Do Not Cook a Kid Still Suckling Its Mother’s Milk
The prohibition to cook and/or eat meat and milk together, as codified in the Mishnah (Chulin 8:1), is ostensibly based on a phrase that appears three times in the Torah, לֹא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ, usually translated, “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Twice in Exodus, it appears as the latter half of a verse about the first fruit law:
שׁמות כג:יט [=לד:כו] רֵאשִׁית בִּכּוּרֵי אַדְמָתְךָ תָּבִיא בֵּית יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ.
Exod 23:19 [=34:26] The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house YHWH your God. Lo tevashel gedi bechalev immo.
In Deuteronomy, the command appears at the end of a verse forbidding the consumption of animal carcasses. What does the phrase mean?
Prohibition to Eat Milk and Meat
The two targums of the Land of Israel tradition translate the phrase in line with the rabbinic prohibition to mix milk and meat:
עמי בני ישראל לא תבשלון ולא תיכלון בשר בחלב מערבין כחדא...
My people, the children of Israel: Do not cook and do not eat meat and milk mingled together.
לית אתון רשאין לא למבשלא ולא למיכול בשר וחלב מערבין כחדא... 
You are not permitted to cook or to eat meat and milk mingled together.
Targum Onkelos only mentions the prohibition of eating:
לא תיכלון בשר בחלב
You shall not eat meat in milk.
The Targumic rendering, going back at least to the 2nd century C.E., demonstrates that the link between the halakha prohibiting consuming meat with milk and the biblical passage is ancient. However, both the wording and context indicate that this is not the original meaning of the biblical text. What was this original meaning?
Qualifying the Verb or the Object?
Many understandings of the verse have been put forward by traditional and modern commentaries, from the claim of Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) that it forbids the boiling of a baby goat in its mother’s milk, since this was a pagan ritual (Guide of the Perplexed 3:48), to the reading of R. Joseph’s Bekhor Shor (12th cent.) that it means not letting a firstborn baby goat get fat on its mother’s milk before offering it, and many other variations.
All these interpretations see בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ as an instrumental adverbial phrase, qualifying the verb ב.ש.ל: Do not cook the kid. How? In its mother’s milk. In contrast, the church father, Augustine of Hippo (354–430), suggested rendering the phrase in diebus quibus lactatur “in the days when it is suckled.” In other words, he understands this prepositional phrase as qualifying the noun, namely, the young goat: Do not cook the goat. Which goat? The goat that is still suckling on its mother’s milk. This understanding was adopted by Martin Luther in his German Bible translation of 1534.
This construction—verb + object + prepositional phrase as qualifying a noun serving as a direct object—is well attested in Biblical Hebrew, e.g.,
מלכים א יא:ו וַיַּעַשׂ שְׁלֹמֹה הָרַע בְּעֵינֵי יְ־הוָה...
1 Kgs 11:6 Solomon did what was displeasing in the sight of YHWH. (בעיני י־הוה qualifies הרע.)
Translating the verse as Augustine did fits the rules of Hebrew syntax and yields the following: A young goat which is still sustained by the milk of its mother, namely a suckling kid, shall not be boiled!
Is It Forbidden to Sacrifice a Suckling Kid?
This translation comes up against what at first appears to be a contradictory law earlier in the Covenant Collection, which describes the requirement to offer the firstborn animal to YHWH:
שׁמות כב:כח מְלֵאָתְךָ וְדִמְעֲךָ לֹא תְאַחֵר בְּכוֹר בָּנֶיךָ תִּתֶּן לִּי. כב:כט כֵּן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְשֹׁרְךָ לְצֹאנֶךָ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים יִהְיֶה עִם אִמּוֹ בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי תִּתְּנוֹ־לִי.
Exod 22:28 You shall not put off the skimming of the first yield of your vats. You shall give Me the first-born among your sons. 22:29 You shall do the same with your cattle and your flocks: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me.
Obviously, an eight-day-old kid or calf is still suckling.
A variation on this law appears in the Holiness Collection, which forbids offering the young animal only during its first week of life:
ויקרא כב:כז שׁוֹר אוֹ כֶשֶׂב אוֹ עֵז כִּי יִוָּלֵד וְהָיָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תַּחַת אִמּוֹ וּמִיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי וָהָלְאָה יֵרָצֶה לְקָרְבַּן אִשֶּׁה לַי־הוָה.
Lev 22:27 When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as an offering by fire to YHWH.
To complicate matters further, Samuel offers a suckling lamb:
שׁמואל א ז:ט וַיִּקַּח שְׁמוּאֵל טְלֵה חָלָב אֶחָד וַהֵלֲעַּיֻ עוֹלָה כָּלִיל לַי־הוָה...
