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May 14, 2013 12:14 am

Shavuot – A Kid In Its Mother’s Milk

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Moses by Rembrandt.

“Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.” It is a puzzling statement that is repeated three times in the Torah. Twice it is connection with Shavuot, the summer first fruits and harvest festival. The third time is in the context of forbidden foods. Traditionally, these texts have been taken to ban cooking, eating, and benefiting from milk and meat together.

There’s a cute joke: Moses is up on Mount Sinai and the Almighty is conveying the text of the Torah to him. They come to “Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”, and Moses looks up and says, “By this I assume you mean we should not eat meat and milk dishes at the same time.”

“No,” replies the Almighty, “I simply said, ‘Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.'”

“OK,” says Moses, “So you mean we should have separate dishes for meat and milk.”

“No,” says the Master of the Universe, “I simply said, ‘Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.'”

“Fine,” says Moses, “So you mean we should wait six hours after meat before we can eat milk?”

“Alright, Moses,” says the Holy One, “have it your way.”

Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed, hazards a guess that this was an ancient pagan harvest custom that the Israelites were forbidden to imitate. But there was no external support for this theory until 1929, when at a site in Syria called Ras Shamra, that is now known as Ugarit, a French archaeologist uncovered the first of more than a thousand cuneiform tablets from about the 14th century B.C.E.

One of these tablets, experts later claimed, describes a Canaanite religious ritual, part of the worship of their chief god El, which included a command that was deciphered to read, “Cook a kid in milk.” Out of this emerged the claim that the pagans did indeed have a practice of cooking a kid in its mother’s milk. Given the repeated insistence in the Torah of not imitating local pagan worship, this would explain the Biblical Law. Maimonides’ intuition seems to have been right. Even the great Biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto of the Hebrew University was taken in. Unfortunately, this theory was based on a mistranslation. The Ugaritic said nothing of the sort. The Ugaritic word gd doesn’t mean “kid”, and there was no mention of milk nor of cooking.

Perhaps the prohibition was linked to the other Biblical laws requiring humans to treat animals with consideration. Laws included not sacrificing a newly born animal until it has had a week with its mother (Exodus 22, Leviticus 22), taking care of lost animals or helping them when struggling under heavy loads (Exodus 23), not slaughtering a mother and child on the same day (Leviticus 22), sending away the mother bird if you want to take away the eggs or fledglings (Deuteronomy 22), not getting disparate animals to work under the same yoke (Deuteronomy 22), and not muzzling an ox while it threshes (Deuteronomy 25).

Philo of Alexandria suggested a more abstract idea, that “it is unacceptable that the very liquid that sustained the animal at birth should now be used in its death” (De Virtute 13). And this links to the idea of separation. The Israelites were told to separate themselves from the pagans, both morally and behaviorally. The idea of not mixing is found in the laws of Kilayim, sowing different plants together, or crossing plants and animals (Shatnez, wearing wool and flax), holy spaces from communal ones, permitted foods and forbidden foods, permitted unions and forbidden unions, God’s time and human time, meat from blood. It’s a recognition of difference, an awareness of everything that goes on around one in the natural world and the human world. And that’s where babies in their mother’s milk comes in. It is a separation of life from death and an assertion that life is our primary concern on earth. You might also apply this logic to priests and laymen and see the whole structure as a response to pagan priests and practices. And indeed it explains all the Biblical laws that relate to blood of one sort or another. But as the Talmud says, the only Biblical law with an explicit reason, limiting the King in pursuit of sex and money, was contravened by King Solomon precisely because he reasoned he was above it. Anything based on reason alone is risky.

All these attempts at rational explanations are all very well. It’s the sort of sophisticated anthropological symbolism that Mary Douglas writes about so brilliantly in “Leviticus as Literature”. Which, incidentally, is the best commentary on the sacrificial system in Vayikra that I have ever read. But is it relevant? Is all this guesswork anything more than an intellectual exercise? We try to explain the laws of kashrut through medical or utilitarian theories but none of them cover the entire subject. Like them, this seemingly obscure law is part and parcel of the whole system of Jewish lifestyle of modulating all human activity, from sex to food. The way to do that is through law and custom, regardless of origin. In effect, when one considers it this way, the rabbis were right to emphasis the practical, to expand on the poor little kid. Actions speak louder than words.

Why do I keep these laws? It certainly isn’t because of archaeology or complicated associations of ideas. I keep then because they are part of an existing way of life I subscribe to and enjoy, part Divine, part human. They reinforce all sorts of emotions. That is how most thinking religious people relate to their religious traditions. Does the intelligent Christian really believe the myths of the Gospels? Does the reflective Muslim really think that a warring, illiterate Bedouin was given a work of poetic genius in his sleep, or does a Mormon believe that Joseph Smith discovered Golden Tablets? Does an academic Hindu believe the panoply of gods is anything more than symbols and points of reference? And how many of us Jews now literally believe “The sun stood still in the valley of Ayalon”? We delude ourselves into thinking religion is primarily theological orthodoxy. It is concerned with narratives (some like to use the word ‘myth’) and rituals that should lead to correct actions and appropriate thought. This should be the function of ritual of course, not just routine thoughtless behavior.

