Please explain the commandment: ‘Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk’ (Ex. 23:19).
Of the hundreds of commands in the Pentateuch, this prohibition brings much confusion. This law is uttered twice by God in Exodus (Ex. 23:19 and 34:26) and once by Moses (Deut. 14:21). The instruction is provided both within the context of dietary laws and religious festivals. Because the prohibition is noted three times, rabbis believed that it had the utmost importance to the dietary laws in Israel. Consequently, this law has become one of the foundational components of what is known as kosher (Hebrew, “proper”).
Because the law mentioned both meat and dairy, rabbis insisted that an observant Jew could not eat meat and dairy products within the same meal. Thus, they divided all foods into three categories: meat, dairy and pareve (neutral). To ensure that the two were never to be eaten together, they were served at different meals, as far apart from one another as possible. This would give the person ample time to digest one before partaking of the other.
Observant Jews do everything they can to follow this law. In their homes, there are separate dishes and utensils for meat and dairy products. The sinks in their kitchens must be stainless steel, as porcelain cannot be effectively cleaned of contaminants. Even dishwashing soap must be free of food byproducts.
Often it is not always easy to know whether a food product is distinctly meat, dairy or pareve. To remedy this, modern rabbis have instilled a system to let adherents know the ingredients of processed food. For example, the Orthodox Union has created a symbol, which is placed on food labels (a “U” with a circle around it) to indicate if a food is kosher. If it is manufactured in a factory with dairy products, the letter “D” will be placed next to the symbol, to indicate that there may be some dairy in it. If there is no meat or dairy byproduct in the food, the word pareve is often placed next to the symbol for clarification.
While kosher regulations may have originated from this thrice-stated verse, the question remains: Is this how the verse should be understood? Most scholars believe it probably should be understood literally: The Israelites were not to cook a young goat in its mother’s milk!
Why such an odd practice was prohibited remains a mystery. It probably referred to a pagan ritual, similar to eating meat that still had blood within it (cf. Gen. 9:4). Participants of such rituals often believed that they would become empowered by the animals they ate. The Israelites, therefore, would consider such practices unclean. The prohibition, therefore, reminds them to avoid anything that would prevent them from following the Lord completely.
Ken Gore is professor of biblical studies at Dallas Baptist University. Email your questions to email@example.com.
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