There is one law in the Jewish tradition that no doubt has puzzled many of its scholars: that which prohibits the Jew from mixing milk with meat. Its source is found in the Torah (Shemoth 23:19, 34:26; Devarim 14:21), but no clue is provided as to its meaning.
Strangely enough, it is this mysterious law that has had the greatest influence on the daily life of Jews for thousands of years, right up to this very day. It divides the Jewish kitchen into two sections—meat and milk—and has far-reaching implications: two sets of pots, pans, forks and knives, which are separated in every way possible. This law hovers over much of Jewish life and has turned Judaism into something very distinct.
What could be the reason behind this law? While it may be argued that many other Jewish dietary laws try to infuse man with a sense of human sensitivity, this can hardly be said about the law of milk and meat. It could, for example, be argued that the animals and fowls that are prohibited are forbidden because they are aggressive and carnivorous, and it is the will of the Torah that man distance himself from such traits. But the mixture of milk and meat does not seem to accentuate any particular unwanted characteristic.
There is, however, another strange dimension to this law. It is not only forbidden to consume a mixture of milk and meat, but the very blending of these food categories, in the form of cooking, baking, and other such processes, is also forbidden, even if they will not be consumed! (1) One is obliged to destroy this mixture. This is reminiscent of the law on Pesach that forbids not only the consumption of leavened bread (chametz) but even having it in one’s possession (2). However, while one may still sell the leavened bread, this is not permitted in the case of a milk and meat mixture. The obligation to destroy this combination of milk and meat seems, therefore, to indicate an acute matter that does not allow for any compromise. Why should this be the case?
Jewish tradition has it that God created the world with the specific purpose for man to sanctify it. Man is asked to infuse the world with the divine spark that is found within himself, since he was created in the image of God (Bereshith 1:27).
To enable the creation of the universe, God had to “withdraw” His Ein Sof (infinite spiritual light). Only in this “void” or “darkness” would physical existence become possible. In kabbalistic tradition this principle is called tzimtzum (self- withdrawal/limitation) and is one of the most difficult concepts to understand in the entire kabbalistic philosophy.
Once man was created, God told him it was his task to ensure that this withdrawn light would (at least partially) return. This would be possible by means of sanctification. By connecting all physical elements with the Ein Sof, this withdrawn light would return and the universe would be lifted from its purely physical dimensions. This was to be done through the fulfillment of good deeds, the commandments and the study of Torah. Ultimately, everything would revert back to God, the Infinite Source (3).
One way to grasp this concept is to imagine a circle that is open on top. The initial point of creation is to the right where the circle starts and the motion of time begins. The circle itself symbolizes the path through which the world must journey until it will, on completing the circle, re-enter the initial open space on top—the moment when time comes to an end and the purpose of all existence has been fulfilled.
The circle has, however, another important feature. It symbolizes the confines within which the world must travel to return to its original Source (symbolized by the open space on top of the circle). As long as the world moves along and within the line of the circle, it will finally be connected with the original Source. But if it would break through, it would then “run wild,” no longer able to bring itself back into the confines of the circle. As such, it would not revert back to the original Source and would consequently fail to fulfill its purpose. This would mean devastation and chaos.
The line of the circle itself must also be seen as the symbol of the dividing line between that which is permitted and that which is forbidden. Everything inside the circle is ensured of its possibility to return to its Source and, as such, is permissible. There is still a connection with the original Source, regardless of how far something may be removed from it (symbolized by the open space on top). Consequently, the dividing line is the border between that which is permitted (inside) and that which is forbidden (outside).
There is however a second kabbalistic thought, which teaches that what is more material and therefore “independent” lies closer to the outside (borderline) of the circle. All that is less material and more dependent on God is more to the center of the circle and therefore less removed from its original Source. “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.”
When looking in the Creation chapter, we find that a certain evolving process took place which led the animal world to appear at the end of the six days of Creation, just before the appearance of man (Bereshith 1:25). This evolving process reveals a constant increase in “independence”— greater mobility and physicality. While the plants are still completely dependent on the Divine Source, having no say of their own, the small insects and creatures are more autonomous. This independence increases drastically with the creation of the larger animals on the sixth day.
THE ANIMAL WORLD
The superior animal must be seen as the most autonomous creature within the corporeal world. Unlike man, the animal is not blessed with a divine soul and has no part in a spiritual, moral existence. While it is to a high degree autonomous, the animal is completely bound by the physical world in that it cannot rise above the laws of nature. In this sense, it is the most developed physical creature within the world. Consequently, it is the animal that walks on the borderline of our circle.
This has far-reaching consequences. Since the animal has developed to the outermost borderline of the circle, it treads a dangerous path: one more step and it will find itself outside the borderline. As such, it will become “overdeveloped,” “running wild,” and will lose its connection with the source on top of the circle. This must be prevented at all costs, since it would lead to chaos. In other words, this animal is never to become a “super-animal, through overdevelopment. It is not allowed to become more physical than it already is. To emphasize the point, it could be argued that animal flesh is not to become “super-flesh,” developing beyond the limits of the circle borderline.
What is milk? Milk is, no doubt, the most important nutrient for the development of the human and animal body. It is nourishment par excellence. It contains all the ingredients that enable proper physical development.
The reader may now begin to understand the “danger” of mixing milk with meat. The animal is the most advanced of all physical existence. It finds itself on the borderline of the circle. Any addition to its physicality will force it out of the circle. It will sever its connection with the Source and become “overdeveloped,” creating “super-flesh.”
Since milk is the very substance by which the body develops, it would be a fatal mistake to add this nutrient to “fully developed” meat. The milk would continue to develop the meat beyond its proper borders. This would purport a wish to “overdevelop” the already optimally developed flesh of the animal. It would be as if one wanted to make the animal world break out of the circle and sever its connection with its Source. This would mean the denial of the very purpose of this world.
This may also explain the ruling that one is not only forbidden to consume a mixture of milk and meat, but is also obliged to destroy this mixture even if one does not intend to consume it. Its very existence is a denial of the foundation of God’s plan for His creation and is therefore forbidden.
1. Talmud Bavli, Chullin 115b; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 87:1; Pitchei Teshuva 2.
2. Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 29a; Shemoth 12:19, 13:7.
3. One may wonder why God wished to create a world that would, after all, revert back to spirituality. If God wished that only spirituality prevail, why did He create a physical universe in the first place? The kabbalists respond by saying that the division between the spiritual and the physical, originating with the creation act, allowed for the capacity of longing, the urge and drive to bring unity to that which has been divided. This, they believe, is the greatest good that God wanted to bestow. Love, the most important substance in giving man the highest form of joy, is, after all, the result of two components longing to become one.