The Ethical Message of Basar Be-Chalav by Rabbi David Brofsky
Parashat Mishpatim, as its name suggests, is full of mitzvoth, which relate to maintaining a just society. The Torah presents laws pertaining to damages, stealing, treatment of the poor and downtrodden, and the importance of keeping a proper and just judicial system. It is quite surprising, therefore, to find the source for basar be-chalav (cooking meat and milk together), amongst all of these mishpatim!
The commentators debate the reason for the prohibition of cooking meat with milk. Some (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 3:48; Abarbenel Shemot 23:19) suggest that basar be-chalav is somehow linked to an ancient pagan ritual. As the Rambam often writes, the Torah prohibits certain actions or behaviors which are similar to the practices of ovdei avodah zarah. This approach is confirmed by the Abarbenel (Shemot 23), who writes that even in his time it was common among pagan tribes to eat meat and milk mixtures at their ritual gatherings. Consequently, the Torah enjoins us from eating a mixture that is associated with idolatrous practices. Others (Chinuch 92) allude to some symbolic or even mystical problem, in the union of milk and meat.
The Rashbam (Shemot 23:19), however, suggests that it is simply disgraceful behavior to cook a kid in its mother’s milk. The Torah, he explains, comes to teach “derekh tarbut”- civilized behavior. Similarly, he notes, the Torah prohibits slaughtering and animal and its child on the same day (oto ve-ot beno), and commands that one must send away the mother bird before taking her eggs (shiluach ha-kan).
Indeed, the some (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 3:48) understand that the obligation to send away the mother bird before taking her eggs (Devarim 22:6-7) is meant to engender within us a sense of compassion and sensitivity. Similarly, some (Ramban, Vayikra 22:28) explain that the prohibition of slaughtering the child and its mother on the same day is meant to teach the quality of compassion, and to distance us from cruel behavior.
Here too, regarding the prohibition of basar be-chalav, the Ramban (Devarim 14:21) claims that although the mixture of meat and milk is not inherently despicable, it represents human cruelty, from which we must distance ourselves.
If so, from a literary perspective, the prohibition of basar be-chalav fits right in with the various mishapatim of the parasha. While some laws directly relate to one’s behavior towards his fellow man, others subtly convey a message of kindness, and of avoiding cruelty.
The challenge in observing these laws is to allow these subtle messages to penetrate, and to strengthen our inner moral and ethical sense. As the Sefer Ha-Chinukh often comments, “acharei hamaasim nimshachimhalevavot”- our hearts should be influenced by our actions.