devised to make the crock pot conform to Rav Auerbach’s objections. Since the crock pot is slightly tapered, raising the insert a couple inches removes the level of closeness that makes it hatmana. We would not require one to follow this stringency, but we would not scoff at one who follows Rav Auerbach, whose rulings, including many lenient ones, so many of us follow.
Adding water: For Ashkenazim, it is permitted to add water, as long as the chulent is fully cooked and the water is warm. (Rav O. Yosef forbids this for Sephardim- Yechaveh Da’at IV:22). Some say to be careful to pour it in gently to avoid the issue of mixing (Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata 1:17). Some usually recommend removing the pot from the heat source (where mixing is less of a problem) before pouring in water and returning it. However, in this case, we believe that one who strives for stringency loses by doing this because he creates the need for a bigger leniency regarding hachzara (as above).
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