David Meir

Why we Jews separate milk and meat

On three separate occasions in our Holy Torah do we find the phrase: “Do not boil (or cook) a kid (baby goat) in his mother’s milk.” (In Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21)
in Hebrew it gives:
לֹא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּו
Or in transliteration: “Lo Tevashel Gdi Be Chalav Imo.”

Why does the Torah forbid us to cook a baby goat in his mother’s milk? It could have very well said, do not cook meat with milk.

Obviously there is a thematic theme behind this commandment.

Indeed there is and this verse has to be coupled with other similar verses also found in the Torah like: “Do not take a mother [bird] with its chicks” (Deuteronomy 22:6) or “You shall not slaughter, from the herd or the flock, an animal with its young on the same day.” (Leviticus 22:28).

For a moment let’s look at the commandment concerning the mother bird, here’s the full verse:
6 If a bird’s nest chances before you on the road, on any tree, or on the ground, and [it contains] fledglings or eggs, if the mother is sitting upon the fledglings or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother upon the young.

The next verse continues thus:
7 You shall send away the mother, and [then] you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days.

Only two commandments in the Torah end with: “… and you should lengthen your days.”
This is the first one, the other is in the Ten Commandments.
12 Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12).
Let’s look for a moment at the connection between those two commandments to get an understanding of the main idea at play here.In the Torah no reward is given for any commandment and this so we don’t start to make a table of what is worth more or less doing.
The only two exceptions are those mentioned above.
Honoring the parents is pretty clear.
They brought us to this world, they worked so we might do something with our lives.
Sometimes one has strained relations with his folks, in extreme cases they might be jerks (or the kid might be), but nothing can excuse disrespect for those who have brought us to this world.
It seems fitting that by saying what reward we get for respecting our parents, the Torah stresses the upmost importance of this injunction.

But what about the mother bird?

Basically, the Torah says that if you come upon a nest or a fallen egg or baby bird from it, let the mother go before you snatch the egg for your next breakfast.
It seems so simple, why does the Torah compares this to respect to your parents?
Because it is.
Not to your parents specifically (in this case) but to the mother bird and here the Torah teaches us a truth that everyone should recognize.

Animals have feelings and there is nothing worse for a mother than witnessing her kids taken away from her.
That is the reason why you should chase the mother before you take the eggs, so she may not have to witness the worse of all from a parental point of view.

In addition to this important truth, the Torah teaches also that parent-children relation is a sacred bond which should be respected in death and beyond.

But then, why not be vegan and not bring any suffering to animals by slaughtering them for consumption?

Ahhh, that’s a good question.
The answer is simple.
There is a thing called the food chain in the animal kingdom and far from me to pretend it doesn’t exist or doesn’t extend to us humans.
I guess with time mankind will move away from meat consumption when we will have found a way to engineer a food as tasty as meat and that retains all its nutrients.
Sure, why not?
However, this is not the discussion I want to open, I’m just saying we can stay carnivorous while respecting that animals, as parents, care for their kids no less than we humans do, and prevent unnecessary anguish to them.

So back to the main point, the Torah recognizes the sacred parental bond and forbids us to join parents and children in death, and even beyond.
That is why it tells us not to slaughter an animal next to his offspring or to cook an animal in his mother’s milk.

What about chickens one might ask?
As far as we know, birds don’t lactate so why should it be a problem?
Well, until the end of the Second Temple era, some communities did eat milk along with chicken meat, but even that was later forbidden by Rabbinical decree as was a few hundred years earlier the total abstinance of eating any mammal meat along with dairy products.
The logic behind it was to prevent mixing even by mistake a meat with a dairy product that could be compromised.
Better safe than sorry was the idea.

As for chicken, the reason why that was prohibited as well teaches us an important notion in Judaism.
The idea of making others sin by example.

We must be very careful in what we do because our actions have an impact all around us whether we want it or not.
If a less religious Jew sees someone eating chicken with a glass of milk or with cheese, he might be tempted to think that it’s ok.
“If that religious guy does it then it’s safe.”
He might not know the specifics and in his ignorance and relying on what he saw might, God forbids, go straight to McDonalds to order a cheeseburger.

Our sages, feeling that this could be a problem and not wanting to bring sin on a fellow Jew, thus decided that any sort of meat should be strictly separated in all manners from any dairy product and this is why we Jews do not mix meat and milk.

About the Author
I was born in France and grew up in Montreal, Canada. I made Aliyah at age 21, out of Zionism and the deep religious feeling that my place is here, in Eretz Yisrael.