When I was a young Yeshiva student and beginning to learn Torah earnestly, a friend of mine approached me and showed me something devastating in a sefer. The book was quoting the words of the Sifsei Kohen (or “The Shach”, 1621-1662) in Yoreh Deah (91) that states “one must wait 6 hours after eating meat and before having dairy…and whoever possesses the spirit of the Torah will wait six hours!”
There it was! It was now official. The Yekkes are waiting only 3 hours after eating meat and thus they do not possess the spirit of the Torah. My mind was racing and I was abashed. We were the minority community. Without the big Yeshivas and Chasidic Rebbes and all the Jewish fanfare. We sang songs in shul that are not JEwish sounding, and alas, we have been jinxing ourselves with a rejected tradition in separation of meat and dairy.
Since then I was told by a musmach of the Kehilla, that indeed Rav Schwab ZT’L upon ordainig the young Rabbis in our Beis Hamidrash would advise them to undertake the 6 hour restriction, since one who carries the title Rabbi should profess to have the “spirit of the Torah” in the words of the Shach. I understood from this quote that Rav Schwab understood the words of the Shach as a directive and not as an indicator. The Shach was saying that a serious Torah adherent will wait six hours, and not less.
This reading was slightly easier on the ears, but it still put pressure on me to change minhag if I wanted to be included among the serious scholars.
Years later, when learning in Israel, I was told that Rav Elazar Shach ZTL ( d. 2002, Dean of Ponevez Yeshiva) when asked by Yekkesh students if to change the custom and wait six hours as the Shach suggests answered in the negative. He was confident in the veracity of our minhag.
Fast Forward 15 years: As I am studying Yoreh Deah towards my own ordination and studying this diligently I see the words of the Shach in a whole new light, and it is apparent to me that he would not be dissatisfied with our minhag. And here’s why:
There are two opinions metioned in the Shulchan Aruch as to how long one must wait between meat and dairy.
1) The Mechaber (R. Yosef Cairo d. 1575) holds like Maimonedes that six hours is the necessary wait.
2) The Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles d. 1573) only requires one hour separation and cites it as the minhag of his time.
The commentators (HaGra et al.) source the minhag of the Rema as coming from the Zohar. The Zohar, a kabbalistic work that although credited to the Rabbis of the 3rd century had only emerged in 12th century Spain, cites the rule of meat and milk as follows:
“…should not eat meat and milk in one meal in one hour.”
The commentators infer from the Zohar, that while he puts forth a lenient opinion (1 hour in place of RMBMs 6 hours) his ruling has some stringency too. Firstly, there is no differentiation made between if one has eaten milk and is waiting for meat or vice versa. Thus, the hour would be required after milk, whereas the general custom of the Mechaber only requires a waiting period after meat.
The other stringency of this opinion is in the wording of the Zohar, “in one hour in one meal.” Which can be read to mean, that even if an hour has passed between the foods, the meat item and the milk item cannot be consumed in the same meal.
Getting back to minhag Ashkenaz, the dynamic at play between the opinion of Mechaber and Rema is an historical phenomenon. The Rambam ruled that six hours must pass. This was a generally accepted custom and it is consistent with the words of the Talmud. And then came the Zohar. The work was immediately recognized as an ingenious work of Kabalah and spread throughout Europe. With time it gained popularity outside of the mystics and was regarded as an Halakhic source to an extent. By the sixteenth century it had begun to find expression in the works of the piyutim. It was all the rage.
Whether or not it is to be considered in halakha might be debated, but if it were to replace a long standing custom- affecting daily life- with a blatant leniency, this could raise eyebrows. And so the Shach warned that although this is a valid opinion, the community should not rush to abolish the time honored practice of six hour separation, the opinion of Rambam, for a newly discovered manuscript. One who has the “spirit of the Torah”, would not change a halakhic legacy with the appearance of a mystical manuscript. Never, though, would the Shach question the longstanding practice of a community rooted in the words of early decisors. [The three hour custom is not alluded to on the page of the gloss, but has a source in the Rabenu Yerucham, and an alternative explanation in the later commentaries for discussion separately. MM]
Support for this theory is found in the general tone of the Shach and Taz (R. Dovid Segal d. 1667) in the discussion there, and although they discourage waiting anything under six-hours, that may be due to the veracity of Rambam’s opinion. Nevertheless, their main quam might have been specifically with the wanton move from six to one by the masses. Though the Rema vindicates the one hour approach, it might have already been too widespread in his time and not worth condemning. Or he might have seen the approach as halakhically equal to the Rambam, as it has precedent in Rishonim mentioned in the notes to the Rema. A mystic would interject at this point the connections between Rabi Shimeon Bar Yochai and the Rema, who passed away on Lag BeOmer. I hold my peace.)