Potato Kugel/קאַרטאָפל קוגל/קוגל תפוחי אדמה
בשם הרב ירדן רוזנבלום שליט”א
אזהרה לקורא: מתכון זה עוסק בענייני תורת הנסתר מאוד עמוקים וקדושים, שאינם ניתנים להבנה ע”י אלה שתורתם ויראתם אינן נמצאות במדרגה עליונה. כ”ש “ראשית דבר על האדם למלא כרסו בש”ס ופוסקים, מי שלומד קבלה צריך להתקדש ולהיטהר,” שלא יבוא לידי חטא, ר”ל.
“The zaddikim proclaim that there are profound matters embedded in the kugel. For this reason they insisted that every Jew must eat the Sabbath kugel. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov recalled that once, when he went out for a walk with the holy rabbi of Ropshitz, all that they talked about for three hours were the secrets that lie hidden inside the Sabbath kugel.”
“The Seer of Lublin taught that just as one’s respective mitzvot and transgressions are weighed in the balance in the process of our final judgment in the heavenly courts, so too they weigh all of the kugel that one ate in honor of the Sabbath.”
“Reb Shmelke of Selish used to immerse himself in the mikvah [ritual bath] after the Mussaf service, before the eating of the kugel.”
“Reb Itiskel of Pshevorsk taught that there is a special chamber in the heavens in which the particular reward for eating kugel on the Sabbath is distributed; even one who ate kugel only out of base material motives, because he craved it, would receive his reward.”
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it seems that when one’s operating theology is that shards of the divine presence are locked within the very fabric of creation, one might arrive at some very strange conclusions – as Allan Nadler discovered in his paper “Holy Kugel: The Sanctification of Ashkenazic Ethnic Foods in Hasidism.” The humble kugel too is a vessel for aspects of the divine. Actually, as it so happens, for one very specific aspect. Do read on:
Garnishes and side dishes were not exempt from being imbued with intense kabbalistic symbolism. So, for example, R. Yechiel of Komarno (1806-1874) taught that, because the gematria [the numerical value of the Hebrew letters] of onions [bezalim] is equivalent to eheye elohim adonai [I will be the Lord, your God], it is important to mix onions into the fish so as to spice them with the divine presence. Fanciful speculation regarding the significance of the food at the tish [“table” – communal Hasidic meal with the rebbe] is by no means limited to fish; each and every item on the menu became subjected to intense, elaborate kabbalistic interpretations by the Hasidim. The changing interpretation of the rituals of the tish reflect its narrowing from a genuine feast to a symbolic mystical sacrament. Particularly important in this shift was the increasing focus on every item of the rebbe’s menu as specific emanations of the different kabbalistic sefirot [cosmic divine orbs]. This notion is clearly expressed by R. Shalom of Koidonov:
“I will now reveal to you the secret of the Sabbath foods, for in my humble opinion they hint at the ten holy sefirot. My source for this is holy wonder of our generation, Israel of Rizhin, who taught that eating kugel symbolizes the sefirah of Yesod. So that I say that each of the foods is symbolic of one of the ten sefirot. The fish we eat symbolize the first three sefirot, as is well known; onions in oil and other things that sweeten the onions symbolize hesed & gevurah; for onions which have a sharp taste refer to gevurah while the oil and other things that sweeten them refer to hesed. The [chicken] leg we eat symbolize nezach & hod, as is known. The tchulent [maaseh kederah] hints at malkhuth…while the food in the pot along with the sauce contains the secret of the scripture, “blessed be the glory of God’s Holy name forever and ever.”
Of all the Sabbath foods, the greatest significance was attached to the kugel. Employing very eclectic exegesis and imaginative kabbalistic hermeneutics, the Hasidic theoreticians “figured out” that kugel corresponded to the sefirah of yesod. Some important, and startling, conclusions were derived from this association. Since, in most systems of kabbalistic symbolism, the sefirah of yesod corresponds to the phallus of Adam Kadom, or primordial man, kugel was believed to harbor generative, or creative, powers. More to the point with regard to the powers on display at the rebbe’s tish was the longstanding Hasidic association of yesod – manifested in the Sabbath kugel – with the zaddik, based on the biblical verse, “And the righteous man [zaddik] is the foundation [yesod] of the universe” (Prov 10:25).