1 Sam 7:9 Thereupon Samuel took a suckling lamb and sacrificed it as a whole burnt offering to YHWH...
These passages, however, are referring to burnt offerings, which are not boiled; the entire animal is burnt for YHWH and those bringing the offering receive no share of it to eat. In contrast, the thrice repeated law about the kid in its mother’s milk specifically references boiling, and thus, if it is referring to an offering, in which the worshipper receives a portion to eat.
The description of the offerings at Shiloh illustrate a worshipper boiling an offering before eating it:
שמואל א ב:יג וּמִשְׁפַּט הַכֹּהֲנִים אֶת הָעָם כָּל אִישׁ זֹבֵחַ זֶבַח וּבָא נַעַר הַכֹּהֵן כְּבַשֵּׁל הַבָּשָׂר וְהַמַּזְלֵג שְׁלֹשׁ הַשִּׁנַּיִם בְּיָדוֹ. ב:יד וְהִכָּה בַכִּיּוֹר אוֹ בַדּוּד אוֹ בַקַּלַּחַת אוֹ בַפָּרוּר כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יַעֲלֶה הַמַּזְלֵג יִקַּח הַכֹּהֵן בּוֹ כָּכָה יַעֲשׂוּ לְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל הַבָּאִים שָׁם בְּשִׁלֹה.
1 Sam 2:13 This is how the priests used to deal with the people: When anyone brought a sacrifice, the priest’s boy would come along with a three-pronged fork while the meat was boiling, 2:14 and he would thrust it into the cauldron, or the kettle, or the great pot, or the small cooking-pot; and whatever the fork brought up, the priest would take away on it. This was the practice at Shiloh with all the Israelites who came there.
The Covenant Collection thus makes a sharp distinction: Burnt offerings (olah) can be taken from suckling kids, lambs, and calves, while shelamim offerings, which are eaten by the worshipper, cannot. Since both references to the suckling kid law in Exodus appear shortly after the law of the pilgrimage festivals, it makes sense that the prohibition applies to the festival offering—this is when meat would have typically been eaten.
The idea behind the law could be connected to the intention not to harm the relation between the parent and their kid that appears in other law biblical law collections. For example:
ויקרא כב:כח וְשׁוֹר אוֹ שֶׂה אֹתוֹ וְאֶת בְּנוֹ לֹא תִשְׁחֲטוּ בְּיוֹם אֶחָד.
Lev 22:28 No animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.
Animal rights could not have been the primary concern, however, since, as noted, the law was not applied to burnt-offerings. The limited application of the prohibition was most probably related to the distinctiveness of the festal meal versus a normal meal.
Since the annual pilgrimages, and especially the Feast of Booths, are characterized by their joyful remembering of creation and procreation, the prohibition of preparing a meal from a suckling goat at this event would be, as Menahem Haran (1924–2015) of Hebrew University claimed, a “rather deliberate reminder of humane behaviour even in the midst of general jollity.”
The Extension of the Law in Deuteronomy
While the context for the law in Exodus is sacrificial, in Deuteronomy it is a general dietary prohibition. This is clear from its context: it concludes a list of different kinds of meat which are not allowed for eating, including unclean birds (vv. 12–19), and is the final clause in a verse prohibiting the meat of an animal that died of natural causes.
דברים יד:כא לֹא תֹאכְלוּ כָל נְבֵלָה לַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ תִּתְּנֶנָּה וַאֲכָלָהּ אוֹ מָכֹר לְנָכְרִי כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ.
Deut 14:21 You shall not eat anything that has died a natural death; give it to the stranger in your community to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people consecrated to YHWH your God. Do not boil a kid still sustained by the milk of its mother.
The Deuteronomist transforms the cultic prohibition in Exodus into a general dietary law: From this perspective, a suckling animal is as forbidden for eating as an animal that was found dead. This generalization of the prohibition in Deuteronomy corresponds to Deuteronomy’s tendency towards “secularization,” i.e., the centralization of the sanctuary and the creation of a general and public profane sphere, which finds also expression in the expansion of profane legislation.
Reworking the Covenant Collection’s Laws
Deuteronomy’s law here is part of its revision of the set of laws in Exodus (22:28–30) dealing with firstborn animals and forbidden meat, presented in inverse order.
A Firstborn given to YHWH (29a)
D’ Carcasses not to be eaten (21aa)
B On the 8th day (29b)
C’ Israelites = holy people (21ab)
C Israelites = holy people (30a)
B’ Suckling goat cannot be boiled (21b)
D Torn animals not to be eaten (30b)
A’ Firstborn eaten before YHWH (22–3)
The correspondence between the torn animal law in Exodus and the carcass law in Deuteronomy (D) is clear, and the same is true for the correspondence between the claims that Israel is a holy people (C). The correspondence between giving the firstborn to YHWH in Exodus and eating the firstborn before YHWH in Deuteronomy (A) is also easy to see (see below for the difference in formulation).
