Mishpatim: A tale of three Covenants

What connexion is there between the Festivals, their sacrifices, the Bikkurim – and the prohibition on cooking meat and milk together?

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Haredi soldiers learning Torah
Haredi soldiers learning Torah

Most of the 118 verses which comprise Parashat Mishpatim, the immediate aftermath of the Ten Commandments and the continuation of the Giving of the Torah, are legislative: Parashat Mishpatim contains 44 mitzvot, 17 positive and 27 negative.

Our parashah begins with a long series of mitzvot, concluding with the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot) and their respective sacrifices (Exodus 23:14-18). It then continues with the mitzvah to bring the Bikkurim (the First-Fruits offering); since the Bikkurim are offered on Shavuot, this is an appropriate conclusion to the Festival sequence:

“You shall bring the choicest of the first fruits of your land to the House of Hashem your G-d; you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (v. 19).

This appears to be a complete non-sequitur. What connexion is there between the Festivals, their sacrifices, the Bikkurim – and the prohibition on cooking meat and milk together?

To understand the connexion, we start by noting that immediately after this prohibition comes G-d’s promise to send an angel to lead the Children of Israel to Israel and to protect them along the way (v. 20). And we also note that the prohibition of cooking a kid in its mother’s milk will be repeated verbatim twice more in the Torah (Exodus 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21).

The second time this prohibition appears, it is again in the identical context – appended at the end of the mitzvot of the Pilgrimage Festivals. Apparently the Torah does see a connexion between the Pilgrimage Festivals and the separation between meat and milk.

The third and final time it appears in a far more immediately-obvious context. There, the Torah gives us the mitzvot of kashrut – permitted and forbidden animals (Deuteronomy 14:4-8), fishes (vs. 9-10), and birds (vs. 11-20), concluding with the prohibition of cooking a kid in its mother’s milk (v. 21).

Two questions now arise: Why does the Torah repeat this prohibition three times? And why the first two times does it appear in a context which seems to bear no relevance?

The Talmud (Kiddushin 57b and Hullin 115b; compare Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah 5:12) addresses the first question, providing a halachic explanation: “The Academy of Rabbi Yishmael taught: ‘You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk’ appears three times – once to forbid eating [the mixture], once to forbid deriving any [other] benefit, and once to forbid cooking”.

The Rambam (Laws of Forbidden Foods 9:1), the Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 87:1), and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (46:5) all cite this as practical halachah.

So here we have an explanation of why the Torah repeats the prohibition three times – it indicates three separate prohibitions. However, we do not yet have an explanation of why the first two times it seems to be totally disconnected from the context in which it appears.

To understand the contextualisation, we turn to Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888). His commentary to the five Hebrew wordsלֹא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ, “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”, runs to some six pages, and he explains: –

The Torah forbids us to eat unclean animals, birds, fishes, and insects, and admonishes in that context: “Do not make your souls disgusting by [eating] any creepy-crawly, and do not contaminate yourselves by them... You will be holy...and do not contaminate your souls by [eating] any creeping thing that crawls along the ground” (Leviticus 11:43-44).

Thus eating non-kosher animals, birds, fishes, or insects degrades our souls and contaminates us. But this does not apply to the milk-meat mixture: unlike impure creatures which contaminate only by being eaten, the milk-meat mixture is forbidden even to prepare, just as the Torah forbids us to cross-breed organically differing plants (Leviticus 19:19, Deuteronomy 22:9), to cross-breed different animals (Leviticus 19:19), to use two organically different animals together for human work (Deuteronomy 22:10), and to mix wool and linen in a single garment (Leviticus 19:19, Deuteronomy 22:11).

None of these mixtures have any direct effect on the human organism, neither does mixing meat and milk. This is the reason that the Torah forbids us not only to eat a milk-meat mixture, but also to derive any other benefit from it (such as selling a cheese-burger to a non-Jew for profit, or even giving it to a non-Jew as a gift and earning gratitude), or even to prepare it (such as cooking a cheese-burger in a cookery class to learn the method, without eating the finished product).

Therefore, continues Rabbi Hirsch, the prohibition of combining meat and milk must have symbolic effect, similar to the symbolic meaning in the prohibitions on eating the sciatic nerve (Genesis 32:33) and the prohibition on eating, or even possessing, leaven on Pesach.

All of these mixtures are forbidden because they interfere with and violate the fundamental principle of the distinction between separate species, which G-d decreed in the very moments of primordial Creation.

On the third day G-d created vegetation, “fruit-trees yielding fruit לְמִינוֹ, of its own kind...vegetation yielding seed לְמִינֵהוּ, of its own kind, and trees yielding fruit which contain seed לְמִינֵהוּ, of its own kind” (Genesis 1:11-12).

On the fifth day, “G-d created the great sea-giants and every creeping living creature with which the water teems לְמִינֵהֶם, of their own kind, and every winged fowl לְמִינֵהוּ, of its own kind” (v. 21).

And on the sixth day, “G-d said: Let the earth bring forth living creatures, each לְמִינָהּ, of its own kind, animal and creeping thing and beast of the land לְמִינָהּ, of its own kind; and so it was. G-d made the beast of the land לְמִינָהּ, of its own kind, and the animal לְמִינָהּ, of its own kind, and everything that creeps along the ground לְמִינֵהוּ, of its own kind” (vs. 24-25).

