This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

No Kidding *

The traditional Jewish culinary practice of separating meat from dairy has its roots in the scriptural prohibition "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk" which appears three times in the Torah, and hence was expounded by the ancient Jewish sages as referring not only to cooking, but also to eating or deriving any other benefit from the mixture. The reason for this law is not explained in the Bible, and commentators have suggested diverse ethical, hygienic and other rationales to account for it.

When faced with obscure precepts of this kind, Rabbi Moses Maimonides usually tried to explain them as responses to pagan practices that were current in the days of Moses. Thus, he proposed in his Guide of the Perplexed that the heathens of old were accustomed to partake of cheeseburgers in connection with their cultic celebrations. He confessed, however, that he was unable to find historical evidence for this thesis.

Don Isaac Abravanel took a similar approach, taking his cue from the context of the prohibition’s initial appearance in Exodus Chapter 23. The relevant passage begins with a survey of the three annual pilgrimage festivals, culminating with Sukkot: "the festival of the ingathering at the end of the year when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labour." It continues with various regulations related to the consumption of meat on these occasions, and then to the complete forbidding of meat and milk.

Abravanel was of the opinion that this dietary prohibition was related specifically to the last of the three pilgrimage celebrations, the feast of Tabernacles. He reasoned (in the spirit of Maimonides) that it was a widespread custom among the the ancient idol-worshippers to convene festivities at the conclusion of the harvest season in order to propitiate their deities and thereby incur divine good will and bountiful crop yields for the coming year. At these gatherings the delicacy of choice was the cheese kid-burger. Indeed, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra claimed that kid-meat cooks more easily than any other kind.

According to Abravanel's interpretation, scripture singled out seething kids in mother's milk as the most common and familiar variation of the heathen practice, but the extension of the prohibition to other types of meat and preparation methods should be regarded a legitimate understanding of the Torah's original intention

Abravanel did not have access to any specific information about the pagan harvest celebrations, but he claimed support for his explanation from an institution with which he was familiar from his native Spain. "Still today it is the widespread practice in the dominions of Spain for all the shepherds to assemble twice a year in order to take counsel and to enact ordinances on matters related to the shepherds and their flocks. In their language this assembly is called the 'Mesta.'" Abravanel reports that he investigated the goings-on at Mesta conventions and discovered that indeed, milk and kid-meat were the preferred culinary offering at these affairs.

His description of the Mesta is fully accurate. It was an influential association of sheep breeders that continued to occupy a prominent role in the Castilian economy from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries, serving as a liaison with the central governments and regulating all aspects of their industry. Among its chief responsibilities was the supervision of the semi-annual migrations of the flocks between the summer and winter pasturage, which were the occasions for the seasonal assemblies described by Abravanel. It is likely that he had to deal with them personally in connection with his activities as a financier serving the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. Of course, the autumn Mesta migration coincided with the Hebrew feast of Tabernacles.

Abravanel's research into heathen dietary practices extended to one other contemporary case: "I inquired and investigated, and established for certain that this is also true of the island at the world's edge known as 'Angleterre'--which has a greater profusion of sheep than in any other land--that they always follow this same usage." It would appear that the mere association with English cuisine was enough to disqualify meat-and-dairy combinations in the eyes of an urbane European.

In his Ṣeidah la-Derekh, the eminent fourteenth-century scholar Rabbi Menahem ben Zerah reported hearing that it had once been customary to pour the milk used for seething kids and lambs onto the seeds of newly planted trees in order to accelerate the maturing of their first fruits. A similar explanation was proposed by Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin of Volozhin in the nineteenth century. He claimed that as part of their routine for fertilizing soil, the pagans in the land of Israel used to cook the flesh of kids in their mothers' milk and then pour a tiny bit of it onto the fields. It was with a view to counteracting such practices that the Torah forbids any combining of meat and dairy, even for agricultural use. It is not clear where Rabbi Berlin learned about this custom. Did he reconstruct it based on the context of the scriptural passage; was he paraphrasing the Ṣeidah la-Derekh; or had he personally observed similar rites among the local peasantry?

The anti-idolatry interpretation of the biblical precept enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in 1933 with the first publication of a freshly excavated cuneiform tablet from Ugarit in Syria. Part of an immense royal archive, the tablet in question contained part of an epic mythological tale about the Canaanite deities, along with instructions for the proper rites to ensure fertility. A damaged sequence in the text was reconstructed by its first editor as "cook a kid in milk." Understandably, biblical scholars were quick to point out the similarity to the Torah's prohibition, and to declare that we now had solid evidence from an actual Canaanite text for Maimonides' and Abravanel's thesis that the biblical law was intended to distance Israel from an idolatrous ritual that originated in myths about the suckling of young gods. The correspondence was so precise that it seemed to good to be true.

And, in fact, it was.

As it turns out, after the passage was reexamined in light of our improved knowledge of the Ugaritic language and scribal practices, there was nothing left that would lend support to the initial reading—there is nothing in the text about cooking, kids or mothers (all that was left was the "milk").

Although this supposed archaeological support has been discredited, the explanation itself need not be rejected entirely. If it is true, then it suggests a most intriguing thematic link between the pilgrimage festival of Tabernacles and a fundamental part of the Jewish dietary regimen.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, October 14, 2011, p. 9.
  • For further reading:
    • Ginsberg, Harold Louis, ed. The Ugarit Texts. Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1936.
    • Klein, Joel T. “A Comment on You Shall Not Boil a Kid in its Mother's Milk.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 33, no. 3 (2005): 196-197.
    • Klein, Julius. The Mesta; a Study in Spanish Economic History, 1273-1836. Port Washington, N.Y: Kennikat Press, 1964.
    • Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
    • Nachshoni, Yehudah. Studies in the Weekly Parashah: The Classical Interpretations of Major Topics and Themes in the Torah. Translated by Schmuel Himelstein. Vol. 2. 5 vols. 1st ed. ArtScroll Judaica Classics. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1988.