Timing it Right: The Halachot of Waiting Between Meals

“You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Shemot 23:19).

The Talmud (Chullin 115b) explains the Biblical verse above as prohibiting the consumption of a domesticated animal (cattle, sheep or goat) that is cooked in milk. Poultry or venison cooked in milk or beef eaten with but not cooked in milk (e.g., a sandwich of cold cuts and cheese as opposed to a cheeseburger) is rabbinically prohibited.

In order to assure further separation between meat and milk, the rabbis of the Talmud added another safeguard–waiting after eating meat before eating dairy.

Why did the Talmudic rabbis determine that we must wait?

Rambam explains that meat tends to get stuck in one’s teeth, and if one consumes dairy shortly after eating meat, the two may mix in his mouth (Hilchot Ma’achalot Asurot 9:28). Rashi maintains that since meat leaves fatty residue and an aftertaste, time is needed to allow them to dissipate (Chullin 105a).

While these reasons do not apply to poultry, waiting was mandated on all types of meat, be it from fowl, livestock or wild beasts.

How long must one wait after eating meat before eating dairy?

The Talmud relates that the great sage Mar Ukva contrasted his approach to waiting after eating meat with that of his father: “If Father would eat meat now, he would not eat cheese until the next day at this time. I, though, will not eat [cheese] at this meal, but I will do so at the next meal” (Chullin 105a). Mar Ukva’s father was super-stringent and went beyond the requirements, whereas Mar Ukva went according to the letter of the law.

Mar Ukva’s practice of “waiting until the next meal” is seen by halachic sources as being the basis for the requirement to wait after eating meat before eating dairy. Posekim, however, do not agree on how long Mar Ukva waited. Some opine that Mar Ukva simply provided us with a general rule: Do not combine dairy and meat at the same meal; and, if you eat a meat meal, you cannot have dairy until the meat meal has been completed. Any further waiting is optional. Others maintain that Mar Ukva advocated waiting a specific duration of time, and that this is what halachah requires.

The Shulchan Aruch presents various approaches. In Yoreh Deah 89:1, Rabbi Yosef Karo—whose authority is binding on most Sephardic Jews–states in no uncertain terms that one must wait six hours after consuming meat before eating dairy. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Rema—whom Ashkenazic Jews follow—who posits that the rule is to not consume meat and dairy in the same meal. While Rema maintains that, according to the letter of the law, one may eat a meat meal, recite Birkat Hamazon and then immediately begin a dairy meal, he asserts that Ashkenazic Jewry has accepted the custom of waiting between meals, and this is a practice that is binding on all Ashkenazim.

Rema mentions that though the custom in his community (Krakow) was to wait an hour between meals, one should wait six hours. Nowadays, most Jews wait six hours, though Dutch Jews wait one hour (as per the practice in Krakow), and German Jews wait three hours.

(It should be noted that instead of stating that one must wait six hours between eating meat and dairy, Rambam [Hilchot Ma’achot Asurot 9:28] states that one must wait “about six hours.” Rambam’s intent is a point of dispute among halachic authorities. Some interpret this to allow for a five-and-a-half-hour period.)

Why are there such diverse views on waiting?

It all goes back to Mar Ukva’s statement about waiting “until the next meal.” Some interpret the “next meal” to mean six hours, the average amount of time from lunch to dinner or from a late breakfast—“brunch”—to dinner. (In Talmudic days, most people ate only two meals: “brunch” and dinner.) Others believe Mar Ukva meant that one should wait an hour, the amount of time it takes for digestion to begin (Chochmat Adam 40:13). Those who wait three hours may understand Mar Ukva to be referring to the interval between breakfast and lunch, rather than that between lunch and dinner.

Sephardic Jews must wait six hours as a matter of halachah; there is no room for divergent customs or leniencies (unless there is a medical need, of course). Ashkenazim, however, wait as a matter of accepted custom, roughly similar to the Ashkenazic custom to refrain from eating kitniyot on Pesach.

For Ashkenazim, it is always necessary, however, to recite the required berachot upon completing a meat meal before eating dairy, regardless of the time that has elapsed. The berachot serve to separate the meals.

If—after waiting the requisite period of time—one finds meat stuck between his teeth, he must cleanse his teeth and rinse his mouth. There is no need to wait any longer. (There is also a machloket regarding the one-hour period. Some posekim rule that a person who always waits one hour needs to clean his mouth before eating dairy, whereas others disagree.)

Do children have to wait between meat and dairy meals?