These chiastic correspondences point to the likelihood that the remaining pair of laws (B) are also related. Exodus says that the firstborn animal should be sacrificed on its eighth day, while Deuteronomy prohibits boiling a kid while it is still suckling, implying that the firstborn should not be brought as an offering at this early stage of its life. Indeed, this is what we see in Deuteronomy’s law of the firstborn in the next chapter.
Bringing the Firstborn Not as a Suckling
Deuteronomy presents the law of the firstborn again, in more detail, at the end of chapter 15:
דברים טו:יט כָּל־הַבְּכוֹר אֲשֶׁר יִוָּלֵד בִּבְקָרְךָ וּבְצֹאנְךָ הַזָּכָר תַּקְדִּישׁ לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא תַעֲבֹד בִּבְכֹר שׁוֹרֶךָ וְלֹא תָגֹז בְּכוֹר צֹאנֶךָ. טו:כ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ תֹאכֲלֶנּוּ שָׁנָה בְשָׁנָה בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה אַתָּה וּבֵיתֶךָ.
Deut 15:19 You shall consecrate to YHWH your God all male firstlings that are born in your herd and in your flock: you must not work your firstling ox or shear your firstling sheep. 15:20 You and your household shall eat it annually before YHWH your God in the place that YHWH will choose.
The law here differs from Exodus in two major respects:
Type of Offering—According to Exodus, the firstborn animal is to be given to YHWH (תִּתְּנוֹ לִי) as a burnt-offering, but according to Deuteronomy it is to be eaten before YHWH (וְאָכַלְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ), the type of sacrifice called a shelamim.
When—According to Exodus, the animal should be brought eight days after it is born. Deuteronomy doesn’t specify when, instead mentioning that it should be brought to the Temple yearly. As Deuteronomy‘s suckling-kid prohibition is universal, bringing the animal would have to wait until it was weaned, much later than eight days. Most probably, this difference is also required in light of the fact that Deuteronomy does not accept local altars, and thus the animal has to be brought to the central sanctuary, requiring a much more complicated journey.
We can see the interplay of Deuteronomy’s reconception of suckling kid prohibition and the command to bring the firstborn as an offering. The former is extended to an absolute prohibition, applicable to sacred and secular slaughter alike, while the latter is changed from a burnt-offering given only to YHWH to the type of offering enjoyed by the worshiper, to be eaten during one of his perennial trips to the holy Temple to celebrate before YHWH.
The Suckling-Kid Prohibition in Amos
The prohibition of the “suckling kid” most probably left its traces in the Book of Amos too, in his remonstrance to הַשַּׁאֲנַנִּים בְּצִיּוֹן וְהַבֹּטְחִים בְּהַר שֹׁמְרוֹן, “those who are at ease in Zion and confident on the hill of Samaria” (Amos 6:1), in which he says:
עמוס ו:ג הַמְנַדִּים לְיוֹם רָע וַתַּגִּישׁוּן שֶׁבֶת חָמָס. ו:ד הַשֹּׁכְבִים עַל מִטּוֹת שֵׁן וּסְרֻחִים עַל עַרְשׂוֹתָם וְאֹכְלִים כָּרִים מִצֹּאן וַעֲגָלִים מִתּוֹךְ מַרְבֵּק.
Amos 6:3 Yet you ward off the thought of a day of woe, and convene a session of lawlessness. 6:4 They lie on ivory beds, lolling on their couches, feasting on lambs from the flock, and on calves from the marbeq.
The word מַרְבֵּק is rare in the Bible. The root ר.ב.ק means “bind,” and on this basis, it has been understood as “place of binding,” i.e. a place where calves were kept, and hence a “stall.” Since this happened in order to fatten these calves, some scholars deduced the abstract meaning “fattening.”
A more convincing suggestion, however, is that of Helga Weippert (1943–2019), who demonstrated, on the basis of both philology and iconography, that מַרְבֵּק should be understood as the binding of suckling calves to the feet of their mother. If so, then the kids Amos refers to were still bound to the feet of their mothers, i.e. they were sucklings. The prophet’s critique, then, may have been criticizing that these “suckling kids” are prepared for food. If so, this text provides an early attestation for the prohibition of “the kid that is at the milk of its mother.”
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Prof. Stefan Schorch is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Martin Luther University Halle–Wittenberg, Faculty of Theology, since 2009, and Director of the Research Institute for Hebrew Studies at Leucorea Foundation, Wittenberg. After studies at the universities in Leipzig, Jerusalem, and Berlin, he obtained his doctorate (Dr. theol.) from Leipzig University (1998) and his “Habilitation” from Protestant University Bethel, Bielefeld (2003). He is the author of Euphemismen in der Hebräischen Bibel (Otto Harrassowitz, 2000) and Die Vokale des Gesetzes: Die samaritanische Lesetradition als Textzeugin der Tora, vol. 1 Genesis (de Gruyter, 2004). He is currently working on a critical edition of the Samaritan Pentateuch, called תורה תמימה, and has thus far published the volumes for Genesis and Leviticus (de Gruyter).
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