(19) The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
We will pay special attention to this verse and explain, based on it, some important principles.
The prohibition “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” is found in the Torah three times (here; 34:26; and Deut. 14:21). The halachah understands this threefold repetition as alluding to three aspects of the prohibition, namely: cooking a mixture of milk and meat, eating any such mixture, or even deriving any other benefit or profit from such a mixture.
Be that as it may, the form in which this commandment is presented raises questions. Why did the Torah choose such a strange formulation for this prohibition? Why a kid specifically, and why the milk of its mother? Why did the Torah not express the prohibition of mixing meat and milk straightforwardly and explicitly?
One explanation for this formulation is that the idolaters of antiquity were accustomed to boiling a kid in the milk of its mother, and the Torah therefore chose to describe this aspect of food kashrut in these terms, in order to associate this prohibition with the practice of idolatrous customs.
While this commentary highlights an important point, this does not explain the unusual way this commandment is formulated. We should note that in all three instances when this commandment appears in the Torah, the words “You shall not boil a kid …” comprise not a complete verse, but only the second half of a larger verse. In other words, one gets the impression that the commandment does not stand on its own, but in each case only supplements the one that immediately precedes it. Moreover, in two of the three instances (here and in 34:26) this commandment is stated in the context of harvest offerings brought to the Temple. Then, how does this relate to kashrut at all?
Some scholars argue that the phrase “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” actually has nothing to do with food, but derives, in their view, from an old Middle Eastern proverb that meant “don’t put off what needs to be done” (similar to the modern expression “don’t be late, or you’ll miss the boat” and the like). The original meaning of this proverb, according to this interpretation, is that one should do his best to eat a delicious young kid before it becomes a tasteless, adult goat.
By this reading, it would be straightforward to explain why this phrase always appears as only the second half of its verse: It is not a standalone commandment, but an instruction not to delay the execution of other commandments – the offering of first fruits to the Temple, for example. Based on this premise, these researchers conclude that this verse is not food-related, nor should it be understood it as a prohibition of mixing meat and milk.
Now we will analyze this opinion, using it as the basis for our discussion of the connection between the Written Torah, the Oral Torah, and Halachah.
Most importantly, Divine revelation is not limited to the text of the Written Torah alone, but, rather, consists of the Written and Oral Torahs in unison. And in fact, it is the Oral Tradition, not the Written Torah, that is the primary force driving the formulation of Halachah.
The Written Torah addresses life’s circumstances only in general terms. It does not elaborate the commandments, but only provides “pegs,” so to speak, on which the commandments, fully explicated, can then be “hung” (and those “pegs” are now and again expressed in different terms entirely). Only the Oral Torah provides the specific practical details of how the commandments are to be observed.
The Talmud does much to clarify the connection between the Written and Oral Torahs, enabling us to see them as one unified structure. Through that single Torah edifice, the Tradition has spoken, and made clear, that if the Talmud establishes that a given verse of the Written Torah has a particular meaning in halakhah, then that is its halachic meaning. The historical origins of the verse (“it originally meant such and such”) are then of no practical consequence.
However, there are two rather different approaches to studying the Torah. The first of the two approaches is that of “Torah for Halachah”: i.e., we read the Written Torah in a halachic, legislative sense, and here Jewish tradition strictly prohibits the interpretation of the Torah differently from what the Talmud has established. Thus, in the halachic sense one may not argue that the phrase “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” means not that milk and meat must be kept separate, but something else entirely. That, in essence, is the Karaite approach to Judaism, which tries to keep its balance while standing “on one foot,” the Written Torah alone, while neglecting the Oral Torah. That Karaite approach, in the view of Jewish tradition, is therefore untenable and unacceptable.
The second – non-halachic – mode of reading the Written Torah understands it from the point of view of philosophy, ethics, and a general perception of the world. Such a reading does admit multiple interpretations, and the phrase “you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” may have a completely different meaning than it does in Halachah. In that context, understanding the verse as a proverb, “Be sure not to miss the boat,” is an entirely appropriate and welcome addition to our understanding of the Torah.
These two approaches to reading the Written Torah should be seen not as mutually exclusive, but as complementing each other.