Waiting Between Eating Meat and Dairy

Why some Jews wait six hours, while others wait one or three.

The prohibition of eating meat and dairy together is derived from the Torah’s injunction: “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk,” which is repeated in three different places. (Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21) The Talmud states that each repetition teaches a prohibition: to cook meat in milk, to eat meat cooked in milk, and to benefit from meat cooked in milk. (Chullin 115b) The Talmud is less clear about what it means to refrain from eating meat and dairy together — specifically, whether one simply can’t eat them simultaneously, or whether one must wait in between consumptions; and if one must wait, for how long.

Note that the waiting interval, for many Jews, differs depending on which — dairy or meat — is consumed first. The stricter prohibition is on eating meat followed by dairy and that will be the primary focus of this article.

Today, the amount of time Jews wait between eating meat and dairy varies. Most Sephardi and some Ashkenazi Jews wait six full hours, but some only wait “into” the sixth hour, i.e. five hours and a few minutes. Three hours is customary according to German Jews while some Dutch Jewish communities only wait one hour.

What the Talmud Says

On Chullin 104b, the Talmud seems to suggest that meat can be eaten after dairy without pause or cleaning. However, it notes that dairy cannot be eaten immediately after meat. While Rav Hisda states, “One who has eaten meat, it’s forbidden to consume dairy,” he doesn’t clarify whether the prohibition consists of a necessary waiting period (and if so, what length), a necessary cleaning of the hands and mouth, or both. 

The sugya (Talmudic discussion) concludes with this note from Mar Ukva:

Mar Ukva said: I am, with regard to this matter, like vinegar, son of wine, with respect to Father. As Father, if he were to eat meat at this time, would not eat cheese until tomorrow at this time. But as for me, only at this meal, during which I ate meat, do I not eat cheese; at a different meal on the same day I will eat cheese.

Chullin 105a

Mar Ukva’s language suggests that his father’s practice of waiting a full 24 hours between meat and dairy is more laudable than his own of waiting until the next meal. Nonetheless, today there are no Jewish communities that require a full day of waiting.

Talmudic Commentaries: Different Interpretations

Rav Yitzhak Alfasi, also known as the Rif, an 11th-century rabbi in North Africa and codifier of halakhah (Jewish law), determined that Rav Hisda’s statement implies a necessary waiting period between meat and dairy and that Mar Ukva’s practice of waiting from one meal to the next sets the minimum required time. But he doesn’t give a count in terms of hours.

A century later, Maimonides codified the waiting time between meat and dairy as six hours, asserting that this is the standard time between meals. The Shulchan Aruch, an authoritative Jewish legal code compiled by Yosef Karo in the 16th century, agrees with Maimonides: After eating meat, one must wait six hours. (Yoreh Deah Siman 89) Various commentators attest that for centuries this had been the normative Sephardi practice. 

In Ashkenazi circles, the custom developed differently. The Tosafot — medieval talmudists in Western Europe who were students and often descendents of Rashi — ruled that the “next meal” referred to by the sugya isn’t determined by a defined time. Rather, once one has said Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) and cleaned the table, the meal of meat is concluded and one is permitted to eat dairy immediately. This, they claim, is what Mar Ukva meant by “at a different meal” (Tosafot Chulin 104b-105a) — it’s not about time, but about completing the rituals of one meal before beginning another.

But soon Ashkenazi Jews also developed a custom of waiting a fixed time between meat and dairy. Centuries after the Tosafot, Rabbi Moses Isserles (also known as the Rema) a 16th-century Ashkenazi rabbi whose commentary is incorporated into the text of the Shulchan Aruch, notes that the typical practice in Ashkenaz is to wait one hour between meat and dairy. There’s no clear textual basis for this timing — rather, the one hour seems to be a chumra (stringency) on the position of the Tosafot which requires no waiting at all, only a separate meal. 

The Rema, while referencing the custom of one hour and acknowledging its validity, encourages the more pious to wait the full six. Only a century or two later, other Eastern European commentators on the Shulchan Aruch insist that any properly observant Jew should wait the full six hours, indicating a normative shift in practice. This is how many Ashkenazi Jews came to wait a full six hours like their Sephardi counterparts.

There are exceptions, however. This shift to six hours occurred within Eastern Europe, but in Dutch communities the practice of one hour persisted and is still the norm to this day. Meanwhile, German communities in early modern times adopted a custom of waiting three hours. This seems to be a stringency on the practice of one hour, though some suggest it stems from shortened waiting time between meals.

Eating Meat After Dairy

As mentioned previously, the Talmud suggests there is no need to wait after eating dairy before consuming meat. Maimonides agrees that there is no waiting period but says a person must wash their hands and clean their mouths, and most agree with this psak (halakhic decision), while noting that if one eats chicken following dairy even this cleaning isn’t necessary.

However, over the centuries most Ashkenazi communities developed the custom of waiting half an hour to an hour between eating dairy and meat (along with the hand and mouth cleaning), based on a comment of the Zohar. Others suggest that one should be required to recite Birkat Hamazon after a dairy meal before consuming meat.

With most forms of dairy, this is considered a stringency, but not a fundamental requirement. But we see in the Rema’s commentary on the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah Siman 89) that a different practice developed around hard cheeses (defined as those that have aged at least six months). These cheeses, due to their sharpness and fattiness, were believed to remain in the mouth longer and take a longer time to digest, and therefore are treated akin to meat: However long one waits between meat and dairy, that’s how long they wait after consuming hard cheese.

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