Times change and practices evolve but texts last forever. What follows are some random tidbits from the commentaries surrounding the sections of Shulchan Arukh about Meat & Milk and Mixtures (of permitted and forbidden foods). These are items that I find interesting for a variety of reasons.
- Three second rule — When food falls on the floor, many people observe a variation of the three second rule: if you pick it up quickly, we assume you may eat it because it did not get dirty. This is only convincing if you want it to be. More plausible, though, is the rule that it takes a few seconds for a hot forbidden food to affect a hot permitted food on which it falls. If you pick it up quickly, the bottom item remains permitted (Pischei Teshuvah 105:8).
- Sharing By Default — Personally, I object to other people, even friends, grabbing food off my plate. Evidently, this was not a universal sentiment. The Taz (88:3) states that sharing food on friends’ plates is common practice.
- Plates and Placemats — The Shulchan Arukh (89:4) forbids eating meat on a placemat on which one ate dairy. The Radbaz (Responsa 2:721), cited in Pischei Teshuvah (89:8), points out that eating patterns have since changed. In the time during which the authorities established this ruling, people ate food directly off placemats. Nowadays, the Radbaz wrote in sixteenth century Egypt, people eat on plates so we need only clean off the crumbs and turn the placemate over (as a stringency).
- Explain Extremes — In extenuating circumstances, the Shulchan Arukh (92:7) permits serving a meat dish cooked in a pot on which a drop of milk has fallen, provided there is more meat than sixty times the drop of milk (in normal circumstances, the rule is more complicated). The Taz (92:22) quotes Mahari Mintz (Responsa 15) as stating that a rabbi must explain to the congregant why he is ruling unusually leniently, so that people don’t get confused over his apparently conflicting rulings.
- Math Made Easy — Can a pot be constructed so that its contents are sixty times the volume of the pot’s walls? The Shakh (93:1) says that it can and the Pischei Teshuvah (93:1) quotes a Mirkeves Ha-Mishneh which claims to prove that such a pot exists through logic and something called Algebra.
- Rational Judaism — Must all customs make sense? According to the Rema, not necessarily. In describing the status of the lid of a pot in which a forbidden food has been cooked, the Rema quotes a particularly stringent opinion. In a memorable statement he declares that he follows this view because it his custom even though it is a stringency with no reason: “וכן אני נוהג מפני המנהג והוא חומרא בלא טעם.” Sometimes custom trumps logic.
- Where Do You Throw It? — And finally, what do you do with food that you not only may not eat but also from which you may not derive any benefit at all? The Taz (94:4) quotes earlier authorities who say that you must throw it in the outhouse. I find this particularly relevant regarding discussion of how to dispose of chametz on Passover eve when burning is not an option.