Back to top
Rabbi Dovid Cohen
Administrative Rabbinical Coordinator of the cRc
February 2008 – Updated December 2022
As a rule one is not permitted to put food onto the fire (or the blech) on Shabbos even if the food is fully cooked. This prohibition is called chazarah and is based on two concerns: 1) Someone watching the process might think the food is being cooked, and 2) A person might adjust the flame to speed up the warming process. Details of this halacha and some common methods of warming food on Shabbos are discussed in Sappirim 6 and 8.
One of the cases where one is allowed to warm food on Shabbos is if the pot of fully cooked food is put on top of another pot which is sitting on the fire. It is so unusual to warm food up in this manner that the prohibition of chazarah does not apply, and one may warm food even if there is no blech under the (bottom) pot. It is however noteworthy that although warming in this manner is not chazarah, the food must be fully cooked and all liquids must still be warm, otherwise one is violating the melacha of bishul in order to warm up the food.1
So where does the Russian samovar come in? A typical urn is basically a big pot of water with a built-in electric coil which keeps the water in the urn at a given temperature. A Russian samovar is somewhat more sophisticated in that its lid is perforated to allow steam vapors to escape, and the samovar comes with a small tea kettle which fits over this lid. The tea kettle is filled with tea-essence (i.e. concentrated tea) and is heated by means of the vapors escaping through the lid. To prepare a cup of tea, one fills a cup with water from the samovar and then pours in some hot tea-essence from the kettle. The accompanying picture shows a modern version of a Russian Samovar.
May one return the tea kettle to the top of the Russian samovar on Shabbos? One could argue that although it is not common to cook/heat food in a pot that is on top of another pot, in this case the samovar was especially constructed for exactly that purpose; therefore, we should view it as being “common”. In that case, it would be forbidden to put the tea-kettle on top of the samovar.2 Nonetheless, Rav Schwartz ruled that heating and cooking food in this manner is overall so uncommon that even in this case there is no prohibition of chazarah.3 As such, if the tea-essence was prepared before Shabbos and the tea essence is still warm, one may place the tea kettle on top of the samovar to keep it warm. [Those of Sephardic descent may only put the tea kettle onto the samovar if the tea essence is hotter than yad soledes bo (approximately 160° F)].4
1 See more on this in footnote 4.
2 A similar position is espoused by Rabbi Shimon Eider, Halachos of Shabbos Volume IV Chapter 14 footnote 562.
3 This ruling is in line with Rav Schwartz’s position regarding the kedairah blech as discussed in Sappirim 8.
4 The primary question discussed in the text was chazarah which is a Rabbinic prohibition. However, there is also a potentially more serious question of bishul, the Torah prohibition to cook food on Shabbos. As relates to bishul, the rule is that (a) once a solid food is fully cooked, it is impossible to “recook” it, and one can’t violate bishul by reheating the food (Shulchan Aruch 318:15), but (b) a liquid that cools down has become “uncooked” and if one reheats it they violate bishul. Within “b”, there’s a disagreement as to how cool the liquid has to get before its considered “uncooked”; Sephardim follow Shulchan Aruch’s (318:4 as per Mishnah Berurah 318:24) ruling that if it cools below a temperature known as yad soledes bo (about 160° F, for this halacha) it’s considered “uncooked”, while Ashkenazim follow Rema’s (318:15) lenient ruling that once the liquid was once cooked/heated above yad soledes bo, it remains “cooked” as long as it is noticeably warm. This is quite relevant to this situation where the tea essence will likely remain warm for quite some time but might cool below yad soledes bo relatively quickly. Sephardim would have to be careful to return the tea kettle to the top of the samovar before it cooled below 160° F while Ashkenazim would be able to leave the tea kettle off the samovar for longer.
The advantages of preparing tea from tea-essence (even if it isn’t hot) is discussed in Mishnah Berurah 318:39.