“Milk, Meat, and Mercy” Parashat Re’eh 5774

I once tried to explain the principles of kosher meat to a non-Jewish friend of mine. I distilled everything into four easy-to-remember rules. [1] The animal must be from a kosher species. [2] The animal must be slaughtered correctly. [3] The blood must be removed by salting the meat. [4] Meat cannot be cooked together with milk. It’s so simple that it’s kind of strange that there aren’t more kosher restaurants.

Parashat Re’eh contains a “Kashrut Primer”, discussing the kashrut of mammals, birds, and fish[1], and dividing them into two classes: Kosher and Not Kosher. Rules #2 and #4 above are also touched upon [Devarim 14:21] “You shall not eat any carcass [that has not been ritually slaughtered]. You may give it to the stranger who is in your cities so that he may eat it or you may sell it to a foreigner; for you are a holy people to Hashem. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.”[2] Our Sages take the commandment not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk and give it much more gravity: Not only is it forbidden to cook meat with milk (even for a non-Jew), it is also forbidden to eat meat with milk (even if it is cooked by a non-Jew) and it is forbidden to gain any benefit – financial of otherwise – from the cooking of meat with milk (meaning that a Jew may not own McDonald’s stock options because he is making money off of cheeseburgers).

If milk and meat, when eaten by themselves, are kosher, why is the combination of the two forbidden? The simplest answer is that the prohibition is a “chok”. It is a law that defies logic; a law that cannot be understood by mortal man. Like shaking the lulav or not wearing wool and linen together, or, for that matter, all of the laws of kashrut, we observe these laws only because Hashem commanded us to do so. At the other end of the spectrum lie more esoteric reasons for separating meat and milk. Rav Eliyahu Zinni, writing in Etz Erez [Part 1] explains that the prohibition of meat and milk comes to wean Am Yisrael off of an idolatrous philosophy that is prevalent to this day.

The Ramban has an interesting take on the prohibition, asserting that it has nothing to do with the laws of kashrut. In Parashat Kedoshim [Vayikra 19:1], Am Yisrael are commanded to “Be holy!” and the Ramban discusses precisely how we are meant to do this. He presents the principle of “Kadesh et atzmecha b’mutar lecha” – “Sanctify yourselves with what has been permitted to you”. Holiness does not spring only from things that we do not do. It also springs from the way that we do things that we are permitted to do. For instance, just because it is permitted to eat kosher meat does not mean that we should gorge ourselves. Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi notes that the word “mutar”, usually translated as “permitted”, can also be translated as “untied”. Something that is mutar – permissible – is not yet holy. But because it is mutar it is not tied to impurity and so it can be elevated and sanctified. The prohibition of eating meat and milk together is an example of this kind of sanctification. The Ramban reaches this conclusion by looking at the context of the prohibition: “…for you are a holy people to Hashem. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.” Because you are a holy people to Hashem, therefore, you must not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”.

There is another reason for the prohibition that speaks loudly to the twenty-first century reader. This is the “Mercy Factor”. Is there anything more horrific than eating a young animal together with the milk that it sucked from its mother minutes before it was slaughtered? Indeed, the Ohr HaChayyim HaKadosh likens eating meat together with milk with “the barbaric murder of nursing infants”. The Rashbam compares the prohibition of eating meat and milk with the commandment to shoo away the mother bird before taking her eggs (shiluach ha’ken) or the prohibition of slaughtering a cow and her calf on the same day. These are all indicators of Divine mercy.

Let’s try to implement the Ramban’s “looking at the verse in context” to gain some more insight into the Mercy Factor. But where the Ramban zooms out to look at the entire verse in context, we’re going to open the aperture even further, going back to the verses in Parashat Re’eh that precede the laws of kashrut [Devarim 14:1-2] “You are children of Hashem. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people to Hashem, and He has chosen you to be a treasured people for Him out of all the nations that are upon the earth.” Certain cultures have a custom to scar themselves as a sign of mourning. The Torah categorically rejects this custom. This seems strange. A person who scars himself has essentially created a permanent memorial for the person who has died. Isn’t this an honour for the deceased? Is it any different than buying an expensive marble tombstone?

Many laws regarding death and mourning are based upon the gradual subsiding of grief that occurs after the death of a close relative. The Talmud in Tractate Mo’ed Katan [27b] learns from a verse in Jeremiah [22:10] that excessive mourning is just as inappropriate as insufficient mourning. How should one mourn? “Three days are [set aside] for crying, seven for eulogies and for thirty days one refrains from ironing one’s clothes or cutting one’s hair. From that point onwards Hashem says [as it were], ‘Are you then more merciful than I?’” As far mercy is concerned, more is not necessarily merrier. Like everything else in Judaism, mercy is Divinely regulated. But it goes even further. Rav Zalman Sorotzkin zooms out just a little bit more. The verses before the laws of kashrut discuss the “Ir ha’nidachat” – a city whose inhabitants en masse worship idolatry. Such a city suffers a calamitous fate: The families of the sinners are put to death by beheading and all possessions of both sinners and non-sinners are burned publicly. Then the entire city must be destroyed never to be rebuilt. The Torah summarizes this calamity with the following words [Devarim 13:18] “So that Hashem may return from His fierce wrath and grant you compassion and be compassionate with you”. This is compassion? Beheading human beings and burning their possessions? This “merciful” behaviour will make me more compassionate? The answer is a resounding “yes”. Like everything else in Judaism, mercy is Divinely mandated. Mercy is not defined by humans. It is defined by Hashem. Just like the laws of kashrut, just like the prohibition of wearing flax and linen together, mercy is a “chok”. It defies human logic. Just as we observe a chok only because Hashem commanded us to do so, we show mercy only when Hashem commands us to do so and only in the way Hashem commands us to do so, even though it might not intuitively feel to us like we are being “merciful”.

Looking back at the flow of the Parasha, it is clear that it all revolves around mercy:

  • We are commanded to horrifically destroy the Ir Ha’nidachat even though it contradicts our sense of mercy.
  • We are commanded to cease mourning for the dead even when we are not yet ready to stop showing mercy.
  • We are commanded to separate milk and meat because it is a sign of mercy.

Judaism means surrendering ourselves to Hashem. It means replacing our sense of right and wrong with His sense of right and wrong. For the “modern” twenty-first centuryJew, this might be difficult.

But nobody ever said it was easy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774

 

[1]The kashrut of insects – specifically locusts – is discussed only in Parashat Shemini [Vayikra 11:21-22]. Why it is not repeated in Parashat Re’eh is a topic for another shiur.

[2] The commandment not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk appears in two other places in the Torah. This is the only time in the Torah that it appears in connection with the laws of kashrut.