This attribution of sanctity to the specific Sabbath dishes was more than merely symbolic; it was often taken quite literally and applied practically, thus affecting the actual etiquette of the tish (to the extent that it existed at all). Take, for example one of the truly grotesque Hasidic tish stories, regarding Rabbi Aaron of Koidonov: I once asked [Rabbi Aaron] why he eats all of the Sabbath foods with his hands instead of a fork; yet the kugel he always eats with a fork. He answered that it is said in the name of R. Israel of Rizhin that all of the Sabbath foods correspond to the supernal orbs [sefirot], as it is written in the holy book Tikkunei Zohar. Now kugel, since it is the principal additional dish in honor of the Sabbath, contains the mystery of mussaf [addition or procreation]; now since mussaf corresponds to the sefirah of yesod…therefore it is forbidden to touch the kugel with one’s hands since, as is well known, one is not allowed to handle one’s own yesod [penis].
As someone at least passingly familiar with rabbinic discourse, however, several questions come to mind: does the yesod of kugel override the association of some of its ingredients with other sefirot, namely hesed and gevurah? At what point in the preparation process does kugel become yesod, and is therefore forbidden to be touched with the hands? When the ingredients are mixed together in the bowl? When they are transferred to the final cooking vessel? When the ingredients have solidified in the oven? When the kugel is transferred to the serving plate? (I am fairly confident that no Hasidic rebbe ever prepared a meal at any point in his life, so one might hypothesize that such practical matters never occurred to them.)
But enough Torah! Surely now you’re eager to learn how, with little more than potatoes and time, one may gain access to his special reward in the world to come. Please begin to intently direct your kavanah, for this is the way of making holy kugel:
- 6 pounds baking potatoes (about five very large potatoes, or a larger number of smaller ones. I don’t know. Get a scale.)
- 7 medium onions
- 6 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup oil + 3 tbsp
- 1 cup bread crumbs
- 2 tbsp salt
- 1 tbsp black pepper
1) Thinly slice 5 of the onions, leaving the other two aside.
2) Heat the 3 tablespoons of oil in a skillet over low heat. Place your sliced onions in a skillet. Caramelize them. Caramelize the shit out of them muhffuckers. To clear up any confusion, caramelizing is not quite the same as frying until brown. To caramelize onions, you have to cook them in oil over low heat for what food scientists refer to as a long-ass time. I set the burner at about “4,” but of course, every burner is different. Just let ’em go, stirring occasionally, until they are deeply brown:
That’s the onions after slightly over an hour of cooking. You can use all that caramelization time to put together the rest of the ingredients, or drink vodka, or both.
3) Once the onions are ready, set your oven 400°. Make sure all your ingredients are at hand, because once the potatoes are grated, they start oxidizing quickly, and that’s kind of gross. Don’t forget to beat the eggs. Peel the potatoes. Grate them. I find it’s best the grate by hand. Every time I’ve tried to use a food processor’s grating wheel for potatoes, it successfully grates about half and turns the other half into a watery mush.
4) Grate the two onions you reserved earlier and add them to the potatoes.
5) Add the cup of oil, the bread crumbs, the eggs, the caramelized onions, the salt and the pepper. Stir very well. Make sure the caramelized onions are mixed in well – they tend to clump together and wind up unevenly distributed. It will all look, at this point, like something you’d definitely want to eat:
‘Azharah la-maḥmirim: From this point onward, yere’ei shamayim will not touch the kugel with their hands.
6) Heavily oil a 13×9 baking tray. Transfer the kugel mixture into the tray and spread it out evenly, smoothing the top, like so:
7) Bake at 400° until the top is well-browned and crispy-looking, probably about an hour and a half. Don’t take my word for it, though: keep an eye on it.
Once the kugel is removed from the oven, it will have to sit awhile – probably at least forty-five minutes – to fully solidify. It’s best served warm, not piping hot.
And there you have it: 13 by 9 delicious inches of the infinite divine’s most holy junk. Remember to eat it with a fork.