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Q I am not strictly observant, but like to think that I keep a modicum of kashrut. I've been asking religious friends how long to wait between eating milk and meat, and meat and milk. Their answers have been really conflicting. Is there a normative response?
A The confusion stems from the fact that this law represents an unresolved rabbinic debate that led to a plurality of legitimate practices. The different customs reflect historical development and geographical divisions and transcend contemporary denominational rifts.
While the prohibition of eating meat and milk together originates in the Bible, the rule to wait after consuming meat only appears in the Talmud. The first explicit discussion of this tradition emerges in the Amoraic period (200-500 CE), and ostensibly derives from a pious attempt to distance oneself from consuming milk with meat stuck in one's teeth or its fatty taste lingering in the mouth. (The alleged fear of digesting both types together rarely appears in rabbinic sources.) Although some medieval scholars believed these concerns only applied to fleshy beef but not to chicken or meat extracts like soup broth, the scholarly consensus concluded not to distinguish between different meat products (Rema YD 89:3).
In the Talmudic passage, different sages discuss whether one needs to wipe his hands or wash his mouth before consuming the opposite type of food (Hulin 104b). Later in the Gemara, a recent oleh from Babylonia, from where this custom seemingly emerged, asked the sage Rabbi Yohanan how long he waited to eat milk after consuming meat. He responded, "I don't wait!" The Talmud expresses bewilderment at this answer, and reinterprets him to state that one does not wait to eat meat after cheese.
Based on this statement, many conclude that there is no need to wait after consuming dairy, beyond a peripheral rinsing of the mouth. The first authority to explicitly mention waiting after eating cheese was Rabbi Meir of Rottenburg (13th century, Germany), who took on a personal stringency after once finding cheese stuck between his teeth. Although Rabbi Shlomo Luria spurned this practice, his younger 16th-century contemporary Rabbi Moshe Isserles ruled that one should wait to eat meat following the consumption of hard cheese, because its thick and fatty texture might cause similar problems as meat. This encompasses uncooked cheese that was aged for six months, like Parmesan.
The most important section of the Gemara records Mar Ukva's confession that while his pious father waited 24 hours after consuming meat before eating dairy products, he only waited "until the next meal." Mar Ukva did not quantify this standard, leaving a normative ambiguity that was interpreted differently by commentators around the world. Maimonides - followed by Spanish and Provencal sages - ruled that one must wait "about six hours" before eating dairy, basing himself on the ancient practice of consuming two meals a day (Shabbat 10a). While Rabbi Yosef Karo understood this to mean a complete six hours (Shulhan Aruch YD 89:1), others, like R. Menahem Hameiri (Magen Avot 9), spoke of waiting five to six hours, colloquially known as "into the sixth hour." A compromise interpretation asserted that without formal clocks, Maimonides could not demand an exact time, and therefore five and a half hours was sufficient.
The medieval sages of Germany and northern France (Tosafot), however, understood "until the next meal" literally. They asserted that once a person recited grace after meals, cleared the table and rinsed his mouth, he could immediately begin another meal with dairy products. Their 15th-century successors, such as Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein, declared to wait one hour, a practice that Dutch Jews still follow. As Ashkenazic Jewry moved to Eastern Europe, however, many sages strongly urged their followers to observe Maimonides' ruling. This stringency ultimately became the dominant Ashkenazic practice.
German Jewry took a middle position to wait three hours. This might represent the amount of time between meals in their locality, or a compromise between the different opinions. Textual references to this custom, however, remain very sparse. In a recent article, Aviad Stolman has traced the first record of this practice to a 1492 manuscript. (An alleged earlier citation by Rabbenu Yeruham appears to be a scribal error.) Much to the chagrin of contemporary authorities, many Jews of Eastern European and Sephardic origin adopted this custom, sometimes out of convenience. While Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach ruled that all Jews should abandon this custom, this practice appears well established in select communities.
When a person does not have a firm family custom, I would recommend waiting at least five hours. For someone who desires only to "keep a modicum of kashrut," however, some rabbis might recommend a shorter option to help you maintain a legitimate minimum standard. Please consult with a local rabbi to determine the most appropriate practice for you.
The writer, a rabbi, is the online editor of TraditionOnline.org and teaches in Jerusalem, where he is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University. firstname.lastname@example.org