Meat and Milk

Meat and Milk


Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

Parshat Mishpatim – פרשת משפטים

January 29, 2022 – כז שבט תשפב

This essay is sponsored by Jack Lebewohl in memory of Shlomo Zalman ben Yosef Z”L.

Meat and milk

  The Torah thrice commands: “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19 and 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21).  On this Scriptural basis, the sages derived a myriad of dietary laws regulating the separation of meat from dairy.   Yet no reason is given in the Bible for the meat-milk prohibition and the sages of the Talmudic era are largely silent about the issue.  Other than an explanation offered by the great Hellenistic-Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, it is not until the period of the Rishonim that the matter becomes the subject of scholarly speculation.   While the medieval rabbis offer several competing theories, no single one is thoroughly convincing.  Each theory should explain each of the following: (a) Why does the same prohibition appear multiple times? (b) What is the connection between cooking a kid in its mother’s milk and the obligation to appear at the central house of worship on pilgrimage festivals?  (c) Why is this prohibition linked to the commandment of Bikkurim, the first fruits brought to the priests at the Temple?  (d) Why does the prohibition appear in Deuteronomy’s list of dietary regulations, when it had previously been associated with the holidays and sacrificial service?  (e) How and why does meticulous observance of this commandment render the Israelites a Holy Nation (עם קדוש) and how and why does this relate to the instruction that carrion be given or sold to non-Israelites?   Maimonides speculated that בשר בחלב was prohibited because the pagans of antiquity would sacrifice a kid and boil it in its mother’s milk as part of their idolatrous worship (Guide to the Perplexed 3:48).  The Israelites were warned, in the Scriptural passage dealing with pilgrimage festivals, not to imitate pagan practice.  Maimonides acknowledged that his theory was conjectural only, and admitted that he could not find any reference to the practice in his library of pagan books.  Abarbanel agreed with Maimonides.  In his commentary to Exodus 23:19, he described a semi-annual gathering of pagan shepherds who seethe a kid in its mother’s milk to propitiate the gods for a bountiful season.  By contrast, the appropriate way for an Israelite to petition God for an abundant harvest is to offer Bikkurim, mentioned in the first half of that verse.  Abarbanel wrote that he thoroughly investigated the matter and that such gatherings really did take place in Spain and England in his own generation.  If, then, the taboo of בשר בחלב is a protective measure against idolatry, that would help explain the comment of Pseudo-Jonathan that eating milk and meat together stokes the violent wrath of God, because that kind of harsh language is usually connected with the cardinal sin of idolatry.   But the association of בשר בחלב with paganism renders Deuteronomy 14:21 out of place.  Why should this prohibition be included in a discussion of dietary laws?  The Talmudic tradition teaches that our verse appears three times in the Torah to prohibit the three different actions of cooking the milk-meat combination, eating it, or deriving any material benefit from it.  Already in Mishnaic times, however, the primary meaning of the verse was understood as to prohibit eating בשר בחלב.  This can be seen in Onkelos’ translation, where תבשל is replaced with תיכלון.  It is quite possible that the ancient pagan practice that necessitated the original prohibition was no longer extant in the post-Biblical era.  The original logic of the prohibition had been forgotten.  What remained was the taboo of eating meat-milk combinations; accordingly, no longer was there emphasis put on the act of cooking it.  This would, then, explain the re-appearance of our verse specifically in Deuteronomy in the context of dietary laws.[i]   Archaeological support for the above theory seemed to come from a cuneiform tablet discovered at Ugarit by Claude Schaeffer in 1929 and published by Charles Virolleaud in 1933.  “The Birth of the Gracious and Beautiful Gods” contained a reference to a kid cooked in milk.  H.L. Ginsberg concluded that the Ugaritic tablet described the ritual forbidden by the Torah.  In the Canaanite ceremony, a kid was cooked in milk, symbolizing the infanthood of gods who suckled from the pagan goddesses Athirst and Rahmay.  Many scholars, Jews and Gentiles alike, accepted this evidence as unimpeachable.  By the 1980s, though, this evidence had been dismissed by Jacob Milgrom and other leading scholars because it was based upon a flawed reconstruction of a damaged line in the cuneiform tablet.   