I understand that the Torah tells us that you are not supposed to eat meat and dairy together, but why can’t I have a dairy dessert after I already finished eating my steak? What’s up with the six-hour buffer zone, and why is there no six-hour break between dairy and meat?

Meat and Dairy

In a somewhat cryptic discussion on this topic, the Talmud relates that the Babylonian sage Mar Ukva stated, “I am like vinegar, the son of wine. My father, if he would eat meat today, would wait until tomorrow to eat cheese. I, however, will not eat them during the same meal, but at another meal I will eat cheese.”1

While this statement makes it clear that one can’t eat meat and dairy at the same meal,2 the Talmud itself does not actually explain the reason why we need to wait six hours.3 However, the commentaries offer a number of reasons:

  1. Maimonides explains that we are concerned that meat may get stuck between the teeth.4 However, after six hours, it would deteriorate to the degree that it would not be considered meat.
  2. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, explains5 that due to the fatty nature of meat, the meaty taste can remain in a person’s mouth for an extended period of time. If a person would eat dairy during this time, he would have the combined flavor of milk and meat in his mouth, which is prohibited.6
  3. Some explain that it takes up to six hours to fully digest meat.7

Dairy and Meat

So why don’t we wait an equally long time after eating dairy products before eating meat? If we look at the reasons above, it makes sense: the taste of dairy is not as strong, and pieces of dairy food do not generally get stuck in one’s mouth. According to the Talmud,8 it’s sufficient if one eats or drinks something else in order to cleanse the mouth of any residual dairy foods before eating meat.

However, according to the Zohar, one should be careful to refrain from eating milk and meat not only in the same meal, and but also in the same hour.9 For this reason, it is the Chabad custom to refrain from eating meat for a full hour after eating dairy; other communities have a custom of waiting a half hour before eating meat.

This is true for the majority of dairy products. When it comes to eating hard cheeses, or cheeses with a very strong taste (e.g., parmesan and Swiss cheese), the custom is to wait six hours before eating meat.10