In his recent blog post “Why Separate Milk and Meat?” (following up on his earlier piece “Why Keep Kosher?”) Rabbi Michael Harvey challenges the traditional view that the Torah (Exodus 23:19, 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21) prohibits cooking meat and dairy together. Instead, he maintains that the word usually understood as חֲלֵב, milk, should instead be read as חֵלֶב, meaning fat. Somewhat glibly comparing the current halacha to a jenga tower, he purports to demonstrate that the traditional understanding of the verse is purely subjective, probably incorrect, and in any case determined by the rabbis in accordance with a preexisting theological viewpoint. Firstly, we will examine Rabbi Harvey’s arguments and see whether they are as convincing as he presents them as; then we will review the available evidence, starting from the rabbinic period and working backwards, and see where it leads.
After a brief review of the development of the halacha as we have it, Rabbi Harvey notes that we have no record of the original pronunciation of חלב, as the Masoretes were the first to standardize the diacritical notation of the Tanach. Of course, this in itself does not disprove the traditional vowelization of the word, but it does open the possibility that it was originally read differently. As positive evidence for his thesis, Rabbi Harvey presents two arguments. Leviticus (3:17 and 7:23), he notes, prohibits the consumption of fat, and the commandment in Exodus dovetails neatly with this. But this is an argument for reading חלב as milk, not against it! The Torah already alludes to the idea that fat is to be reserved for offering to God in the verse before the first occurrence of the prohibition (Exodus 23: 18):
You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the fat of My festival offering shall not be left lying until morning.
Why formulate the prohibition on consuming fat in such an unusual manner, and seemingly condition it on the fat belonging to the mother? I am surprised that Rabbi Harvey tagged his piece as “biblical criticism”; a real source critic would have proposed that the austere priests of Leviticus viewed consumption of all fat as prohibited, unlike the more lenient attitude taken by Exodus.
Citing Leviticus 22:26-28, Rabbi Harvey presents his second argument, which attempts to explain the conditioning of the prohibition on the fat being the mother’s:
[Y]ou 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?
Why does this make any more sense than boiling a kid in its mother’s milk? Were the ancient Israelites so incompetent at animal husbandry that they could not understand the implications of slaughtering multiple generations of animals at once, and needed the Torah as an almanac? Furthermore, the verses cited explicitly permit the slaughter of the mother and the child in close succession, so long as it does not occur on the same day, and permits sacrificing the child a mere week after birth – rather strange allowances if the purpose of the command is to safeguard Israelite food sources. Rabbi Harvey could strengthen his claim by noting the morally problematic aspects of consuming both a mother and child animal together, but then he would have to acknowledge that this could equally well serve as a rationale for the traditional view.
Lastly, Rabbi Harvey speculates that there may be other cases where the Masoretes rendered חלב as milk in opposition to the original meaning:
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!
Again, why does a land flowing with animals make any more sense than a land flowing with milk? Both are symbolic expressions, not literal ones. It is true that Ugaritic hymns describe fat raining down from the heavens, alongside honey flowing. But in any case, this provides no evidence one way or the other for the meaning of חלב in the legal corpora of Exodus and Deuteronomy. (Also, contra Rabbi Harvey, milk is definitively sometimes used by the Torah to describe the agricultural wealth of land; cf. Genesis 49:12.)
Rabbi Harvey has at best shown that it is possible the word חלב in context of the prohibition originally referred to fat; however, upon closer examination he fails to adduce any solid positive evidence for his theory. We will now turn to the sources themselves and see what support they offer for the traditional view.
While there is considerable dispute in tannaitic sources as to the exact parameters of the commandment, all opinions are unanimous in agreeing that the word חלב should be understood as milk, not fat. (This is also the view of the Septuagint, which translates the word as γάλα, meaning milk.) As an example, the Mishna in the seventh chapter of Chullin records a dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai as to whether chicken may be placed on the same table as cheese. Thus, already in the earliest times of the tannaitic period, we find that the essential nature of the prohibition was understood as referring to combining meat and dairy, and that there were already rabbinical ordinances in place to prevent accidental violations. This does not prove anything regarding the original intention of the Torah, of course, but it is indicative of a strong and relatively early tradition on the matter.
With regards to how the word חלב was originally read, here matters are a bit murkier. As noted, we lack a record of the original vocalization; however, this does not mean that we are totally in the dark regarding the issue. Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman (commentary to Deuteronomy 14:21) makes a surprisingly simple point. Milk, unlike fat, is a substance that only a mother can produce; it is therefore possible that the Torah mentions the mother precisely in order to compensate for the lack of diacritical marks in the text:
The phrase “in its mother’s milk” leaves no room for doubt, for there is no reason to mention the mother specifically in connection with fat. This is not the case with milk, which is related to motherhood. In ancient times, where the writing was done without vowels, the addition of the phrase “its mother’s” served to distinguish between milk and fat, and perhaps this is the reason why the Torah specifies a kid.
