The sidra begins straight after the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, and fleshes out much of the headline legal code given there. The word Mishpatim means "rules" or "laws” The laws in this sidra are a wide range of civil, criminal, ritual, financial and family laws, and 53 of the 613 mitzvot said to be in the Torah can be found in this sidra.
Laws include those around behaviour towards slaves, personal injury, the treatment of the vulnerable (strangers, widows, orphans). There are laws about loans, about the dedication of the first born, about giving testimony in a court of law. Also in this sidra is the law of the shemita year (every seventh year the land was to lie fallow and not be worked), about not working on Shabbat, about the three pilgrim festivals of Pesach, Succot and Shavuot, and the prohibition of not boiling the kid in its mother’s milk.
God promises that if the people obey the Divine law, God will support them in their conquest of Canaan, and their victory will be assured. God will destroy the other peoples so that the Israelites will not be tempted to worship the gods of other nations.
Moses tells all the rules to the people, writing down all of the laws given to him by God. Sacrifices are offered to seal the covenant and the people accept the laws saying "All that God has spoken we will do and we will hear".
At God's bidding, Moses, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, together with the 70 Elders, went up to worship God from a distance, and had an ecstatic vision.
A cloud covered the mountain for 6 days and on the seventh day God called Moses to ascend and Moses went up into the mountain and remained there alone for 40 days and 40 nights.
Three times torah tells us not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. (Exodus 23:13,34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21)
Why is Torah so interested and concerned about this? The probable reason is that this act was one that was practised by the surrounding peoples for religious/idolatrous reasons – otherwise why would Torah mention it?
Talmudic rabbis give no reasons for the prohibition. Maimonides (d 1204) suggested that it was an idolatrous practise but gives no supporting texts. Sforno (d 1550) also thought that the law referred to an idolatrous practise in which young goats were cooked in their mothers milk as a kind of fertility rite and indeed an Ugaritic text translated in the 1930’s seems to talk of an agricultural fertility ritual of doing just this, followed by spreading the mixture on the fields.
Whether or not this was a practise of the surrounding peoples in order to bring about fertility or appease their gods, the prohibition of basar be’chalav (meat in milk) is profoundly embedded in Jewish dietary practise, and the three references are used as the basis for three separate laws:
- The prohibition against cooking a mixture of milk and meat
- The prohibition against eating a cooked mixture of milk and meat and
- The prohibition against deriving any benefit from a cooked mixture of milk and meat. (Chullin 115a)
However regardless of the origin of this prohibition, and also of the way that the Jewish legal tradition has taken it, there is another, ethical dimension to the statement. Sforno also argued that using the milk of an animal to cook its child is inhumane, and compared it to the principle of shilu’ach ha’keyn – the injunction to send away the mother bird from a nest before taking the eggs, so that she does not get distressed in seeing it. Ibn Ezra understood the injunction to mean not to kill a mother and its offspring at the same time, as this would reflect an inexcusable lack of sensitivity to life.
But the ethical message was, I think, best put by Rabbi Hugo Gryn z’l who echoes Philo of Alexandria by suggesting that the passage was an imperative not to add insult to injury – that is, not to use the thing meant to nurture a child as the agent of its destruction. This isn’t about mixing milk with meat, but about cooking with mother’s milk – about bringing together life and death in some terrible symbolic fusion.
Judaism has a profound respect for life – even that of a herd animal. Hence our system of shechita (kosher slaughter) so that a life taken for food is taken reflectively and respectfully. Hence the value we place on every human being, no matter what their social status or state of health and ability to contribute to the community. Life is a gift, to be enjoyed and valued, respected at all times. Whatever happens in our lived experience, we should take care not to add insult to injury but to treat everyone with the same respect and sensitivity.