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Separate Spices for Meat and Dairy

Shevat 5781 | January 2022

Different customs in maintaining halakhic standards in the kitchen can emerge from time to time; some relate to differences in halakhic rulings, and others might be personal stringency, or convenience, or leniency. In this context we will address the question of cooking spices. Some people use a different set of spices for meat and dairy, while others use only one set of spices. What is the basis for these customs? Are they a matter of convenience, halakhic observance, or stringency?

The discussion on this topic begins with a halakha iterated by the Rosh (cited in Tur, Yoreh De’ah 92), who states that if one cooks milk in a pan under a pot of meat, the steam from the milk will rise and be absorbed by the meat pot, rendering the meat not kosher for consumption. The Rema follows this ruling (Yoreh De’ah 92:8). This halakha relies on the assumption that the steam contains actual milk particles, which are absorbed into the pot, and blend with the meat stew. This is prohibited a priori (lechatchila), but post factum (b’dieved) there are various considerations that may enable a nullification of the prohibition so that the meat may be consumed. The Rema writes that the steam is prohibited only if it reaches the meat pot when it has reached a degree of heat “from which the hand recoils,” because only this degree of heat would penetrate the pot from the outside and affect the meat. However, the Darkei Teshuva (Yoreh De’ah 98:188) writes in the name of the Pri Megadim that if there is no pot, and the meat is exposed – it should be rinsed before it is eaten even if it hasn’t reached a temperature “from which the hand recoils,” since traces of milk will have stuck to the meat. The Darkei Teshuva states that the meat should also be prohibited post factum specifically in a situation of long steady cooking, indicating that if the cooking was only done for a short time – the steam would not affect the meat.

This discussion may be relevant to the matter of spices used for cooking. When spices are sprinkled into a boiling pot, a similar process takes place: the steam from the pot rises and may be absorbed by the spice jar and infuse them with particles of the dish (whether meat or dairy). We might assume that the steam is not a temperature “from which the hand recoils,” and that flavor is therefore not infused into the spices – but there is still reason for concern that the steam will permeate the spices, and later, when the spice is used in another dish – will reemerge.

According to this logic, it is certainly preferable to avoid sprinkling spices directly over a boiling pot, to prevent steam particles from permeating the spices. If spices are scooped with a spoon or poured onto a hand and from there transferred to the pot, there should be no halakhic reason to keep a separate set of meat and dairy spices.

Nonetheless, even if a spice was sprinkled directly over a boiling pot of meat, and the steam permeated the spice jar, and the spice was then used over a dairy dish (or vice versa) – the dairy dish is not prohibited for consumption. Since the amount of spice used in a given dish is small, the effect of the particles within the spice is negligible relative to the dish in its entirety – and is not a significant enough amount to affect the status of the food.

It is important to note that had the spices been halakhically prohibited altogether – they would not be considered negligible, since their flavor (which in this case is the flavor of a prohibition) has a substantial effect on the food. However, in this case, the droplets of steam are negligible to the spice itself and nullified in 60 parts; they are not nullified in relation to the food, but rather in relation to the spice.

Should existing spices that were sprinkled over boiling meat or dairy dishes be discarded for this reason?

I believe these may be kept, for several reasons:

  1. According to the Darkei Teshuva, there is a distinction between passing over the steam briefly and lingering for a long period of time; the former is unlikely to result in steam attaching itself to the spice, whereas the latter might.
  2. According to the Shulhan Arukh, “When a small amount of a prohibited food is absorbed by a kosher dish: if the dish is generally used for food that is plentiful, it may be used a priori (lechatchila), since the prohibition is negligible, and will not result in adding flavor” (Yoreh De’ah 99:7). The Taz limits the Shulhan Arukh’s ruling to a situation in which the prohibition “imparts a foul taste” (נותן טעם לפגם – noten ta’am li-fgam). I believe the particles of meat or dairy that attach themselves to the spices are nullified immediately; not only do they not improve the spice, they might actually have a negative effect on the flavor (see also Bah, Yoreh De’ah 103; Shakh ibid. 14 regarding a meat flavor that damages the flavor of honey, despite the positive effect of honey on meat).
  3. It is also possible that according to the Shulhan Arukh the steam is nullified because flavor is not an actual substance. In our case as well, according to most Rishonim (Rashi, Tosfot, Rashba) the steam may transfer flavor, but is not itself a substance, since the prohibition is not visible, and is no more than absorption of flavor in another substance.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

Graduates of the Kitvuni Fellowship and Matan’s Talmudic Institute