Why is it forbidden to eat milk and meat?

Dear Rabbi,

While I understand the reason that G-d would command us not to steal, murder, to honor our parents and the like, I fail to see any logic in a commandment concerning what I consume. Why would an omnipotent G-d care if I eat milk and meat together? Is there any sound reason behind this law?

Sincerely,

Amanda

 

Three types of mitzvos

You ask an interesting question which in truth, extends beyond this specific mitzvah of milk and meat.

In general, mitzvos are divided into three categories:

  • Mishpatim: Mitzvos that can be understood from a moral and logical perspective. Concerning these mitzvos it is said, that even were the Torah not to command us concerning them, we would come up with these laws on our own.
  • Aidus: Mitzvos that serve as a testimony and commemorate certain events. Included in this category are the mitzvos of Shabbos, Pesach and Sukos. Though we would not have come up with them by ourselves, they are understandable once we are commanded to observe them.
  • Chukim: Mitzvos that we do not understand. These are mitzvos which even after we were commanded regarding them, are still difficult for our rational minds to wrap our heads around. Included in the third category is the commandment concerning milk and meat.

Your question essentially is pointed towards all the mitzvos that fall into the third category. Or, to state the question in other words: “Why did G-d leave certain mitzvos without a reason altogether and not explain to us the purpose for them? Wouldn’t understanding their purposes strengthen our resolve in keeping them?”

It is best not to know

The answer to this is twofold:

  1. No. Understanding the reason for the mitzvos would not necessarily strengthen our resolve in keeping the mitzvos. On the contrary, this can actually weaken it.
  2. There is a specific intent in not revealing to us the reason for certain mitzvos.

To explain the first reason: it is not always a positive thing to understand why we must keep certain mitzvos of the Torah. Often times, it is actually better not to be aware of the reason.

The Talmud[1] says the following, regarding why the reasons are not always revealed in the Torah:

R. Isaac also said: Why were the reasons of [some] Biblical laws not revealed? –Because in two verses reasons were revealed, and they caused the greatest in the world [Solomon] to stumble. Thus it is written: “He shall not multiply wives to himself,” whereon Solomon said, “I will multiply wives yet not let my heart be perverted.” Yet we read, “When Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart.  ”Again it is written: “He shall not multiply to himself horses,  ”concerning which Solomon said, “I will multiply them, but will not cause [Israel] to return [to Egypt].” Yet we read: “And a chariot came up and went out of Egypt for six [hundred shekels of silver].”

Though various reasons have been given to this mitzvah of not consuming milk and meat—as will be seen further—it is ultimately a commandment which is included in the classification of a chok[2] (decree), the third type, which G-d places upon us so that we can listen to him even when we do not understand why.

Not knowing the reason for the mitzvah actually helps us, in that we do not second-guess G-d. According to this advantage, the reason that G-d hid the reason from us is because of our proclivity to assume that we are smarter than Him.

What can I do when I have been decreed by G-d?

When a person does not know the reason for the chukim mitzovs, there is a distinct advantage in that he won’t assume that he knows better than G-d. There is, however, another benefit as well. When a person does a mitzvah without knowing the reason, he can have the purest of intentions, unadulterated by anything else. In this case, a person can fulfill them for their ultimate purpose—just because G-d said so.

When we do not steal or do not murder we are more often than not, doing so because of a natural aversion to these things. Not so when we do not eat milk and meat or do other mitzvos that are not understood in reason. In those instances the only reason that we do those commandments is because G-d said so.

We do them because we wish to connect with G-d and we nullify our minds and will to Him. We follow these commandments even when we do not have a rational reason for them.

If we were to understand all the mitzvos, it is possible that we would never truly be serving G-d, but rather serving ourselves.

Fulfilling chukim-type mitzvos are an expression that in truth, our service of G-d and all the mitzvos that we do—including those that we do understand—are done because we wish to be connected to G-d in a manner that surpasses our finite minds.

This idea (that it is sometimes better not to understand the reasoning behind certain mitzvos) is elucidated further by Maimonides[3]. Maimonides explains that though a person should desire to do good and fulfill the mitzvos, with mitzvos that are classified as chukim this is not the case. Concerning these mitzvos he relates that it is actually better to not want to do them.

He explains this by expounding on certain contradictory thoughts which are brought in Judaic writing.

Solomon states[4]: “The soul of the evildoer desires evil.  ”The meaning of this is that a person who has a proclivity towards evil is naturally a bad person and the desire is expressive of an evil trait in the person’s soul. Further in the same chapter the verse says as well[5]: “Performance of justice is a joy for the righteous, and destruction to workers of iniquity.”