This great Law of לְמִינוֹ, of-its-own-kind, preserves every one of the uncountable organic creatures throughout the world’s existence, within the prescribed form and power and material of its species.

Thus the prohibition on mixing milk and meat ranks alongside the other prohibited mixtures, reminding us in all our activities and all forms of Creation which we use – in agriculture, in labour, in clothing, and now, here, in food – how the Creator of all has decreed order in Creation, has given each aspect its specific task, has imbued each one with its unique identity.

Among all the admonitions, the prohibition on mixing milk and meat is foremost. This reminder of Divine Law given to all creatures and to us especially in our Jewish obligations, comes to us at precisely the moment when we are about to assimilate animal matter – meat or milk – into the very fibres of our bodies.

It is at precisely this juncture, more than ever, that the admonition is emphasised to remain conscious of our “own-kind”-mission. Even as we consume permitted animal-matter and assimilate it into our bodies, we are adjured that our mission is to raise our animal aspect to the heights of spirituality.

We can understand, concludes Rabbi Hirsch, why this law appears three times, each time as the conclusion and seal of a great chapter of laws. Above all, why it can come – indeed, must come – as the conclusion and seal of “Mishpatim”, judgements.

So now, with Rabbi Hirsch’s explanation, we can understand why the commandment “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” appears here, concluding the legal section of Parashat Mishpatim. Rabbi Hirsch shows how this apparent non-sequitur is actually an incredibly powerful conclusion to the dozens of laws which precede it.

And now, having explained the halachic aspect, we turn to the Midrash:

“Rabbi Yishmael says: Why does it say ‘You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk’ in three places? – To correspond to the three Covenants which G-d forged with Israel: one in Horeb [Mount Sinai], one in the Plains of Moab, and one at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal” (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Mishpatim, massechta de-Kaspa 20 and Sifrei Deuteronomy, Re’eh 104).

The first of these three Covenants, Horeb, was when G-d gave us the Torah.

The second was almost 40 years later, as we were poised on the brink of entering the Land of Israel. G-d admonished us with His blessings for keeping the Torah and His punishments for disobeying it, and concluded: “These are the words of the Covenant which Hashem commanded Moshe to forge with the Children of Israel in the land of Moab, apart from the Covenant which He had forged with them in Horeb” (Deuteronomy 28:69).

The third Covenant was a few weeks later, when the Children of Israel reached Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal.

On Moshe’s final day in this world, while yet on the east bank of the River Jordan, he had instructed the Jews: “When Hashem your G-d will bring you to the Land to which you are coming to inherit, you will give the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal” (Deuteronomy 11:29, and compare 27:12).

Sure enough, a few weeks later, upon beginning to conquer the Land of Israel, Joshua led the nation to these two mountains – the mountains flanking Shechem in the heart of the Shomron (Samaria). There Joshua built an altar, there the Kohanim (Priests) and the Levites declaimed the blessings and the curses to the nation, there Joshua read the entire Torah to the nation, and there was the third and final Covenant (Joshua 8:30-35).

We pause briefly to note that Rabbi Yishmael, who explained that the three-fold prohibition against mixing milk and meat teaches three separate halachic prohibitions – eating, benefitting, and cooking – is the same Rabbi Yishmael who midrashically explained that the three-fold repetition alludes to the three Covenants.

The first time that the Torah commands “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”, it forbids eating the milk-meat mixture and corresponds to the Covenant at Horeb. Eating the milk-meat mixture is the most direct spiritual contamination (following Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s commentary), since a Jew who eats the cooked milk-meat mixture ingests that forbidden mixture into his very being.

This is singularly appropriate, because the Giving of the Torah at Horeb cleansed Israel of the most direct spiritual contamination of all time. As Rabbi Yochanan said, “When the snake came upon Eve [in the Garden of Eden], he infused her with impurity; when Israel stood at Mount Sinai, they were cleansed of that impurity” (Yevamot 103b and Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 28; compare also Shabbat 145b-146a).

The second time the Torah forbids the meat-milk mixture (Exodus 34:26) it forbids deriving any benefit from the forbidden mixture, and corresponds to the Covenant at the Plains of Moab. We addressed the connexion between the prohibition on deriving any benefit from any meat-milk mixture and the Covenant at the Plains of Moab four years ago, in our D’var Torah on Parashat Ki Tissa 5776/2016 (/Articles/Article.aspx/18470).

The third and final time the Torah forbids the meat-milk mixture (Deuteronomy 14:21) it forbids cooking milk and meat together and corresponds to the Covenant at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, overlooking Shechem.

Of the three Covenants, the third was the only one sealed in the Land of Israel, and marked the end of the first exile.

How appropriate, then, that the end of the exile and the beginning of our national life of independence in our own Land corresponds to the prohibition on cooking meat and milk together – the prohibition which, as Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch demonstrated, more than any other, epitomises more than any other Israel’s national mission.

And how appropriate, then, that immediately after commanding us for the first time that “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”, G-d’s very next words are: “Behold! – I am sending an angel ahead of you, to protect you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20).