Today we’re going to play a game of Jewish Jenga. Looking at the tower of bricks, all perfectly in order, we can see it as a metaphor for the evolution of halacha, of Jewish law up to the top bricks where we are today. The tower is tall because for thousands of years interpretations have been stacked upon one another, based upon previous assumptions and understandings, represented by the bricks underneath. But what happens if we follow the trail down to the bottom bricks and ask a question that might make the tower a little less stable? And today, let’s play that game with a particular understanding of Kashrut law, specifically the prohibition of mixing milk and meat. It would be nearly impossible to list or repeat all the incredible details of Kashrut law set forth by the rabbis of the Talmud and beyond on this subject, but if you follow the Jenga bricks from top to bottom, you’d see a trail from the modern responsa, to the medieval writings, Mishneh Torah, the Shulchan Aruch down to the Talmud, and the Mishnah. Of course, the bottom bricks, those foundational bricks holding up the Jenga tower come from the Torah, specifically: two verses in Exodus (23:19 & 34:26), and the one in Deuteronomy (14:21).
This commandment states “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Commentators have attempted at length to try to find a reason for not boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk. Ibn Ezra, an 11th century commentator, surmised that this was simply a common practice in the near east. Maimonides’ theory, in the 13th century, was that this was a pagan ritual, and that we should stay away from it lest we engage in idolatry. Others thought it had something to do with health reasons. However, in the end, the rabbis ruled that “you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” because it is a commandment described as chok, meaning it is a commandment in which the reason has been lost, or is unclear, yet we are charged to follow it due to the divine origin of the commandment.
This is pretty amazing considering that this one sentence, in which no rational reason has been given, is the basis for rabbinic laws that forbid Jews from mixing meat and milk in the same meal or on the same plate, and require Jews to go through hours of waiting before eating one after the other. Indeed, this commandment has become standard kashrut law for Jews: you do not mix milk and meat.
Given the ambiguity of the law, it’s natural for you to be wondering how this came to be. The answer is in Pirke Avot 1:1, the Ethics of our Fathers in our Mishnah. The verse states:
The men of the Great assembly used to say these three things: Be cautious in judgment, establish many pupils, and make a safety fence around the Torah.
The last aspect, the safety fence, is what has transformed a seemingly confusing commandment, not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk, into a point of tension around Jews in restaurants, synagogues, and public gatherings. Not fully understanding the commandment, the sages drew a safety fence around it so that they would not risk breaking it. In other words, the rabbis made it so that even if they didn’t understand the commandment, they wouldn’t accidentally break it due to their lack of understanding. Thus, we have the Kashrut law in Judaism of not mixing meat and milk together in a meal.
But what if the very writing of that commandment was mistaken from the start? The commandment forbidding the boiling of a kid in its mother’s milk in Hebrew is:
Lo T’vashel G’dee Ba’Chalev Emo (transliterated).
The word we should recognize is chalev, the word for milk in Hebrew, spelled Chet, Lamed, Vet. The word for milk features certain vowels underneath to make the sound of chalev, distinguishing the word from others. Why is this important? Well, there happens to be another Hebrew word with the exact same letters, Chet, Lamed, Vet, but is pronounced, instead of chalev, chaylev. And that is the word for fat, as seen in such passages as Leviticus 7:23: “You shall eat no fat of ox or sheep or goat.” Could this commandment have actually been referencing fat instead of milk? Maybe. The Jenga tower starting to shake a bit.
But, you might ask, sure the letters are the same, but the vowels are different! An excellent point, except that the vowels in our Torah did not come out of nowhere. Rather, the Masoretes, Jewish scribe scholars of the 6th-10th centuries, were the ones who devised the vowel notation system for Hebrew, as well as our trope systems, as they worked with multiple Torah manuscripts in an attempt to standardize them into one. In other words, before the Masoretes worked on our Torah manuscript, there weren’t any official vowels set it yet. You’ll notice, opening any Torah today, that there still are no vowels written. It was the Masoretes who made decisions, based on their intuition and understanding, as to where to put the vowels to make certain words to fit their perception of context. And yes, every so often, they made mistakes. Before this system was made official, readers of the Torah and rabbis made their own decisions as to how to pronounce a particular word, and did so usually to fit a certain theological viewpoint. In other words, the guidebook to the vowels in the Torah didn’t come down from Sinai, which means it’s always been subjective. Uh oh…the Jenga tower is starting to wobble.
So, picture for a moment if you will, the commandment with our new vowel usage:
Instead of: Lo T’vashel G’dee Ba’Chalev Emo, it would read Lo T’vashel G’dee Ba’Chaylev Emo: “you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s fat.” Now that’s interesting. Why? Well, let’s look at another verse that might help us, Leviticus chapter 22:26-28:
Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as an offering by fire to Adonai. However, no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.
What’s the connection to that verse? The connection is that if you boil your animal in its mother’s fat, you are violating another commandment restricting you from eating the fat of animals in Leviticus. And if that isn’t good enough, here is another reason why you shouldn’t boil a kid in its mother’s fat: it means you have also slaughtered the mother, and you don’t want to slaughter your animal on the same day as its young, because if that is the case, you have destroyed the animal which can create more young. In other words, if you boil a kid in its mother’s fat, you run out of food. You have destroyed both sources of food. If you keep the mother alive, you get more calves, and thus more food, so don’t cook them together! Now doesn’t that make more sense than boiling a kid in its mother’s milk?
So look at what we have done here. By changing the vowels on a Hebrew word (a perfectly acceptable thing to do given how vowels were assigned in the first place), we have erased the commandment restricting boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, which takes away the rabbi’s need to build a fence around it, which takes away the Kashrut law of keeping milk and meat separate! We have backed up this change with the scholarly research regarding the ambiguity of Hebrew in the Torah when it comes to vowels, and, thanks to our parsha this week, we have found another text to back up our reasoning! And just for fun maybe we should think about why we call the holy land the land flowing with MILK and honey. Maybe it was meant to be the land of animal fat and honey. Which makes more sense, doesn’t it? A land doesn’t flow with milk. But it does flow with animals. The holy land that God promised was a land that flowed with an abundance of food!
If you’ve ever played the game Jenga, this is what it looks like to take a brick from the bottom and watch the whole tower fall. All of the writings of the rabbis were based upon a choice made by a human being, deciding what the vowels would be. If you change that one vowel, that one word, the brick is pulled and the tower falls.
It’s up to you if you wish to eat cheeseburgers or not, and there is certainly something to be said for tradition and the sacredness of the rabbinic writings, but I would encourage all of you to, at the very least, take a look at how that tower of laws was built and see if those bottom bricks are really as stable as they look!