Are we allowed to drink milk fortified with Omega 3? What about butter-fried fish? Is there really danger in cooking fish with dairy, or is that just an old wive's tale?
by Rebbetzin Chana Bracha Siegelbaum
The Halachic Aspects of Mixing Dairy and Fish
Since taking on the Torah lifestyle, we were accustomed not to eat fish cooked with dairy. We were told that according to halachic sources eating fish cooked with dairy is dangerous. Once living out of town in the US, we received a dairy tuna quiche as mishloah manot (Purim gift) I recall being surprised that orthodox Jews would cook dairy and fish together. I later learned that mainly Sephardic and Chassidic Jews are strict about this, whereas most Ashkenazi halachic authorities are not.
Many manufacturers mix milk and fish, such as fresh milk with fish-derived Omega 3 and tuna with milk powder.
The Talmud does not mention any prohibition regarding eating fish with dairy. The Rambam other Rishonim and Shulchan Aruch specifically state that it is permitted. However, Rabbi Yosef Karo's Beit Yosef commentary mentions: “[fish] should not be eaten with milk because of danger as explained in Orach Chayim 173.”
Many halachic authorities hold that this comment is a copyist's error because there is no well known source against mixing milk and fish and it is not the way of Rabbi Yosef Karo to cite any halacha, minhag or health consideration without presenting its sources. Most peculiar, the reference he made to Orach Chayim 173 does not mention eating fish with dairy, neither is there any discussion on this topic any other place in the Beit Yosef. Orach Chayim 173, following the Tur, discusses eating fish with meat. Therefore, many great Rabbis concluded that the only acceptable explanation of the Beit Yosef comment is that a scribal error (ta`ut sofer) entered the text replacing the word `meat' with `milk', reading `although it is permitted to eat fish with milk, there is a problem eating fish with meat, as already pointed out in Orah Hayim 173'. This amended text would then be congruent with his comment in Orach Chayim.
Those who are Strict not to combine Fish with Dairy allow Fish with Butter
The later Rabbis who follow the un-amended text of Beit Yosef, were concerned not to eat fish with milk or cheese, however most of these halachic authorities permitted fish with butter. They based their position on the medical opinion of their times, quoting the halachic dictum: ‘concern of danger is more serious than concern for ritual prohibition’. Although the Torah's dietary laws with their rabbinic legislation are not based on health considerations, something found dangerous or unhealthy may enter halacha through the channel of `Health and Safety', which is a Torah imperative totally independent of dietary laws. Some Rabbis suggest that we follow current medical opinion concerning this question, since it is a medical - not a halachic - issue. The accepted practice is that only those communities who traditionally refrain from eating fish and milk together should follow their tradition , but it is not a custom that others should adopt.
Rabenu Bahaya’s Warning Against Combining Fish with Dairy
There is one source prior to the Beit Yosef who does mention a health problem associated with eating fish and cheese, Rabenu Bahya in his Torah commentary on the verse prohibiting meat with milk. Some believe that this was the Beit Yosef’s source, although he omitted to cite it. Rabenu Bahya’s comment quoted below, was totally based on contemporary medical opinion.
According to the simple meaning the reason for this mitzvah [the prohibition to mix milk and meat] is that it blocks the heart, for the milk is produced from the blood and the nature of the blood is bad and causes cruelty, and one of the reasons for the prohibition is that it [the milk] doesn’t break down in the body like other food, and therefore it’s bad nature remains within it without change [even after it has been eaten]. Although it now changed from blood to milk and broke down enough to become transformed to something else, still when it becomes combined with meat it returns to its original natural state and quality of blood. Eating milk mixed with meat blocks up the heart and produces spiritual un-refinement, and negative disposition in the soul. Likewise is the opinion of the healers regarding cooking fish and cheese together that it produces negative disposition and zara’at.
The Ben Ish Chai follows Rabenu Bahaya
The Ben Ish Chai went in the footsteps of Rabenu Bahya, and prohibited fish cooked with cheese or milk because of the danger of sickness. He even went as far as to say that in-spite of those who are unconcerned about the danger of fish fried in butter, “whoever wants to save their soul should be careful and distance himself from this, for even Rav Pachad Yitzchak who was a great healer, and who thought there was no damage [eating fish fried in butter] nevertheless refrained from it. Here in our city of Bagdad, no-one fries fish in butter, as we are concerned about the health hazard mentioned.”
Sephardic Wisdom on Eating Habits
Although there is no Talmudic or Shulchan Aruch source forbidding fish with dairy, and many Rabbinical authorities hold that refraining from this mixture is based on a scribal error in the Beit Yosef commentary, and an out-of-date medical opinion; I still believe that whether or not it is a scribal error, it is Divine providence that this matter is written in the Beit Yosef. Even if certain present-day medical experts do not recognize any special problem with the fish-dairy combination, I still believe that the Sephardic customs are in tune with a deeper truth than the rational scientific perspective. When it comes to customs related to eating, they have a higher awareness and have led much healthier life-styles than the typical Ashkenazi Jew.
Other Traditions Refraining from Combining Fish and Dairy
It is interesting to note that the tradition of Chinese medicine is opposed to any protein combination including that of fish and dairy. My friend, acclaimed nutritionist Shoshanna Harari holds that fish digests best when eaten with salads and vegetables especially tomatoes and greens. Cheese is best digested separately, but goes well with vegetables too and even with bread. She notes that the ancient Italians also warned against eating fish with cheese. Many Italians still keep this custom today.
I would not be so quick to dismiss the commentary of the rishon Rabenu Bahya, who compares fish to meat. Fish is definitely an animal protein and its flesh does digest in the body similar to animal flesh, albeit slightly faster. Rabenu Bahya’s comment regarding fish and milk, therefore, makes sense. Just like the energies of meat and milk are opposed and may not be combined, as the meat draws out the negative quality of the milk, the same applies to fish and milk to a lesser degree. A careful reading of Rabenu Baya’s commentary reveals that the main problem is cooking fish with dairy like in tuna quiche, but not necessarily eating them together cold and uncooked like in bagels with lox and cream cheese.