Why *can’t* I simmer a kid in its mother’s milk?

Because that was the sacrifice offered to Ishtar.

It’s well known that Jewish law forbids simmering a kid in its mother’s milk. That’s the textual basis of what became in Rabbinic times the sweeping rules requiring the complete separation of milk and meat.

What’s less clear is:

(1) Why anyone would want to simmer a kid in its mother’s milk; and

(2) Why anyone should care.

It’s especially puzzling because the rule forms part of the second list of the Ten Commandments (given in Ex. 34: 14-28). The text says that the second list – given after Moses had broken the original tablets in outrage over the Golden Calf incident – is the same as the first list (Ex. 20:2-14.) Both are referred to as the Ten Words ( דְּבָרִים , devarim). But that isn’t the case. Here’s the later, less familiar list:

1. Thou shalt bow down to no other god; for the LORD, whose name is Jealous*, is a jealous God; lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go astray after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and they call thee, and thou eat of their sacrifice; and thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go astray after their gods, and make thy sons go astray after their gods.

2. Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.

3.  The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, at the time appointed in the month Abib, for in the month Abib thou camest out from Egypt.

4.  All that openeth the womb is Mine; and of all thy cattle thou shalt sanctify the males, the firstlings of ox and sheep. And the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break its neck. All the first-born of thy sons thou shalt redeem. None shall appear before Me empty.

5. Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest; in plowing time and in harvest thou shalt rest.

6.  And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, even of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year.

7.  Three times in the year shall all thy males appear before the Lord GOD, the God of Israel.  For I will cast out nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders; neither shall any man covet thy land, when thou goest up to appear before the LORD thy God three times in the year.

8. Thou shalt not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning.

9. The choicest first-fruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the LORD thy God.

10. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.

So the rule about the kid isn’t just on the list of ten, it’s the climax of the list. Admittedly, it’s a pretty miscellaneous set of rules, much less coherent – to a modern eye – than the more familiar Ten Commandments. There’s not much on it that looks like a general ethical precept, as opposed to cultic practice. But how does making a Stroganoff get up there with idolatry on the list of no-nos?

When we discussed this passage at the Hirshleifer-Rosett UCLA Faculty Tanakh Study Group (I’m no longer the note-taker, but I still attend when I can), Paula Powers Coe, a folklorist of awesome learning, had the answer.

It turns out that a kid simmered in its mother’s milk was the sacrifice offered to Ishtar.

So the last item on the list gets back to the first: not adopting the religious practices of the neighbors. Thou shalt not attend the National Prayer Breakfast!

* Apparently “jealous” isn’t accurate; the word קַנָּא has to do with accounting, and “persnickety” or “detail-oriented” would be a better translation.



Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

8 thoughts on “Why *can’t* I simmer a kid in its mother’s milk?”

  1. Why hasn't Rabbi Roy Moore gotten these engraved on a monument and placed before the Supreme Court building in Montgomery? It is clear to me that these Words/Commandments are the very foundation of Western civilization and American liberties.

  2. So it's basically a circular list?

    (I'm particularly interested to see how the interpretation of these rules has morphed because an architect friend did his senior thesis on temple/synagogue architecture, and (at least according to his sources) one of the design practices involved blending in as closely as possible with local sacred architecture, with the notion that you weren't knowingly violating the First Commandment if you made obeisance in front of something that looked just like your local synagogue.)

    1. Paul,

      That sounds backwards to me. Wouldn't it be better not to blend in, to avoid the possibility of error?

      1. Oops, sorry, I was leaving out a step. According to the same sources, it was not-uncommon practice among the gentiles of some places to either a) persecute jews by forcing them to bow down to symbols of other deities or b) positively identify jews for later persecution by their refusal to go along in obeisances observed by the rest of the population. So the blending in was a defensive mechanism that still left one's conscience a chance of being clear. (Of course, it's also possible that this explanation was an ironic, somewhat self-referential post hoc, and that blending in was purely about not getting your nice building burned down.)

  3. Mark, I tip my cap to you.

    On a day filled with news items that made me alternate between rage and depression, this was exactly what I needed. You are truly a man of many facets.

  4. Milk is for nurturing and should not be used as a way to “devour” a kid or anyone else. This can happen in families and in relationships. I suspect we have all seen family dynamics in which you can see the kids being boiled in their mother’s milk, so to speak. The giver becomes a controller. This is a “spiritual” take on the commandment.

    Elsewhere in the Torah, it is an abomination for a man to lie with another man “as with a women.” This means that unless one guy is trying to get the other guy pregnant, it does not apply. Or if they use birth control, that is an abomination. But that is a question for another day.

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