Does it matter where eating cheesecake on Shavuot came from, or how late the idea of Shavuot being the anniversary of the Sinai Revelation emerged, or whether the Tikkun was an invention of seventeenth century Kabbalists? It is all interesting and worthy of study, of course, but it is not the reason we do it all. That lies deep in our human minds and in our mystical souls, as well as in the very basic physiological need for order, system, and a structure for facing the constant challenges and pressures of life.

Chag Sameach!

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  • Nadene van Staden

    Mt Rosen,thank you for your article.
    This is our view on the milk.
    The goat genrously +constantly provided man with the single most perfect food she posses:milk.
    Milk is able to sustain the human body by itself because it is made of the right proportions of fat,carbohydrates,and protein.
    How ungratefuland callous we would be to take the child of an animal to whom we are so indebted and cook it in its very milk which nourishes and is given to us freely.
    Perhaps the same as not allowing the ox to eat the corn as he treads for us.
    I think this is a lesson about showing mercy as God shows mercy to us.

    • Jeremy

      Lovely thought!

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Mr. Rosen, by and large, most Mormons DO believe in the reality of the ancient record inscribed on golden plates and translated by Joseph Smith. And the more educated a Mormon is, the more likely that he supports that fact as historical. This has been confirmed by a number of independent studies of Mormons and their beliefs. One of the reasons Mormons believe in the reality of the ancient record is the testimony of eleven men who saw and held the metal plates. All eleven maintained the literal truth of their affidavits to the end of their lives, some of them living 50 years after the first publication of their witness statements. The only RATIONAL way to explain this history is that the golden plates are real.
    In 1830, no other example existed of an ancient religious record inscribed on metal. Smith’s claim was unnecessary and made the story ridiculous, but it turned to be a spot-on prophecy about ancient cultures.
    In 1967, it was first discovered that the Book of Mormon contains examples of characteristic Hebrew literary forms, including the inverse parallelism called chiasmus. Smith surely did not recognize this, since he was not a scholar of Hebrew, and therefore he could not have intentionally created complex 20-level chiasmus passages that cover two to three pages.
    Appreciating these rational evidences of the reality of the Book of Mormon requires a willingness to engage in intellectual effort. It is why more educated Mormons also tend to be more strongly committed to the truth of its history and doctrines. Mormons have no professional pastors. The Mormons who lead congregations and teach adults and children are hard-headed lawyers, doctors, policemen, military officers and businessmen. When they assert the reality of the miraculous, they mean it as literally as anything they discuss in their professions.

    • Jeremy

      Thank you but I am afraid you only confirm that people committed to a particular religious narrative are prepared to believe anything regardless of logic or evidence.

  • Carl M

    Mr. Rosen,

    I really enjoyed this article. It well written and informative. Thanks.

    • Jeremy

      Thank you Carl

  • jerry hersch

    Why Bar Mitzvah at it the age at which one can reason ?? Or some can reason ?
    In its mothers milk..two proteins simultaneously for a desert people !!?
    Doesn’t make sense unless it refers to weaning.
    But which weaning? the initial colostrum weaning of but a few day ? Or the gradual weaning from all milk a few months..a few months in which the milk would be lost to the herder -but harvested in the young animal.
    Time to see which young were healthy enough to move with the flocks and herds…lest the strongest be eaten before the move.
    The Laws quoted show the concern for the feelings/instincts of animals…and for the survival of a nomadic people
    not getting disparate animals to work under the same yoke (Deuteronomy 22) was one of the passages cited at the Council of Elvira that forbid Christians from marrying Jews

    • Jeremy

      Thank you Jerry
      Interesting point.
      As for miscegenation, were we supposed to be the oxen or the donkeys?????

  • As an “intelligent” Christian (valedictorian, presidential scholar, graduate researcher, computer hardware engineer, PhD fellowship recipient, …), yes, I do wholeheartedly believe the Gospels. As a Mormon, yes I do believe that Joseph Smith was directed by an angel to an ancient, buried record written upon golden plates that he translated by the gift and power of God into the book today known as the Book of Mormon, which contains a record of God’s dealings with ancient inhabitants of the Americas and of Christ’s post-resurrection visit to them.

    Just FYI.

    • Jeremy

      Indeed, it just goes to show that “Where the heart wants to go, the mind is sure to follow.”
      Frankly I dont care if people believe in little red Martians so long as they behave well towards each other.