Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Cooking milk and meat together

There is a famous joke:
God: Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk.
Moses: You mean we should not mix meat and milk?
Moses: You mean we should wait three hours between meat and milk?
Moses: You mean we should have two complete sets of dishes?
God: Okay, have it your way.
What the joke is poking fun at is the extra restrictions on consumption of meat and milk not spelled out directly in the Torah. We have God giving a very specific command and Moses misinterpreting the command until an exasperated God finally gives up.

But there is an extra twist to the joke - the extra restrictions are in fact derived in the Talmud from the fact that God repeats his command three times - in Exodus (Shemot) 23:19, Exodus 34:26, and Deuteronomy (Devarim) 14:21. The joke takes this repetition as exasperation.

This captures a feeling that I've seen several people have, one captured well in this blog post from a year ago (based on this website), in part thinking how seethe should not = consume. (Contrary to that post, tevashel encompasses more than just boil.)

A response to the joke, however.

Firstly, the examples given in the joke - mixing milk and meat, waiting three (or six) hours between eating meat and eating milk, and keeping two sets of dishes, are not in fact derived from the repetition, and are not in fact ascribed by the Talmud to God's intent. They are rather Rabbinic laws, or else customs adopted to ensure keeping of the Biblical and Rabbinic laws.

(Let us leave aside for a second the entire issue of whether a kid in its mother's milk encompasses all milk and all meat, because that would be another topic entirely. Assume for now that is means all meat and all milk.)

What is really derived from the repetition is not the examples given above, but rather the following three laws:
  1. One should not cook meat with milk. (This encompasses all forms of cooking.)
  2. Meat that has been cooked with milk may not be consumed.
  3. Not only may it not be consumed, but no benefit may be had from it whatsoever.
Leave aside the Talmudic, hermeneutical derivation of the laws - that it is the repetition that teaches laws 2 and 3. What would you say is the meaning of the verse?

The Torah says not to cook milk and meat together. Assuming that a normal person told you that, what would you take that person's intent to be? That is, does the person envision you cooking milk and meat together in order to throw it in the trash? That would be a very silly thing to expect people to do, so a warning against doing it seems unnecessary.

Rather, cooking is an act done for the purpose of preparing food for consumption. A normal, not farfetched at all explanation, is that you should not be preparing a cooked dish consisting of milk and meat, because you are not supposed to eat such a dish.

Indeed, the context of one of the psukim discussing the prohibition, Deuteronomy 14:21, basically says this:
לֹא תֹאכְלוּ כָל-נְבֵלָה לַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר-בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ תִּתְּנֶנָּה וַאֲכָלָהּ, אוֹ מָכֹר לְנָכְרִי--כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ; לֹא-תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי, בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ.
"Ye shall not eat of anything that dieth of itself: thou shalt give it unto the stranger that is in thy gates, that he may eat it; or thou mayest sell it unto an alien: for thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk."
Immediately preceding this verse is a list of which animals may and may not be eaten. The context is clearly not just preparing the food, but also consuming such food.

While one can make an argument that consuming such food - meat that has been cooked with milk - is never explicitly prohibited, the spirit of the law, and the clear intent of the law, seems to be to prohibit it. Attempts to limit it to cooking but not eating seem to be unconvincing hairsplitting.

Further, let us say you got someone else to violate and cook this food for you (or you got a gentile to cook it, such that there is no violation). Eating the food would also seem to violate the spirit of the law.

It is also not impossible that other benefit than your own personal eating would be frowned upon. After all, say you prepared it for a gentile. Or, say you prepared it for a pet. The prohibition is stated in terms of preparation, that is cooking, and not specifically your consumption of it. So the cooking of it would likely still be prohibited, even for other purposes, and as such, the end product of such cooking (as dog food, or as something to sell in your store) would also be frowned upon. This would give up something akin to the prohibition of all benefit. The context in Deuteronomy explicitly allows the giving of or selling of "that which dieth of itself" to the stranger who lives in the gate, but perhaps this would only apply to that - after all, if it "dieth of itself" you did nothing wrong, committed no sin, in its preparation. In contrast, here you are told not to cook it, so perhaps the end product would be penalized, and you could not give or sell it to the stranger in the gate.

I am not saying that this is the derivation of these laws, but rather that the laws spelled out above do not violate the spirit of, and what can be taken as the intent, of the explicit Biblical commandment. The laws are derived in a different way (or in fact, different ways - there are other ways given to derive these laws) because we believe that there is an encoded meaning in the terse Biblical text and that there are methods of systematically extracting that meaning. Only if we have a valid extraction method would we say these are Biblical (yet Rabinically derived) laws. But these derived laws don't contravene what may well be the implied, and understood, meaning of the text.

On to the examples given in the joke. First, all mixing of milk and meat, rather than just cooking. This is not taken to be Biblical law. If you take a cold piece of cheese and put it on top of a cold piece of meat, you have not violated the Biblical commandment. (In fact, if you then wash the meat and cheese well, you can eat them separately.) If you eat cold cheese with cold meat, you have not violated the Biblical commandment. However, if you put really hot cheese on top of really hot meat, are you cooking it? One could say yes. Furthermore, Rabbinic enactments forbid the consumption of mixed cold cheese and meat that has not been cooked together, perhaps because laxity in this may lead to someone eating hot cheese and meat together, and that would be a Biblical violation.

Waiting between eating meat and milk is not Biblical. It may not even be Rabbinic, but may in fact be binding custom, taken as an additional restriction but gaining the force of law through wide acceptance.

Separate sets of dishes are also not taken to be Biblical. In fact, it is not even Talmudic. You can have one set of dishes. As long as you only eat cold food. If you put hot food on a plate, though, particles are absorbed into the plate. Later, if you put hot food of the other meat/milk type, particles are expelled from the plate (depending on the material of the plate). Such would be taken to be "cooking" milk and meat together, and so as long as you remember which was used for which, or you kasher the plates in between, you are fine. To solve potential problems arising from confusion, the current practice is to have two sets of dishes, when those dishes are of materials that absorb/expel materials. But an obligation to have separate sets of dishes is by no means Biblical (though rooted in Biblical law).


Anonymous said...


Great post and response to this commonly mis-understood issue!

"But an obligation to have separate sest of dishes is by no means Biblical (though rooted in Biblical law)."

I suspect you are referring to the instructions related to kli Midyan, right?

joshwaxman said...


>>"But an obligation to have separate sest of dishes is
>> by no means Biblical (though rooted in Biblical
>> law)."
> I suspect you are referring to the instructions
> related to kli Midyan, right?

I didn't actually mean to refer to klei midyan, though it is a great point - showing that the idea of worrying about absorbed substances and the process involved in getting them out is taken to be Biblical.

All I meant was that Chazal would consider these substances present, and therefore hot meat on a dish followed by hot cheese would involve a *Biblical* violation, assuming no other process such as kashering, or waiting 24 hours in between, were used. The *solution* to this problem of having two sets of dishes is not Biblical, but is rooted in concerns Biblical.


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