Ask the Expert: Meat and Fish

Why do some people avoid eating meat and fish together?

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Question: I've been told that it's not kosher to eat or cook fish with meat. Why not?

--Margaret, Florida

Answer: It's always tricky answering "why" questions about kashrut, (Jewish dietary laws). The commandments in the Torah were divided into two groups by some rabbis, mishpatim, and hukkim. Mishpatim are the reasonable and self-evident laws, such as the prohibitions against murder and adultery. Hukkim represent those commandments impenetrable to reason. In theory, we do them simply because we're told to, not because they make empirical sense to us. Kashrut is the quintessential example of one of the hukkim--it simply does not make sense.

So, for many people, the answer to most "why" questions that concern kashrut is simply that we don't know. But the prohibition against eating fish and meat has an interesting history.

There is nothing in the Torah or the Talmud that prohibits eating fish and meat together. The first place in rabbinic literature where we see a prohibition against eating fish and meat is in the Shulhan Arukh, where Rabbi Joseph Caro writes that one must abstain from eating fish and meat together because that combination causes a danger to one's health (Yoreh Deah 116:2-3).

What kind of danger? Caro implied that fish and meat cooked together could lead to a person contracting tzaraat, a biblical skin disease commonly translated as leprosy, though distinct from the disease we call leprosy today (some scholars believe Caro is merely worried that fish and meat will exacerbate the problems of one who already has tzaraat). Caro is clear that the mandated separation between meat and fish is made out of concern for medical risk, not because the combination is explicitly prohibited by the Torah. 

As a result of this ruling in the Shulhan Arukh, halakhah (Jewish law) prohibits cooking fish and meat together, or serving them together in one dish. However, the distinction between fish and meat is significantly different from the distinction between milk and meat. Kosher kitchens generally have separate sets of dishes and utensils for dairy and meat, but fish does not require these same extreme measures.

As long as a pot is clean, and no longer has pieces of meat in it, there's no problem with cooking a piece of fish in a pot previously used to for a roast. The one stringency that you may come across in kosher homes is a separate plate and utensils for the fish course. Often, fish is served as an appetizer, and plates and forks are collected before the meal progresses to ensure that no fish and meat are eaten together.

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