Although children who do not yet have a basic understanding of a given halachic principle are not bound to observe it, it is prohibited for an adult to directly cause a child to violate halachah. Therefore, a parent is not allowed to feed his child—or even an infant–meat and dairy together. (The general rule is that an adult may not make a child transgress a Biblical prohibition. Some halachic authorities make exceptions for rabbinic prohibitions in certain cases. The overall topic is very complex and is beyond the scope of this article.)

Very young children who do not understand the basic principle of not mixing meat and dairy do not need to wait. Once a child has a minimal understanding of the prohibition, he should wait an hour after eating meat before eating dairy. As a child grows older, he should be encouraged to wait longer (unless he is from a Dutch family). The exact amount of time to wait depends on the child’s maturity and ability to wait; other factors may also be considerations. (For example, if a child’s younger siblings are allowed to wait less time, and this may cause him to view the halachah negatively, this must be factored into the decision.) Consult a competent rabbinic authority for guidance. 

Must one wait after a dairy meal before eating meat?

After eating dairy, one can eat meat so long as he does the following: 1. separates the meals by reciting the necessary berachot 2. cleanses his mouth 3. rinses his mouth 4. washes his hands. Steps 2-4 may be done in any order, but the berachot should be recited right after the dairy meal is over. One must wash his hands and clean his mouth even if he feels that they are clean. An exception for washing one’s hands is made for one who used utensils and had absolutely no physical contact with the food. (One may clean his mouth by eating or drinking something pareve. Any solid pareve food other than dates, raw flour and greens can be used.)

If the meal to follow consists of poultry and not beef, there is no need for one to cleanse his mouth or wash his hands. (This is because mixing poultry with dairy is only rabbinically prohibited.)

Although there is no halachic requirement to wait after eating dairy before eating meat, some wait an hour or half an hour, based on a statement found in the Zohar. (Zohar’s exact wording can be found in the commentary of the Vilna Gaon on Yoreh Deah 89:1.) 

Isn’t the halachah different after eating hard cheese?

Rema posits that if one wants to eat meat after eating hard cheese, he should wait for the amount of time that he waits after eating meat before eating dairy. Commentators note that Rema is only referring to hard, aged cheese, or pungent cheese, since such cheese adheres to the mouth or leaves an aftertaste, somewhat similar to meat.

What qualifies as hard, aged cheese? According to halachah, this is cheese that is aged for six months or so. The OU’s posekim have ruled that “six-month cheese” refers to cheese that must be aged for six months (approximately) in order to achieve the specific variety at hand; cheese that was not aged at the factory but which was then left on a refrigerator shelf for six months does not necessitate waiting, if the cheese’s taste and texture are the same as they were prior to being incidentally aged in the refrigerator.

Some of the cheeses that require waiting include Parmesan (usually aged for ten months) and Romano (aged for close to six months), as well as Limburger and Roquefort (both of which are quite pungent). Please consult the OU Cheese List (https://oukosher.org/blog/consumer-kosher/aged-cheese-list/) for a comprehensive treatment of this topic.

Can meat and dairy be eaten at the same table?

Meat and dairy may not be simultaneously present on the same table. This applies, though, only to a table upon which one eats; serving trays or serving tables are not subject to this rule (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 88:1) If this is the case, how can one eat dairy or meat at a public table or bench (e.g., at a public park) when someone at the other end of the table may possibly be eating something that would constitute mixing dairy and meat?

The ban on having meat and dairy at the same table only pertains when the individuals eating are friendly with one another, as there is a concern that they may share their meals and inadvertently end up eating meat and dairy together. If they are strangers, or if they eat on place mats or place an object on the table to remind them that they should not share meals, they may eat at the same table. So, too, if a religious Jew is eating dairy at a table where another individual is eating non-kosher meat, there is no need for a place mat or any other “reminder,” as there is no concern that the former will eat the non-kosher meat.

In all cases—when transitioning from meat to dairy and from dairy to meat (as well as from dairy to poultry)—the table must be fully cleaned. The tablecloth and all dishes and cutlery must also be changed, of course. Bread used with a meat meal may not be used with a dairy meal and vice versa. (Thus, leftover challah that was used at a meat meal may not be used to make [dairy] French toast.)

Rabbi Gordimer is a rabbinic coordinator in the OU Kashrut Department. He specializes in the dairy industry, where he manages the kosher certification programs for over 200 plants.

This article was featured in the Fall 2006 issue of Jewish Action.