Should I correct my elderly mother's eating habits?

January 27, 2011

Question: I often eat with my mother, who is in her late 80s, but she sometimes mixes up the meat and milk crockery. If her home is no longer reliably kosher, should I do something, or out of respect for a parent, say nothing?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

I do not think that you can just pretend that there is no problem. Kashrut is important regardless of one’s age and if you are aware of the fact that your mother’s kashrut might be compromised, you are duty bound to try to find a remedy.

I also do not think there is anything disrespectful in pointing this out to her. You are not suggesting that she is deliberately mixing up her crockery, only that she is doing it inadvertently and that you want to help her.

Children with ageing parents frequently find themselves in the position of having to assume a parental role regarding a whole range of issues such as accommodation, diet, healthcare and finances. While this role reversal can be very painful for both parent and child, it is also necessary. In a certain sense, it reflects the highest ideal of kibud av va-em, honouring one’s parents.

The challenge is how you navigate between helping your mother to continue to observe kashrut while enabling her to maintain her dignity and self-respect at the same time. This will not be easy and it depends in equal measure on your mother’s personality and your own.

You might first try by colour-coding the milk and meat dishes with large bright labels so that it is easier for your mother to remember where they go.

If she has a carer, you might be able to instruct the carer to keep an eye on the kitchen.

Also bear in mind that if mistakes are caught early, they can often be remedied before they render an entire kitchen unkosher. If, for example, one accidentally puts a milk ladle into a meat pot, they can both be koshered before undermining the kashrut of the entire kitchen. A good rule of thumb is to always immediately isolate the crockery in question and to ask a rabbi what to do before making any assumptions.

It might be that despite your genuine best efforts, your mother will not be able to maintain a kosher kitchen. If that is the case, then it might be best to say nothing more of the matter as it will serve no practical purpose other than to upset her.

In this case you must be careful when eating at her home. You would have to avoid hot dishes, although you could eat cold foods. At least this way you would preserve both your mother’s self-respect and your commitment to kashrut.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Your question assumes that there is a clash of principles — between keeping kosher and honouring parents, with the implication that by taking steps to remedy one, you would be contravening the other.

That is not necessarily true as there may be ways of doing it diplomatically without causing offence. Moreover, the obligation not to cause embarrassment holds true for all individuals, so the issue could apply to many other people you know.

Another concern must be not just your ability to keep kosher when eating at her house, but also the fact that she takes kashrut seriously and therefore would not want to inadvertently break the rules she thinks she is keeping.

As for solutions, I see no reason why you cannot gently point out a mistake when you see it. You can then go on to say that it is so easy to mix up items and suggest simpler ways of remembering which crockery is which, such as by colour-coding or by re-arranging the places in which they are stored.

Another possibility is to suggest that she sticks to milk products only, so as to save the problem of distinguishing between different sets.

In all these instances, though, it is the tone of voice you use that is crucial — the more kind and caring, the less she will take umbrage or see it as criticism.

If she refuses to make any changes, or they simply do not work, then you are faced with four options: not to eat at her house: take her out for meals: bring your own food and crockery: decide that the value of eating together as before is more important than occasionally eating something that may not be fully kosher.

A factor to bear in mind is that, assuming her crockery has been washed and cleaned, it is unlikely that there will be traces of the previous meal on it and so the possibility of mixing meat and milk is minimal in practice.

As the Bible itself specifically prohibits only boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, and the ban against mixing milk and meat products (and also crockery) is a rabbinic extension, you might feel that potentially breaking one of the “fences round the Torah” may be something you are not normally keen to do but could be justified in this instance because of family considerations.

Last updated: 12:23pm, January 27 2011