One in Sixty
If you ask someone what it means to keep kosher, one of the first things you’ll probably be told (after “no pork”) is that having meat and milk together is a big “no-no”. Now, let’s say you’re cooking a delicious pot of glatt-kosher lamb stew (maybe with some rosemary, red wine and garlic). And while the scrumptious dish is bubbling away you feel a little warm and decide to have a nice, refreshing cup of cool milk. Unfortunately, after pouring the cup of milk for yourself, you slip on an inconveniently placed banana peel and the cup flies from your hand, and — oh no! — it spills into your stew. Meat and milk, cooking together. Not kosher, right? Well, as with many things in Judaism, it’s not quite that simple.
Sometimes it’ll be kosher and sometimes it won’t. It depends on the proportions. There are only two possibilities:
- If there is at least 60 times more stew than milk, a law of nullification (bittul) kicks in and the entire mixture is perfectly kosher. The milk becomes “part” of the stew. The reasoning is that a ratio of 60:1 is enough to nullify any of the milk’s flavor. (There are exceptions. Some things need a greater ratio and some things can never be nullified, but 60:1 is more often than not sufficient.)
- But any more milk than that and your mouth-watering lamb stew has just been given a one-way ticket to the garbage.
Let’s imagine you find yourself in situation #1 above. The amount of milk which was mixed into the stew was negligible and your dinner is considered halachically up to code. No doubt many people would breathe a sigh of relief and start to dig in. But you can’t bear the thought of eating meat and milk together, and you’d prefer to throw the stew out. Even though technically you could eat the stew, at the end of the day there’s really milk in there. Is this laudable? Well, it’s not quite that simple.
You see, the Torah does not allow a person to waste things for no good reason, and this includes food. Does being extra careful warrant throwing out food that is perfectly kosher? Many of our most learned scholars have addressed themselves to this question. One of them, Rabbi Menachem Eichenstein (in his book Torat Ha’Asham), writes that “if someone wants to be stringent and consider [the food] forbidden … for example in the case of 60:1 nullification … this is comparable to heresy!” These are strong words, but the point is straightforward. If G-d says the food is okay to eat, refusing to eat it because you are “holier than G-d” is tantamount to not believing in G-d! Similarly, there are those people who, even when they are ill to the extent that the Torah exempts them from fasting on Yom Kippur, insist on fasting. They are mistaken. The same G-d who invented the idea of fasting on Yom Kippur stipulated that in certain circumstances you may not fast.
One of the great Chassidic masters, who lived around 200 years ago, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Spira (Bnei Yisasschar, Adar 2, Drush 7) addresses a similar case: when a piece of pork (less than 1/60) falls into the a kosher dish. His opinion is based on Kabbala, but perhaps we can try to understand some of what he says. According to Kabbala, items in the world contain within them certain spiritual “sparks” of holiness. Certain of these “sparks” can be elevated to higher levels by using a certain item in a certain way at a certain time and in a certain place. This is what we call a mitzvah. Another idea is that some of these sparks can be elevated from their position in a plant or animal life-form to a new position in a human-being. This is what can happen when a person eats. Certain food is kosher and the sparks contained within it can be elevated, whereas other food is non-kosher and its sparks cannot generally be elevated. Rabbi Spira explains that in our case, when a piece of pork falls into a kosher pot of food, we have a unique situation. This is in fact a rare opportunity to take those sparks which are contained in a pig and elevate them. There is actually a special mitzvah to eat such food!