However, the larger context of the commandment complicates things a bit. It appears three times in the Torah, twice in Exodus and once in Deuteronomy. The context of the latter mention leans against reading חלב as fat. Deuteronomy 14 stresses the importance of Israel as a holy nation, and therefore forbids them from eating certain impure animals; it is difficult to see what a prohibition against consuming fat is doing tacked on to the end of this list. The Torah does not explicitly give a reason for prohibiting fat, but it appears to be tied to its reservation to God in sacrifices. If so, the prohibition belongs in chapter 12 alongside that against consuming blood, just as Leviticus groups the two together. On the other hand, a prohibition against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk fits in well here, either as an injunction against copying pagan rituals or as a moral instruction.
By contrast, in Exodus the commandment occurs each time at the end of a section dealing with the three pilgrimage festivals and is immediately preceded by the instruction to bring the firstfruits to the temple. Whichever reading of חלב we adopt, it is unclear why the prohibition is stated in this context. It seems that the solution lies in a radical interpretation of the verse first proposed by Dunash Ibn Labrat (quoted by Rabbi Yosef Kara), and more extensively articulated by Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor (one of the second generation of tosafists) in his commentary to Exodus 23:19:
According to the simple meaning of the verse, בישול [cooking] means growth and completion, similar to “its clusters ripened into grapes” (Genesis 40:10). And this is what the verse means to say: Do not leave it [the kid] to grow and be weaned from the milk of its mother… but rather bring it [as an offering] quickly, as the beginning of the verse states regarding the firstfruits of the land.
This suggestion is extremely compelling; it explains the juxtaposition with the pilgrimage festivals in general and the firstfruits in particular, whereas we would still be left scratching our heads as to why the commandment is placed alongside these if we read חלב as fat. The only difficulty is that we are now left with a seeming contradiction between Deuteronomy 14, which as noted points to a literal prohibition on cooking a kid in its mother’s milk, and Exodus, which uses the phrase somewhat metaphorically. Bechor Shor also seemed to be aware of this and mentions only the traditional interpretation in his commentary on Deuteronomy. (If Rabbi Harvey had noticed the difference in contexts between Exodus and Deuteronomy, I suspect we would have received a discussion of a possible misinterpretation on the part of the Deuteronomist of the original precept of the Convenant Code in Exodus; why bother casting doubts on the traditions of the rabbis when you can topple the jenga tower of pentateuchal integrity itself? Unfortunately, he seems content to scoff at traditional beliefs rather than engage in serious biblical scholarship, even that of a critical nature.) As of yet I have no definitive solution, but I will note that this is not the only example of Deuteronomy “literalizing” certain commandments from earlier books by changing their contexts. For example, it appears that the instruction in Exodus 13 to tie the commandments as a sign upon the arm and an ornament upon the forehead is symbolic; however, Deuteronomy groups it together with the concrete commandment to inscribe the words of the Torah upon the doorpost, which heavily implies that it is not a metaphor but a literal instruction.
Bechor Shor was not a free-thinking, bible-criticizing intellectual born ahead of his time in medieval France. He declared (commentary to Leviticus 17:11) that those who interpreted the commandment to cover the blood of a slaughtered animal metaphorically were deserving of being flayed (!). Similarly, he bemoaned (commentary to Deuteronomy 6:9) the fact that “there are those among our people” (including his own teacher, Rashbam) who claimed that the aforementioned commandment of tefillin was symbolic according to pshat, and warned that they would be held liable by heaven.
How can we reconcile Bechor Shor’s willingness to entertain a radical interpretation of one commandment while simultaneously condemning those who maintained a heterodox view regarding others? It seems that Bechor Shor’s vituperations may have been directed only against those who challenged the binding halachic authority of the rabbinic tradition, and not at those who merely suggested novel views on pshat; he of course kept the laws of kashrut himself. Likewise, Rashbam wore tefillin; as he states in his commentary to Exodus 21:1, it is the halacha as we have it that dictates how a Jew must live, not peshuto shel mikra. A full discussion of this subject is beyond the scope of this post; but Rashbam’s and Bechor Shor’s are just two of many voices in the rabbinic tradition that are cognizant of the fact that current day practices may not reflect the literal meaning of the written Torah (a realization which Rabbi Harvey seems to think belongs to Reform Judaism exclusively). They certainly did not believe that “if you change that one vowel, that one word, the brick is pulled and the tower falls.”
Nevertheless, we have no need to avail ourselves of such voices in this case. Let us review the evidence for the traditional view: We have a unanimous and relatively early tradition that the correct reading of the verse refers to milk, including non-rabbinic sources. In addition, the mention of the mother specifically supports this contention, as does the larger context of Deuteronomy 14. The only difficulty is the context of the prohibition in Exodus (which even according to Bechor Shor’s view should still be read as referring to milk and not fat), but by fitting this in with the pattern of Deuteronomic “literalization” of earlier commandments we can safely assume that the final word of the Torah (and presumably the received tradition) is the rabbinic one. In any case, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever for claiming that the original intent of the Torah was to forbid cooking a kid in its mother’s fat. It appears that in this case it is Rabbi Harvey who is making his own subjective decision on how to pronounce a word in accordance with his preexisting theological viewpoints.