Mishpatim: Separating and Mindfulness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

It’s almost Super Bowl Sunday, and after that, Super
Tuesday, and yet before either of these events, oh my goodness do we
have a super Torah portion to study together. That parshah is
“Mishpatim,” which means “laws,” and for the most part, the portion is
concerned with laws for a just and fair society. There are, however, a
few laws concerning ritual and religious practice, including laws
about agricultural products:

“The choicest of the first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the
house of the Lord, your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s
milk.” (Shmot/Exodus 23:19)

Many who learn Torah even occasionally know that the traditional
separation of meat and milk products derives from “you shall not cook
a kid in its mother’s milk,” but it’s less well known that:

1) The first time this idea appears it seems to be connected to
agricultural thanksgiving in the Temple, and

2) “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” actually appears
three separate times in the Torah: as above, plus Shmot 34:26 and
D’varim/Deutoronomy 14:21.

Because “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” appears three times
in the Torah, the ancient rabbis assumed that each appearance of the
text taught something new and different from the other, similar
verses. Thus, we learn that not only are we not to eat milk and meat
together, but we are also not to cook milk and meat together, nor
derive any benefit from a mixture of milk and meat. To put it another
way, each time this idea appears it teaches something new: don’t eat
the cheeseburger, don’t cook the cheeseburger, and don’t profit from
the cheeseburger (and never mind the Pepsi or the chips.)

The actual practice of separating milk and meat is a skill learned and
applied over time, but for today, suffice it to say that milk and meat
foods are typically prepared and served on separate utensils, and a
waiting period is also observed between eating dairy and meat,
especially if the meat comes first. (That’s a longer discussion we’ll
have another time.)

OK, I can just feel many among the loyal readers of rabbineal-list
thinking “uh, WHY exactly does the Torah prohibit this? I mean, what’s
so bad about cheeseburgers?” (Especially if you get them from the
Olympia Cafe . . . )

Much has been written to answer this question, and below you’ll find
links to some good discussions of the classic interpretation.
Unfortunately, the Torah itself does not tell us why we should not
cook a kid in its mother’s milk, nor does the Torah itself offer the
understanding that this is a wider concept. Yet along with the typical
interpretations having to do with consciousness of our blessings, or
practicing holiness in our eating, or kindness to animals, I
personally see this traditional practice as connected to the ancient
Temple offerings- after all, both bringing “first fruits” and not
cooking the kid are taught in what became (in post-Biblical scriptural
enumeration) one verse.

To me, the idea of bringing “first fruits” and other offerings to the
ancient Temple was a ritual enactment of a basic spiritual
orientation: the world and its blessings do not belong to us, but
rather, we are tenants upon the land and thus when we take for
ourselves, we do so with humility and restraint. Bringing the
agricultural offerings was a practice of living humbly upon the Earth-
we are not to take and consume everything all the time, but rather we
should be ever more aware that our needs are less than our wants.

Separating milk and meat teaches the same truth: that we are not put
on this earth merely to consume, nor only for fleeting pleasures, but
to serve. A practice of restraint and mindfulness in our eating
teaches us to make other things more important- and they are!
Cheeseburgers are not a moral evil, but they’re also not the most
important thing in life, and Judaism says: if you can inculcate
awareness and self-limiting in your eating and other ways of
consuming, you can find within yourselves greater reservoirs of
gratitude and giving. Seen this way, the dietary disciplines of
Judaism are practical meditations: the way we eat reflects our values,
and orients our souls.

Shabbat Shalom,


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