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Washing One's Hands in Between Fish and Meat; Drinking Water Immediately After Eating Fish

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Today's Halacha...

Halacha forbids partaking of meat and fish together, in light of the Talmud's warning that doing so poses a health risk. The question arises, what procedure is required in between the consumption of fish and meat? On Shabbat, for example, it is customary to begin the meal with fish. (The Rabbis teach that eating fish on Shabbat can save a person from suffering in Gehinam.) Of course, after the fish is eaten the utensils are removed and different utensils are used for the meat. But are there any other procedures that one must follow after eating fish before he may partake of meat?

This issue is subject to a debate between the Shulhan Aruch (Yore De'a 116:3) and the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, Poland, 1520-1572). According to the Rama, one requires only "Kinu'ah" – "cleaning" his mouth of fish residue by eating some bread or other solid food before eating meat. The Shulhan Aruch, however, requires also that one wash his hands in between fish and meat, given the concern that one's hands may have come in contact with the fish. This washing does not require a utensil; since it serves merely to eliminate fish residue from one's hands, it suffices simply to wash one's hands under running water. Additionally, the Shulhan Aruch requires drinking something in between fish and meat.

The Mishna Berura (commentary by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, 1839-1933) observes that the prevalent custom is to be lenient and not require hand washing in between fish and meat. It must be noted, however, that his observation applies only to Ashkenazic communities. Among the Sepharadim, many authorities indeed followed the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch and required washing one's hands. These authorities include the Hida (Rav Haim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1806), in his work Shiyureh Beracha (116:8), as well as the Kaf Ha'haim (work by Rav Yaakov Haim Sofer, 1870-1939) and Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909). Therefore, it is proper for Sepharadim to make a point of washing their hands – in addition to eating and drinking – in between fish and meat.

The Gemara in Masechet Mo'ed Katan (11) presents a number of other rules regarding the consumption of fish. It establishes that it is more healthful to eat old fish rather than fresh fish, and that it is harmful to drink water immediately after eating fish. Tosafot (commentaries to the Talmud by Medieval French and German scholars) comment that the first of these guidelines – that old fish is preferable to fresh fish – applied only in Talmudic times. As we know from our own experience, fish spoils very easily, and thus in our times fresh fish is far more healthful than old fish. Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761-1837) notes that the second provision, warning against drinking water immediately after eating fish, indeed applies even today. Accordingly, a number of authorities, including the Kaf Ha'haim and the Aruch Ha'shulhan (work by Rav Yehiel Epstein, Byelorussia, 1829-1908), rule that one should not drink water immediately after eating fish.

Summary: In between eating fish and meat, one must eat a piece of bread or other solid food to clean his mouth. Sepharadim must also drink something and wash their hands. One should preferably avoid drinking water immediately after eating fish.