There’s an old joke: God is speaking with Moses and teaching him about halakha (Jewish law). And He says to him: “Remember, Moses, in the laws of keeping kosher, never boil a calf in its mother’s milk.” Moses replies: “So you’re saying we should never eat milk and meat together.” God says: “No, what I’m saying is, never boil a calf in its mother’s milk.” And Moses comes back with: “Oh Lord, forgive my ignorance! What you are really saying is we should wait six hours after eating meat to eat milk so the two are not in our stomachs together.” And God replies: “No, Moses, listen to me. I’m saying, don’t boil a calf in its mother’s milk!!!” Moses says: “Oh, Lord! Please don’t strike me down for my stupidity! What you mean is we should have separate silverware for milk and meat and if we make a mistake we have to kasher the utensil with hot water…” And God interrupts Moses and says: “For God’s sake, Moses, do whatever the hell you want.”
One could debate whether jokes based on deeply-held religious beliefs are funny or appropriate in all company—I once told this joke to a Shabbat table full of friends and was met with stone-faced silence—but from the first time I heard this joke, I understood that in its own way, it’s as profound a statement about halakha as I’ve ever heard.
Observant Jews are bound, equally, by “two” Torahs; one written, one oral. Both were transmitted by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and when the Jews, famously, called out in unison, “Naaseh venishma!” (We will do and we will listen!), it was both Torahs that they accepted. However, because the divine words of the two Torahs are so enigmatic, we rely on generations of Talmudic determinations, rabbinic responsa and the resulting development of countless minhagim (customs) to further elucidate and guide us in the practices that govern our day to day lives.
So, for example, when among the 53 mitzvoth (commandments) that appear in Parashat Mishpatim, we read the strange words, “Lo tevashel g’di, bechalev imo,” (Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk)—the first of 3 separate instances this commandment is mentioned in the Torah—the wheels of this mitzvah’s real-life observance are set in motion.
It turns out the rabbis understand the term “mother’s milk,” as any dairy product, irrespective of its source. And, “boiling,” they say, refers, also, to broiling, baking, frying or roasting. They further determine that meat and dairy should not be eaten together under any circumstances, even if they aren’t cooked together. And, upon further consideration, the rabbis extended the ban to include beef and lamb. And, notwithstanding that Rashi understands the prohibition to specifically exclude fowl, and notwithstanding that Rabbi Akiva and Rav Yosi Ha’Glili debate the subject to a Talmudic draw in Tractate Hulin, and notwithstanding that birds produce no milk, rendering moot at least half of the mitzvah, Rav Yosef Karo, in the 15th century, codified in the Shulchan Arukh, that the meat of birds cannot be cooked or eaten with dairy products.
Rabbinic adjustments such as these are known as “siyagei le-Torah,” or fences around the Torah, which the Rabbis are enjoined to create to protect the mitzvoth from inadvertent violations; in this case, fences most likely constructed out of chicken wire. And so, over two millennia, the rabbis established a myriad of rules and guidelines, leading to the evolution of various minhagim meant to dictate the proper way for a Jew to separate meat and dairy.
This is why, from five narrowly focused words in the Torah, we fill our kitchen with separate milchig, fleishig and pareve utensils, plates, glasses and cutlery. It’s why some install separate dishwashers, microwaves and sinks for milk and meat. It’s why many observant Jews only consume Cholov Yisroel (literally the dairy of Israel), that is, dairy products produced under the supervision of a Jew, who can certify that no milk from non-kosher animals is mixed with the milk from kosher animals. Given that the risk of a non-Jewish dairy purveyor substituting camel or horse milk for Bessie the cow’s is not exactly a 21st century concern, it raises the question of whether paying substantially higher prices for a gallon of milk or block of cheese, produced behind a fence, is necessary.
I’m not suggesting we should be allowed to have a glass of milk with our corned beef sandwiches. And not only because the thought of such a combination is nauseating. Or that it would probably lead to mixed dancing (Sorry, cheap shot. Couldn’t resist). Nor am I suggesting that rabbis don’t have the right to build fences around the Torah. What’s concerning isn’t the fence; it’s the fence around the fence and the deep, crocodile-filled moats we dig around our fences, about which, inevitably, someone will argue “we really ought to erect some fences around those moats.” The tendency to take on chumroth (restrictions) rather than tear down fences that have ceased to be protective, does more to confuse and alienate the observant, than safeguard the mitzvoth they are diligently trying to observe. If I mistakenly use a fleishig utensil to eat a dish of Ben & Jerry’s, can God possibly care if I boil the metal spoon to kasher it or simply use my shirt tail to wipe it clean, and return it to the drawer with no one the wiser?
And, so, my heretical doubts now public, I offer you this week’s parsha poem, entitled Because.
Why’s that the title? Well, just, because.
Do not boil a kid, in her mother’s milk
Because God created the world and saw it was good,
because He created Adam and Eve as helpmates,
because God destroyed the world but had Noah build an ark,
because God let the waters retract and a dove plucked an olive branch,
because Avraham went forth from the land of his birth,
because God promised Avraham children as numerous as the stars,
because Sarah laughed, because an angel said, “Avraham, Avraham,”
and Isaac was saved, because Avraham paid for a burial plot so that
no nation, no group of nations, can ever question who owns that land,
because Yaakov knew how to cook a cholent, because he knew how to
wrestle angels, because he worked an extra seven years to marry Rachel,
and because Rachel weeps for her children and will not be comforted,
because Yosef was a show-off and a dreamer and did not succumb to desire,
because he wept when his father died and returned his bones to Canaan,
because a new Pharaoh rose, who did not know Yosef, because two midwives
saved Jewish babies, because Moses survived a cruise down the Nile
in a makeshift yacht, because the burning bush did not consume itself,
because God commanded Moses to lead the Jews to freedom,
because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, because there were frogs here,
frogs there, frogs hopping everywhere, because God split the sea and
finished off Pharaoh, because He brought the Jews to a mountain,
raised it above their heads like a barrel and said, “If you accept these
commandments, fine; but if not then here your grave shall be.”
And because the people replied in unison, “We will do and we will listen.”
Because of it all, when I use a spoon from the wrong drawer to eat a bowl of
Chunky Monkey, somewhere, a baby goat sucking at her mother’s teats,
stops for a moment and bleats. The sound travels to the Kingdom of Heaven,
where one of God’s angels takes out a red pen and, scowling, enters a mark
in my permanent record.