When Meat is Prosperity and Milk is Humility


Is there any good reason why a Jew isn’t supposed to enjoy a cheeseburger?

The commandment “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19) is the basis for the kosher requirement prohibiting meat and dairy from being consumed in the same meal. It is mentioned three times in the Torah: the first in this week’s portion Mishpatim, the second 11 chapters later in Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 34:26), and the third in Parsha Re’eh (Deuteronomy 14:21).

From this the Talmud teaches that there are three prohibitions associated with mingling meat and milk: no cooking, no eating and no benefit to be derived from this mixture (Chullin 115B)

This is one of those commandments that falls under the category of a chok, a law that is not readily understandable by our own reasoning, as opposed to mishpat, a law that most individuals would have no trouble comprehending (for example, “thou shalt not kill”).

But perhaps there is a reason behind this seemingly obscure chok — revealed in the contexts in which it is mentioned.

The last source for this mitzvah, Parshat Re’eh, is found in an apposite context: a section dealing with animals that are deemed kosher and permitted for consumption, and those that are not. The identifying signs are given to determine their permissibility.

However, in the first two places, the context is less clear. Both appear to be almost an exact duplication of each other even though they are quite close in their placement in the Torah. They both begin with the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The Israelites are urged to leave their homes and go up to the holy city of Jerusalem, to the Temple, to be seen by the Lord, “HaAdon,” in his abode. These are the only times in the Torah that the Almighty is referred to as HaAdon, the master, the ruler, the owner. The concluding verse in both places is repeated word for word: “The first of your land’s produce (bikkurim) shall you bring to the House of Hashem your G-d, do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Two questions immediately jump out at the reader:

  1. Why is the commandment of not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk placed together with the three pilgrimage festivals?
  2. Why are bikkurim, the offerings of produce, in the very same verse with the kid/milk prohibition?

As Rashi would say, these questions are calling out “darshani,” please offer an explanation.

One approach to explaining is to look at the context, see what central idea lies behind the words, and attempt to find a common theme.

When the Torah tells the Jewish people to make a pilgrimage three times a year, what is it trying to accomplish? After all, we could stay in our homes and look up at the heavens and thank God for the bounty that has been given to us. Why travel all the way to Jerusalem, to the Temple, to show our appreciation?

A possible answer is that the Torah recognizes that in times of prosperity, when things are going well, often one says, “My strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17). By being required to come to God’s house to greet the Master, who freed us from slavery and gave us the harvest and enabled the gathering of the produce, our hubris would be tempered in this place of sanctity. And when the pilgrims bring the first fruits, the bikkurim, to the Temple, they declare, “Behold, I have brought the first fruit of the ground that you have given me Hashem” (Deuteronomy 26:10). The pilgrims acknowledge the source of their good fortune.

What is the underlying theme? Gratitude, hakarat hatov, that God and only God provides us with our sustenance and wealth. 

So how do we fit the mitzvah of not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk into this theme?

Here one needs to enter the world of symbolism. The Torah has several highly symbolic foods. For example, we do not eat the sinew of an animal’s hip to remind us of Jacob’s wrestling with the “angel” on his journey back to Canaan. We eat matzah on Passover to remind us of the Exodus from Egypt.

The kid and its mother’s milk is a symbol, like the Passover matzah and the prohibition on eating the sinew of an animal’s hip.

I would like to suggest that the kid is a metaphor for our material possessions. (In the Torah, sheep, goats and cattle were a major source and marker of a person’s wealth.) The milk represents how nature and the natural process allow our material possessions to exist and be sustained. (The land of Israel is said to be naturally flowing with milk and honey.)

The mitzvah is telling us to separate that connection. Whatever possessions we may own (the kid), has nothing to do with nature (the milk), or the “might of our hands,” or luck. It all stems from the good graces of the One Above. All comes from HaAdon. Therefore, we separate meat and milk as an expression of gratitude, hakarat hatov. It is to remind us and acknowledge that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds” (Psalm 24).

Fred Ehrman is a retired investment adviser and security analyst. He has held leadership positions in several Jewish organizations. He is on his fourth cycle of Daf Yomi.

Candlelighting, Readings

Friday, Feb. 12, 2021
Shevat 30, 5781

Light Candles at 5:09 pm

Saturday, Feb.13
Adar 1, 5781

First Torah: Mishpatim: Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

Second Torah: Shabbat Rosh Chodesh: Numbers 28:9-15

Third Torah: Parshat Shekalim: Exodus 30:11-16

Haftarah: Kings II 11:17 – 12:17; Isaiah 66:1; Isaiah 66:23-24; Isaiah 66:23

Shabbat Ends 6:10 pm