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Why aren't fish and meat eaten together?

by Rabbi Shais Taub

  

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Preface 

Before answering this question, the author feels compelled to clarify a very important point about the significance of Kashrut in general. Although many have attempted to posit rational explanations for the dietary laws – it’s healthier, cleaner, more humane, etc. – the truth is that the Torah did not forbid certain foods while permitting others based on any logic at all. The laws of kashrut are quite purely based on Divine decree.

Dietary Laws Beyond Kosher

Now, after having made this point, I hope it is safe to say without concern for misinterpretation that there are some dietary laws that are in fact based on practical concerns, but these prohibitions, even though dealing with food, are not part of kashrut at all. Rather, they are part of another whole category of Jewish law consisting of rabbinic legislations enacted to protect public welfare.

During the time – up until about 1500 years ago – when there was a central Torah authority that could make such rulings for all Jews, the sages passed various laws dealing with health and safety. Based on the Biblical injunction, “venishmartem me'od lenafshoteichem,”1 which enjoins us to guard our health, the sages introduced certain prohibitions which became binding as Halachah for all time.

The Talmud says that meat and fish cooked together can be aggravating for certain medical conditions
Fish and Meat

The prohibition of eating meat and fish together is one such prohibition. The Talmud2 says that meat and fish cooked together can be aggravating for certain medical conditions. Thus, the sages forbade cooking and even eating meat and fish together.3 However, unlike the prohibition against cooking or eating meat with milk which is a kashrut concern, there is no waiting period between eating meat and fish. Rather, one need only eat or drink something in between to cleanse one’s pallet.4

So, while meat and fish may be eaten during one meal, they are served in two separate courses, the plates and cutlery are cleared and the mouths cleansed between courses. Indeed, this is the source for the most agreeable Jewish custom of saying L’chaim on a little bit of shnaps in between the fish and the meat course at the Shabbat meal.

Seperate Dishes

Now, perhaps you are thinking, if we don’t eat meat and fish together, do we need to have separate sets of dishes for meat and fish just like we do for meat and dairy?

The answer is no. While the Talmud prohibits cooking actual meat and fish together, it implies elsewhere5 that one may cook meat in a pot which had previously been used to cook fish and vice versa, for the real danger is only when they are actually cooked together.

While there is an opinion6 that argues for maintaining separate cooking utensils for meat and fish, the accepted practice is to be lenient in this matter because, as many later Halachic authorities are wont to point out, the particular health concern referred to in the Talmud may not even be applicable in our day and age. So, while what the sages prohibited remains binding and may not be repealed, we nonetheless need not adopt an overly stringent view and go as far as requiring separate utensils for meat and fish.7

So next time you’re at the Rabbis house saying l’chaim after the gefilte fish, let somebody know that by adhering to this custom, you are actually upholding a decree of the sages to take care of your health. L’chaim!8

Footnotes

  • 1. Deuteronomy 4:15.
  • 2. Pesachim 76b.
  • 3. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 116:2.
  • 4. Rama, ibid. 3.
  • 5. Chulin 11b.
  • 6. Taz, Yoreh Deah 95:3.
  • 7. Pitchei Teshuvah, Yoreh Deah 116:3.
  • 8. The following thought was suggested by Rabbi Simcha Bart, Askmoses' correspondence editor: Kabbalistically, fish, which are creatures of the water, signify total submersion in the Divine, as opposed to land animals which connote a separation from the Divine. These two disparate levels of Divine awareness cannot join, as it were.

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Shabbat
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Talmud
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Halachah
Jewish Law. All halachah which is applicable today is found in the Code of Jewish Law.
Halachic
Pertaining to Jewish Law.
Kosher
Literally means "fit." Commonly used to describe foods which are permitted by Jewish dietary laws, but is also used to describe religious articles (such as a Torah scroll or Sukkah) which meet the requirements of Jewish law.
Kashrut
Laws of Kosher (Jewish dietary laws).