Kids, milk, and bad scholarship

For those who accept the assumptions of the Documentary Hypothesis, it makes sense to limit questions about the consistency of the text rather than to multiply them. The goal of Biblical criticism, as I understand it, is to use multiple authorship and archeology to explain problems in the Biblical text that could not otherwise be solved; it is not meant to create new problems in order to solve them with the DH. If a problem can be explained in a way that is internal to the text, Occam’s Razor would demand that we not attribute it to multiple authorship. From the a traditional Jewish perspective, all Biblical issues can and should be solved internally by interpreting the text in light of other parts of Tanach. Almost all pre-modern commentators take take this view, with occasional exceptions.

I recently read an article that violates Occam’s Razor to insert DH as a solution. The author points out that the phrase “לא תבשל גדי בחלב אמו” appears in the Torah three times: Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21. He notes that the first two appearances are very similar in that they are placed at the end of two almost identical paragraphs about not sacrificing the Paschal lamb with hametz present and bringing the first fruits to G-d’s chosen place. This stands in contrast to the third appearance of the phrase, which comes at the end of a list of dietary restrictions and immediately precedes more laws about bringing fruits to G-d’s chosen place, i.e. מעשר שני. Based on these differences, the article attempts to answer two questions: (1) Why is this phrase juxtaposed to bikkurim in the first two instances? (2) Why is the third appearance of the phrase juxtaposed to a different set of laws?

At best, the author makes only a weak attempt at answering these questions using a literary or traditional approach. He dismisses the reasoning of the Rashbam and Ibn Ezra without even quoting their opinions and claims that “[m]ost traditional commentaries ignore this problem entirely and focus on the traditional explanation of the passage, the prohibition of cooking and consuming meat and milk together.” The only opinion that he actually cites is that of Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor of Orleans. In both citations of the idiom in Exodus, Bekhor Shor interprets “לא תבשל גדי בחלב אמו” to be a metaphor that means that you should not wait to bring the first fruits because they will ripen and spoil (as is hinted by the root ב-ש-ל, which can mean to cook or to ripen). In Deuteronomy, however, Bekhor Shor interprets “לא תבשל גדי בחלב אמו” in the same way that the rabbis in the Mishna (Chullin 8:4), the Talmud (Chullin 113b), and medieval commentaries (Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Foods 9:1; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 87:1) do, i.e. as referring to the prohibition to cook and eat meat together with milk.

Noting the inconsistency, both in Bekhor Shor’s interpretation and in the text itself, the article suggests that the Exodus and Deuteronomy citations were actually written by different authors. The later Deuteronomy version is placed in the context of dietary restrictions because “D”, (as in JEPD of DH fame), mistakenly interpreted it literally rather than as a metaphor. He assumes that (1) there is no way to resolve the inconsistency internally and that (2) for this reason, Bekhor Shor makes no effort to explain the two contradicting interpretations.

The first assumption can be easily parried away. Judaism was not invented yesterday – there are a number of Rabbinic texts and commentaries that address the inconsistencies that require fewer or no historical claims to do so. For example, the Midrash Aggada (Exodus 23:19), which was likely compiled by a contemporary of Bekhor Shor, implicitly understands the citation of “לא תבשל גדי בחלב אמו” in Deuteronomy to be connected to the discussion of tithes, מעשר שני, in the next verse (Deuteronomy 14:20). Putting the three mentions of the idiom together, the Midrash infers that the Torah is warning that both מעשר שני and בכורים will spoil if you do not bring them to G-d’s chosen place as soon as possible. This interpretation is more plausible than claiming that Deuteronomy must have been written by a later author who misinterpreted the earlier citations in Exodus.

Even without accepting this midrash, the third citation of the idiom proves that it is not only used as a metaphor in the context of first fruits but rather serves as a metaphor for food restrictions generally. There are specific places, times, and methods of preparation that must be observed in order to permit the consumption of certain foods. The Paschal lamb may not be brought or eaten with leavened products still around, the bikkurim and tithes can only be eaten in certain places or by certain people, and kosher animals may only be eaten if they are slaughtered properly rather than killed in some other way or found already dead. Just as it would be unthinkable to cook a baby goat in its own mother’s milk, so too is it inappropriate to eat food prepared in the wrong space, time, or process. The mitzvah not to cook meat and milk together concretizes this metaphor in a way that affects our daily lives – it is arguably the quintessential example of where Judaism demands clear distinctions and separation, much like kilayim and shaatnez.

The second assumption can also be easily rejected. Bekhor Shor himself refers to his Exodus comments as “לפי הפשט,” which is usually understood to refer to an interpretation that is particularly focused on the local context. In Deuteronomy, Bekhor Shor does not classify his interpretation this way; he just says that “לא תבשל גדי בחלב אמו” is a prohibition to eat meat and milk together because it is cruel to eat a kid in its own mother’s milk, from which it sustained its life. In Exodus, Bekhor Shor explains the intention of the phrase in context while in Deuteronomy he explains the meaning of the idiom itself and its halakhic implications. Accordingly, there is no inconsistency within Bekhor Shor’s commentary. In fact, according to the footnotes in the Mossad HaRav Kook edition of Bekhor Shor (p. 176), the scribe who wrote the manuscript used by Mossad HaRav Kook inserts Bekhor Shor’s Deuteronomy interpretation into both Exodus comments as well. It is also important to note that Ibn Ezra (Exodus 23:19) anticipates and rejects Bekhor Shor’s understanding of the Exodus citations and gives a different, plausible explanation instead.

Throughout my Jewish education, I have not spent much time studying Biblical criticism – there is too much Rabbinic literature to get through before reading academic Bible literature thoroughly. In general, Orthodox Jews hold steadfast onto the belief that the Torah is a divine document and that its contents were transmitted to Moses by G-d. Aware of the difficulties that lie ahead as we encounter more challenges to the traditional understanding of the divine encounter at Mount Sinai, we must confront these issues honestly while maintaining the the divinity of the Torah, come what may. As Midrash Tehillim (chapter 119) writes:

בתמימות קבלו את התורה. אמר להם (שמות כג:יט) “לא תבשל גדי בחלב אמו” ולא אמרו “למה לא נבשל?” אלא קבלו עליהם. אמר להם (ויקרא ז:כד) “כל חלב שור וכשב ועז לא תאכלו” ולא אמרו לו “למה?” אלא קבלו עליהם, ואע”פ שקבלו עליהם לא אמרו “מה שכרן ונעשה אותן?” לכך אמר (תהילים קיט:א) אשרי תמימי דרך

Upright did they accept the Torah. [Moses] said to them, Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19) and they did not say, “Why not cook?” Rather, they accepted it. He said to them, “The fats of an ox, sheep, or goat you should not eat” (Leviticus 7:24) and they did not say to him, “Why?” Rather, they accepted it upon themselves. Even though they accepted it, they did not ask, “What  is the reward, should we do them?” Therefore, he said, Happy are they that are upright in the path (Psalms 119).

About the Author
Rabbi Jason Strauss is the rabbi of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Brighton, MA and a Judaic Studies teacher at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA.
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