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What Were the Rabbis Thinking?

            In Bible Study, a few weeks ago, we read one of the multiple mentions of the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, and it hit me, once again, what a strange law that is. First, because who would even think to do such a thing? And second, why did the rabbis interpret that line to mean don’t eat meat with milk at all?

            In the research for my Jews Around the World curriculum, for my synagogue school students, I found out that Ethiopians Jews, who went into exile before the Talmud was written, interpreted the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk to mean don’t eat a young goat until after it has been weaned. And that made so much more sense to me! It made the dietary laws resonate with the lesson Abraham learned in Genesis: that it was no longer cool to sacrifice your children to the gods, or even to the God.

“Humans are weird.”

            One explanation given for the original prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, is that the pagans who lived near the Ancient Israelites would literally boil a young goat in its mother’s milk as a fertility ritual to encourage better harvests, and the Israelites, in order to avoid the temptation of being like the pagans, were prohibited from doing that ritual in particular.

            Another explanation I read recently was that “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” was an idiom of the day, that we no longer understand out of context, that meant: don’t mix the newest and best of the harvest with last year’s leftovers, because the first fruits, of the harvest and of the womb, were traditionally treated as special.

“Does being first adopted count as special?”

            None of this was discussed back in my eighth grade Jewish law class in Yeshiva, in large part because the prohibition against eating milk and meat together was so taken for granted that it wouldn’t have occurred to any of us to ask where it came from. And it has become such a point of identity for many Jews, second only to avoiding pigs and shellfish, that no matter what the source of the law, changing it now would feel like cutting ties with our ancestors.

“Like when you tell me not to chase squirrels?”

            We don’t really know when the Israelites adopted the stricter prohibition against eating milk and meat together (as opposed to not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, or not eating a goat until it has been weaned), because even though the stricter prohibition was first written down in the second century of the Common Era, the tradition says that the rabbis were collecting the wisdom that had existed for generations, finally seeing the need to write it down because the Israelites had been exiled from the land of Israel and scattered around the world. We do know that the rabbis who wrote the Talmud liked to create a fence around a fence around the law, to avoid even accidental sins, so they may have seen the blanket rule against mixing any milk with any meat as a necessary safeguard once they could no longer be sure which goat had provided their meat or their milk.

“I hate fences. I like freedom!”

The prohibition against mixing meat and milk would have been much easier to maintain in the ancient world, though, because the Israelites were sacrificing their goats and sheep and cows at the Temple maybe three times a year, if that. They weren’t going to the supermarket for meat every week, so the temptation to sprinkle some parmesan on their meatballs and spaghetti wouldn’t have come up very often, either in Ancient Israel, or when the rabbis were finalizing the Talmud in the first few centuries of the Common Era. Maybe if the Rabbis had been able to envision our lives today they would have gone with the Ethiopian interpretation way back when, or just stuck with the literal meaning of the law, which would have become as irrelevant as many other laws in the Hebrew Bible once the Jews were exiled from the land of Israel and could no longer make sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. But who knows, the rabbis were an obsessive bunch and they liked to create complicated rules for just about everything, so they may have stuck to their guns even if they could have seen the difficulties Jews would face in the future.

            The rabbis also had a mandate to continue the Israelite tradition of using rituals and laws to keep the Jewish people separate from their neighbors, in order to maintain their belief in one God, and having such different eating habits could certainly keep people separated from each other. I have a notebook full of the rabbis’ strictures from my eighth grade Jewish Law class, where I learned that most of what we did at my house wasn’t kosher enough, and therefore I could never invite my school friends over, so I know how well it works.

There are Jews who ignore all of these rules and traditions as out of date and unnecessary, and others who think that these strict rules around food are meant to ritualize eating and therefore infuse it with holiness. Others say that the kashrut laws in general were specifically created to make it difficult to eat meat, so that we would avoid that temptation as much as possible, and there are yet others who say that the rules make no sense, but you should still follow them anyway, because…God.

“You mean, because I said so!”

            Often we search for logical reasons to do the things that have emotional meaning for us, and at this point in my life it would feel more meaningful to avoid eating lamb, or kid, or veal, than to avoid eating a cheeseburger. But it’s possible that if my grandfather, who loved being Jewish and felt strongly about keeping kosher, were still alive, the act of carefully waiting hours after eating brisket before even thinking about a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream would have more meaning for me, because it would strengthen my connection with him. I don’t know. A lot of the rules still grate on me, as triggers for bad memories from my childhood and adolescence with my father. But feelings can change over time. Who knows what the future will bring?

