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On Milchig, Fleishig, and Pareve

The Yiddish words to describe the things we eat have a complicated history of their own

Avi Shafran
May 10, 2018

Not to, God forbid, mix meat and milk, but the holiday of Shavuot is on the horizon—the first of its two days is May 20—and an Israeli company that is developing a way to grow meat in a lab has received a $2.2 million seed investment in part from the venture capital arm of Tyson Foods.

The milchig—or “milky”—element in the above consists of the custom of eating delicacies like cheese blintzes (the latter word is Yiddish and derives from the Russian blinyets, or “little pancake”) or cheesecake on the holiday.

Various reasons are given for that custom, like the fact that the Torah, whose revelation at Sinai Shavuot commemorates, is compared to milk (as you no doubt recall from Song of Songs 4:11). And that part of said revelation consisted of the rules of kosher slaughter; since the revelation took place on the Sabbath, animals could not be kosher slaughtered and the meat of previously slaughtered animals could not be consumed. So milk-based meals were consumed at Sinai, and are part of our commemorations today as well.

The fleishig—or “meaty”—recent development involves meat that may not technically be meat, at least in the halachic sense. That would depend on whether, should the Jerusalem-based company Future Meat Technologies be successful in achieving tasty and affordable lab-grown meat, its production from mere cells of an animal renders it sufficiently removed from a mooing cow (or even, theoretically, an oinking pig) to make it neutrally kosher. (“Affordable” is coming within reach, at least the reach of some: The cost of producing lab-grown meat has plummeted from about $5,000 a pound to a mere $400 a pound.)

Milchig is obviously rooted in the Proto-Germanic meluks, the source of our English word “milk.” And fleishig, similarly obviously, in the German fleisch, the source of our word “flesh.” (“Meat” is from an unrelated Old English word for “food.”)

Which leaves us to wonder about the Yiddish word for “neither meaty nor milky,” used for foods like bread, eggs, fruits and vegetables, namely, pareve. Pareve can also be used metaphorically, to mean “nonchalant” or “unexcited,” as in: “J. Cheever Loophole was pareve about the invitation he received to join the president’s legal team.”

One theory has it that the word is rooted in the Latin par, meaning “equal, well-matched or pair” (and thus signifies that the food in question can be “paired” with either meat or milk dishes). Thus it is related to the English “par” in finance or golf.

Then there is the Latin parvus, meaning “small,” as in the somewhat obscure English word parvity, or “smallness.” (“Parvity of matter” in Catholic teaching refers to a sin that does not affect others greatly. But hey, we’re Jewish here!) How “small” might refer to non-meat, non-milk isn’t obvious, but perhaps it implies a lack of special character, i.e. meat or milk, a sort of synonym for “meh,” a locution we have previously explored.

A rather far reach of an explanation for pareve has it rooted in Spanish, as a contraction of para todos los veces—“[good] for all occasions”—appropriate for both meat and milk meals.

Which puts me in mind of a Spanish sentence that is a Yiddish one as well, though a very different one:

Aqui est una mesa, of course, means “Here is a table.”

In Yiddish, the almost identical-sounding phrase a ki est un a messer means “A cow eats without a knife.”

Which is a fact as unarguable as the bovine’s status as fleishig.

Rabbi Shafran, whose latest book is “It’s All In The Angle” (Judaica Press), blogs at