Ibn Ezra proposed that בשר בחלב was prohibited on humanitarian grounds.  He saw the commandment as one of several mitzvoth interdicting cruelty toward animals.  The prohibition of taking the mother bird and eggs simultaneously (Deuteronomy 22:6), and the prohibition of slaughtering a mother cow/sheep and its offspring on one day (Leviticus 22:28), are illustrative.  Philo predated Ibn Ezra by a millennium in noting the thematic relationship of these commandments.  He considered בשר בחלב to be the height of man’s “licentiousness and inhumanity (de Virtute 143).” This explanation justifies the appearance of the verse in the kosher laws of Deuteronomy.  Rashbam, agreeing with Ibn Ezra, explained the appearance of בשר בחלב in the holiday passage of Exodus by noting that on festivals people would consume copious amounts of meat.   Ibn Ezra was reluctant to propose his explanation.  In his commentary on Exodus 23:19 he wrote, “We have no need to search for a reason for this prohibition, because it has eluded even the greatest of scholars.”  He continued by offering his interpretation as a mere possibility.  Rabbenu Bachya criticized those of his rabbinic predecessors who dared to offer a rationale for the meat-milk taboo.  He assumed that their answers were proffered solely to dispense with annoying questioners.  Quoting from an obscure Midrashic text, Masekhet Gan Eden, Rabbenu Bachya considered בשר בחלב to be a law without rationale, just as the Red Heifer ritual or sha’atnez are. It is a חוק -- a law the purpose or rationale of which we do not begin to understand, but that we obey because we are required, nevertheless, to conform our behavior to the will of the Almighty.  Quoting from the Midrash, Rabbenu Bachya posited that in messianic times the meat-milk prohibition, the red heifer ritual, and all other chukim will be fully explained.   There is further reason why Ibn Ezra and others hesitated in proposing the humanitarian interpretation of בשר בחלב.  The Mishnah (Megillah 25a) teaches that we vehemently silence anyone who leads the congregation in prayer and says, “Your mercies have reached the bird’s nest.”  As the Gemara explains, this precentor has transformed the instructions of God into mere compassion for the animal kingdom, when in fact they are Divine decrees.  Is, therefore, Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of the meat-milk prohibition borderline heresy, which should then be silenced? The fact is that the Torah contains several explicit mitzvoth evincing compassion for animals in general and for specific animals in particular.  For example: “Do not muzzle an ox while he treads out the corn (Deuteronomy 25:4).”  This should be expected.  We believe in a benevolent, just, kind, and compassionate God.  The Mishnah above regarding the bird’s nest should be understood as merely pointing out that over-emphasizing the morality we think we perceive in Mosaic Law, rather than understanding fully the binding nature of that Law as God’s commandments to us, leads to theological error.   Rabbi Menachem Recanati (13th century) suggested that בשר בחלב is similar to the prohibition of admixtures (כלאים).  The Bible prohibits planting different species of vegetation in the same plot of land, crossbreeding of animal species, cross-dressing, and wearing wool-linen garments.  Mixing meat and milk mingles death and life. That is not acceptable. As Philo put it: “For He looked upon it as a very terrible thing for the nourishment of the living to be the seasoning and sauce of the dead animal.”   A recurrent theme in the Torah are the distinctions between the holy and the profane, the pure and the impure, and Israel and the nations.  Understanding the prohibition on mixing meat (death) with milk (life) as an example of this explains Deuteronomy 14:21. By abstaining from a foodstuff which unwholesomely conjoins life and death, and by disposing of carrion (נבלה), the Israelites establish themselves as a Holy Nation.  The word holy (kadosh) means, also, being separate or apart.  The nations of the world may gorge themselves on such repulsive foods; the Israelites do not -- and thereby preserve their distinctiveness/separateness/holiness.   We cannot remotely be certain why the Torah prohibited seething a kid in its mother’s milk. It may well be that only when the messiah arrives will that and other inscrutable laws be explained to us.  Until then, it is good to keep in mind Moses Mendelssohn’s observation that “The benefit that arises from the many inexplicable laws of God is in their practice and not in the understanding of their motives.” [i] Many Biblical scholars point out that Deuteronomy markedly differs from the preceding four books of the Torah in that it is palpably more forward-looking.