Yalta said to Rav Nachman, “For anything the Merciful One prohibited to us, [God] permitted something similar: [God] prohibited blood but permitted [eating] liver; not a menstruant, but the blood of purity; not fat of a domesticated animal, but fat of an undomesticated animal; not pork but the brain of a shibuta fish; not giruta [a non-kosher fish], but tongue of a fish; not the wife of another man, but a divorcee during [her previous] husband’s lifetime; not one’s brother’s wife, but levirate marriage; not a gentile woman, but a beautiful [captive of war] woman. I wish to eat meat [cooked] in milk.” Rav Nachman told [his] cooks, “Roast udders on a spit for her.” But didn’t we learn [in the mishnah] “The udder must be cut open”? That is only with regard to [cooking in] a pot [not roasting]. Isn’t it taught [in a previously cited baraita]: [An udder] cooked [in its milk is permitted]—after the fact, but not from the start? The same is true even from the start because [the tanna of the baraita] uses this language because he wants to teach in the latter clause: “A stomach cooked with milk” is prohibited. There, it may not [be eaten] even after the fact. [The tanna] taught the first clause [this way], as well: [An udder] cooked [in its milk is permitted].
The story above concerns a debate about an act done intentionally that might be interpreted to violate the separation of meat and dairy foods, which is a pillar of kashrut. According to halakhah, there are acts that are forbidden whether done intentionally or inadvertently. Other acts are impermissible from the start (i.e., if performed intentionally) but after the fact (if done inadvertently) they are permissible. For example: if parve food, such as rice or lentils, is cooked in a clean meat pot, may it be served with dairy food? Joseph Karo (16th century), author of the Shulchan Arukh, wrote that it may, but only if the mistake were discovered after the fact. However, Karo himself later cited Rabbeinu Yerucham (14th century) who permitted parve food intentionally cooked (“from the start”) in a meat pot to be served with a dairy meal. Rav Nachman contrives a way to fulfill the wish of his wife Yalta to taste meat and milk together.
Yalta is the wife of Rav Nachman, the wealthy and powerful exilarch of the Jewish community in Babylonia. Yalta is mentioned several times in the Babylonian Talmud. She is consistently presented as clever, educated, and the recipient of her husband’s efforts to please her. This story, more than any other, brings all these together.
Yalta makes a fascinating argument concerning God’s prohibitions and then marshals a clever array of facts to back it up. She claims: for everything God forbids, there is something similar permitted as compensation. She supplies eight examples: four concern food, one concerns sexual intimacy, and three concern sexual partners. In that order (which is not identical with the order presented in the Gemara): Torah forbids the consumption of blood (Lev. 17:13-14) but permits liver, which retains the taste of blood. Fat of domesticated animals is impermissible (Lev. 7:23), but the fat of undomesticated animals is not proscribed. Pork is forbidden (Lev. 11:3) but the brain of a shibuta fish, which tastes like pork, is permitted. Torah’s standards for fish (fins and scales) rules out the giruta, but the tongues of permitted fish taste much the same. Sexual intercourse with a niddah (menstruant) is forbidden (Lev. 18:19, 20:18) but there are times when blood flow (“blood of purity”) does not make sexual intimacy impermissible. Concerning sexual partners, sexual intercourse with a married woman is adultery (Ex. 20:13, Dt. 5:17) but marriage to a divorcee, even while her previous husband is alive, is permitted (presumably this carries a hint of the thrill of adultery). A man may not have sex with his brother’s wife (Lev. 18:16), yet the law of levirate marriage (Dt. 25:5-10) can sometimes require a man to marry his brother’s widow. Marriage to a non-Jew is forbidden (Dt. 7:3), yet is effectively permitted when the woman is taken captive in war (Dt. 21:10-14). Having asserted that there is always an “exception to the rule,” if one is clever enougsh to recognize it, Yalta proclaims her desire to taste milk and meat together. Rav Nachman, who wishes to please her, orders his cooks to roast an udder, presumably because the udder retains some of the milk it produced.
The Gemara now discusses whether Rav Nachman’s instructions to his cooks—intentionally planning to combine milk and meat from the start—delegitimizes the outcome. The mishnah preceding the story said: “The udder must be cut open and emptied of its milk. If he did not cut it open, he has not transgressed. The heart must be cut open and emptied of its blood. If he did not cut it open, he has not transgressed.” It seems clear enough that only milk expressed from a living animal counts as milk that may not be combined with meat. However, in the Gemara that follows, the Rabbis compare the case of the udder and the heart, claiming that the heart must be cut open even after cooking to remove the blood because blood may not be eaten under all circumstances, unlike milk which is permissible to consume. Prior to our story, the Rabbis also contrasted the case of the udder with that of the stomach of a nursing calf. While the latter is always forbidden—even after the fact—the udder is permissible before or after the fact. Thus, Rav Nachman’s stratagem to combine the udder (flesh) with its milk for Yalta is permissible.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- In Yalta’s novel view, God balances prohibitions with corresponding permissions. What insights can you derive from this? Does it have implications for how authorities or parents make rules?
- Having argued that God is as much about permission and prohibition, Yalta trusts Rav Nachman to find a way for her to taste milk and meat together. It would have been easier for him to say, “Sorry, not allowed.” Instead, he figured out a way to provide what she wanted. How is this a model for marital (and other) relationships?
- Many people find fulfillment in upholding religious strictures. Others feel suffocated by them. Does this story speak to those in the latter group? If so, how?