“Chicken Parmesan?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

47 responses »

  1. I’ve always found much of Leviticus puzzling; it’s interesting to hear modern interpretations (or rehashed ancient interpretations).

  2. Love reading your analysis of yourself and of Jewish Law. Your pups are so expressive, and I’m always sending special healing thoughts your way.❤️🐾

  3. This is a most interesting post! Sometimes things are lost in translation!

  4. Fascinating take on the many rules regarding food.

  5. Good grief! They sure had some funny ideas back then. Time for some changes, I think.

  6. Reminds me of the story of the woman who always cut off part of the roast before placing it in the roasting pan. When asked why she did it, she said it was how her mother prepared a roast before placing it in the oven.

    Out of curiosity, then, she asked her mother why she did it.

    “Well, dear, my roasting pan always was too small for the roast and that’s how I got it to fit.”

    It is good, I think, to question why things are done a certain way and to change if the traditional or customary way had a purpose once but no longer does.

  7. I think the Ethiopians made the most sense of that.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  8. I love how informative your posts are about Jewish rituals and culture

  9. An excellent topic for discussion. As soon as I read the prohibition I imagined the weaning interpretation, but see it is much more than that

  10. First, that picture of Ellie running is fabulous.
    This was very interesting to me, as I have never heard of most of the reasons you quoted re: not eating meat and dairy together. Thanks for the lesson!

  11. Another wonderful post. One other thought I’ve heard on the kosher laws is health concerns. Pork and shellfish had a greater frequency of causing illness. Mixing the milk and meat without refrigeration also increase chances of bacteria growth. Having separate dishes meant less chance of getting sick.

  12. Your post just reinforces my conviction of late that people are difficult to understand. Why? Why? Why?
    Added to that is why and I still awake at 2.20am? I ended up sleeping much of today and I am feeling a bit agitated and thought I’d read a few posts to unwind.
    Anyway, had better go to bed.
    Best wishes,

  13. I hadn’t heard those other explanations before, like the Ethiopian Jews, or the one about a specific pagan practice, or the ideal of an idiom. Really fascinating. You bring up great points about keeping traditions that may or may not have clear cut reason.

  14. Fascinating Rachel! Thank you for sharing the other interpretations of that particular law. Your caption, “Like when you tell me not to chase squirrels?” made me laugh out loud. Our Yellow Lab mix has a healthy dose of Weimaraner which are fantastic birding dogs. For the most part it isn’t a big deal. However our neighbor has a rogue hen that likes to escape the coop and hang out in our yard. Mostly Summer will only freeze and point at the chicken but we have to stay right on top of her or else she’ll charge and try to “flush her out.” Can’t fault a dog for doing what is deeply ingrained in their breed’s DNA.

  15. Fascinating post! I never knew all of this, so I learned a lot!

  16. Also liking that the answer and question of chicken parmesan can make readers (or at least me) wonder why would chicken parmesan be an answer (when it could have been anything else), and the potential logic that led to this. Is it possible that the parmesan-related word “grate” (in the paragraph before that dish got mentioned) and the words that start with ch (especially foods with ch, also in that paragraph) along with the Trader Joe’s bag near the dogs all be puzzle piece-like hints/reasons why? Perhaps…or not? Intriguing inquiries from you and your dogs!

  17. Not that I know much about anything kosher, but from what I’ve heard about it, keeping different types of foods separate and avoiding pork always sounded to me like the way to avoid food poisoning in a time before refrigeration and before anyone knew anything about bacteria.

  18. Thanks for your exposition on the text and the interpretation of what you’ve been taught and learnt.
    Does this mean it would not be appropriate to eat a white (bechamel) sauce made with milk as a sauce on sliced corned beef? This was a regular meal in my household as a child.

  19. It is a fascinating exposition, Rachel. And the best part is that I had no idea I’d find it fascinating enough to follow along through all the theories. You are a gifted teacher and writer!

  20. Love the picture of your puppy running, so energetic

  21. It’s so interesting (and so important!) to study the history of religious texts as well as the present interpretation. I have always found it fascinating to think of how different the lives were of the people who originally wrote these things down.


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