We previously discussed whether the ancient prohibition of consuming meat and
fish together remained valid given that talmudic health concerns regarding this
combination are no longer true. While that topic raised questions regarding the
legal standing of contemporary science, the alleged prohibition of fish and
cheese, observed in certain Sephardi communities, also explores the impact of
inaccurate texts on Jewish law.
While Jewish law proscribes various
mixtures of milk with meat, it excludes fish from the latter group, deeming it
instead as an independent neutral category (Hulin 103b). As such, any potential
problem with eating fish with either meat or milk will not fall under the rubric
of classic laws relating to kashrut. The Talmud does ultimately prohibit
combining meat and fish for different reasons – health concerns – and this
position is codified in the Shulhan Aruch within ritual laws relating to
hygienic practices (OC 173:2). Similar sentiments are never expressed regarding
milk and fish, with two passages (Hulin 76b, 111b) implicitly stating that it is
entirely permissible (Shach YD 87:5).
The first legal text to allegedly
ponder such a prohibition was the Beit Yosef, a 16th-century legal commentary
written by the famed Rabbi Yosef Karo of Safed. After noting fish’s neutral
status, the text continues, “Nevertheless, one should not eat fish in milk
because of danger, as explained in OC 173:2.” Yet while Karo mentions milk, the
proof text cited deals with meat! Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Darchei Moshe), followed
by many other prominent decisors (Taz YD 87:3), contended that a scribe errantly
copied the word “milk” instead of meat, which would further explain why Karo
never recorded the milk with fish prohibition in the Shulhan Aruch, his
authoritative code. These authorities concluded that fish may be consumed with
dairy products, a position adopted by almost all Ashkenazi authorities (Aruch
Hashulhan YD 87:15).
As a whole, manuscripts regularly suffered from poor
penmanship, slipping of the eyes and misunderstandings by unlearned or confused
copyists. The problems that ensued from these mishaps became more pervasive
following the 20th century recovery of a treasure trove of manuscripts in the
Cairo Geniza, which provided further evidence of variant ways in which central
texts were recorded and understood.
Medieval authorities would change
various norms based on alternative readings from different manuscripts.
Maimonides, for example, dismissed a certain halachic position advocated by
earlier authorities because he believed that their decision was based on faulty
talmudic manuscripts (Hilchot Malveh Veloveh 15:2). Yet reasonable people can
disagree on how to weigh the alleged evidence of variant manuscripts, with
Maimonides’s regular interlocutor, Rabad of Posquierres, contending in this case
that the ruling of the earlier authorities remained sound (Magid
As Rabbi Moshe Bleich has documented, a separate question
relates to whether the composition of authoritative legal codes, such as the
Shulhan Aruch, precludes the subsequent use of variant texts (Tradition 27:2).
One issue relates to the discovery of previously unknown rabbinic positions
regarding old halachic disputes.
Some argue that had authorities seen
these earlier statements, they might have changed their own opinion
(Introduction, Yabia Omer OC 5). Others retort that the Jewish people have
already accepted normative practices which should not be altered (Moda’im
At other times, widespread practices became established
on the basis of texts which, on the basis of manuscript evidence, are now deemed
inaccurate. As Prof. Daniel Sperber has noted, figures like Rabbi Yisrael Meir
Kagan struggled with this phenomenon (MB 551:32). In theory, the law should
follow the position found in the accurate manuscripts. Yet once a practice has
become established, it might take on independent stature (Minhagei Yisrael
In our case, the alleged textual error was noted immediately and
the practice was more easily dismissed. Yet some authorities, mostly Sephardi,
defended this prohibition. Rabbi Haim Benivieste contended that Karo’s prooftext
only intended to show that fish and milk were prohibited like other actions
deemed unhealthy (Haghot BY YD 87). Others claimed they knew of doctors that
believed there is a genuine health fear with this combination (Pit’hei Teshuva),
at least within certain locales (Kaf Hahaim OC 173:3).
scholar famed for his rabbinic and scientific knowledge, Rabbi Isaac Lampronti,
found no historical evidence of any medical danger, but asserted that we should
continue to follow the traditional practice. This sentiment was shared by Rabbis
Ovadia Yosef (Yehaveh Da’at 6:48) and Haim David Halevi (Tehumin 17). The
latter, after noting the medical and textual rationale for abandoning this
practice, nonetheless contended that since it is not a big inconvenience,
Sephardim who observe this stricture should maintain their traditional practice.
The topic highlights how texts, reason and traditional practices can become
intertwined in determining ritual practices.
The writer, online editor of
Tradition and its blog Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at