Bible Review 19:6, December 2003

Should Cheeseburgers Be Kosher?

A different interpretation of five Hebrew words

By Jack M. Sasson

”You may not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” is one of the Bible’s more puzzling interdictions. This short phrase—only five words in Hebrew (lo’ tebasûsûel gdi bah\aleb ‘immo)—is repeated three times, once in Exodus 23:19, again in Exodus 34:26 and finally in Deuteronomy 14:21.

Since Talmudic times, that is after 200 C.E., these few words have anchored a major component of Jewish dietary laws, laws that forbid the mixing of milk and meat products in food preparation. To this day, that means no cheeseburgers or meat lasagna if you’re kosher. Clearly, Jewish tradition has interpreted the passage distinctively. But has it interpreted accurately its true purpose?

One oddity of the biblical passages is that in each case the prohibition doesn’t seem particularly relevant to the preceding passages (see the sidebar to this article). Or, as scholars might put it, the prohibition is only tenuously attached to its context. In the two Exodus passages, the prohibition is preceded by instructions on how to celebrate agricultural festivals. In Deuteronomy, the formulation comes at the end of a list of clean and unclean animals. It may be that these five Hebrew words were not organic to their contexts.

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