In other words, he states that good people enjoy doing good and bad people enjoy doing evil.

Maimonides explains the above to mean that someone who is a “chassid”—a person who’s natural desire is to do good—is greater that the “moshelb’rucho”­—a person who’s natural proclivity is to do evil, yet contains his urge.

However, Maimonides is bothered by Solomon’s statement, since in other places it seems that someone who desires evil is actually in essence, a greater person than one who doesn’t.  The Talmud states[6]: “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his inclination for evil is greater than his fellow.”

Not only that, says the Maimonides, but rabbinic literature prescribes that it is actually proper to desire to do evil when abstaining from performing certain transgressions. In the Sifra[7] the following statement is brought:

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: A person should not say, “I do not want to eat meat and milk, I do not want to wear shatnez and I do not want to have illicit relations.” Rather he should say, “I want to, but what shall I do when my Father in Heaven has decreed [forbidden] me from doing so.”

He explains this seeming contradiction by elucidating that the difference of whether it is better to want to sin or to not want to, all depends on which type of mitzvah is being discussed. At times, we say that it is better for a person to have an inclination towards evil, and at other times we say that it is better not to.

Mitzvos which can be understood morally should be performed in a way that expresses the person’s moral conscience. Mitzvos which are not understood through human reason should be done just because G-d said so, although we do not understand them.

According to this we can understand the statement of Solomon. When he said “The soul of the evildoer desires evil,” he was referring to things that are clearly evil such as stealing, murder and the like. [In these cases it would be a sin to desire such lowly behavior.] However, when the Talmud says that a person should say “I want to, but what shall I do when my Father in Heaven has decreed [forbidden] me from doing so,” it is referring to instances where the evil is not clearly apparent.

Knowing the reasons

Although we have previously discussed the benefits of not knowing the reasons for chukim, Maimonides makes the following statement, advising us to also try and investigate the reasoning behind these commandments[8]:

“Although all of the statutes of the Torah are decrees, as we explained in the conclusion of Hilchot Me’ilah, it is fit to meditate upon them and wherever it is possible to provide a reason, one should provide a reason…”

The advantage of finding possible understandings to these mitzvos is that then, the mitzvos become not only commandments which are superimposed over the person’s identity and mind, but values which become united with the person himself.

With mitzvos which are categorized as mishpatim, those have completely permeated human logic. However, mitzvos that are categorized as chukim remain for the most part above human understanding. As such, there it is advantageous that to a certain degree we try to understand these mitzvos so that they do not run completely against human logic. They thereby, to a certain degree, become part of the natural human experience.

With this in mind, the following are some reasons given by the commentators for the mitzvah of meat and milk:

  • Cooking meat and milk together was an idolatrous practice. The Torah therefore wishes us to abstain from it along with other idolatrous acts. It is for this reason that the Torah mentions the prohibition of meat and milk in connection with going up to the Temple during the holidays. It is as if the verse is saying, go to the temple but do not do idolatrous practices[9].
  • In general, goats have multiple children at a time. It was therefore normal to slaughter one of them and eat it immediately. In addition, goats are also known to produce a lot of milk[10], and it is thus common to make use of it. The Torah therefore states the prohibition in regard to a goat, using the most practical example of the two having the potential to be cooked together. The specific reason why we were commanded not to act in this manner is since it is gluttonous and uncivilized to eat the milk of the mother with the meat of the child[11]. In a similar vein, it is a cruel trait to eat the mother and the child together. It is possible that when a person may generally cook milk and meat together, he may be cooking the meat he is eating with the milk of its mother[12].
  • A more Kabbalistic reason is given as well: Milk and meat represent the attributes of chessed and gevurah, respectively. Just as in the prohibition of kilayim one may not mix two separate species together (grafting plants, animals, etc.), so too here with milk and meat, it is not proper to mix these two different energies together[13].


[1] Sanhedrin 21b

[2] See RabbeinuChananel Yuma 67b

[3]ShmonaPerakim 6

[4]Mishlei 21:10

[5]Mishlei 21:15

[6]Suka 52a

[7] End of Kedoshom according to Maimonides version of the text.

[8]HilchosTemura 4:14

[9]More Nevuchim 3:48, Abarbanel

[10]Mishlei 27:27

[11]Rashbam

[12] Even Ezra Shemos 23:19. It seems from the Even Ezra that Biblically the prohibition against the consumption of meat and milk is only milk from the mother of the animal. According to the Even Ezra the sweeping prohibition against all meat and milk is rabbinic in nature.

[13]Shala 321a

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