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They are a staple of the American junk food diet and they are a sought-after gastronomical delight all over the world. But there is one place where the cheeseburger does not reign as king, and that is in the kosher Jewish kitchen.
The prohibition against mixing milk or dairy products with meat appears three times in the Hebrew Bible, in Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21. In the Jewish tradition, when things are repeated in the Torah, it is done for emphasis, so that this particular law or prohibition is to be taken seriously.
The commandment forbids boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. This has been interpreted as a kindness to animals, as well as showing a distinction between the Canaanite peoples, whose practices included mixing milk with meat products. Anything that was against what the pagan population was doing was a way to make the Israelites holy, separate from the nations around them. This was an attempt to create a nation of “priests and holy people,” a group of people who would be concerned with spiritual and ethical values, serving the one God.
Of course, these ideas are all commentary. The great sage, Rashi, also had his version of what the prohibition meant. The verse about boiling a kid (g’dee) in his mother’s milk refers to any young domestic animal such as a goat, lamb or cow. Had the verse stated g’dee eezim, that would have meant a young goat. So Rashi concluded that g’dee referred to all meat from a goat, lamb or cow. Since one cannot tell how old a cow was when it was butchered, even an old cow would fall under this custom. It was thought that if one ate meat from a cow with cheese, one could not be sure that the milk for the cheese did not come from the milk of the already butchered mother.
This rule of kashrut (keeping kosher) would seem to apply only to red meat, but since poultry is also considered meat, chicken, turkey, quail and other domestic birds fall into the category of separating milk and meat, even though birds do not produce milk. Therefore, in the kosher kitchen there is no chicken Parmesan or chicken Kiev.
While these ancient rules of dietary laws may seem inconvenient, with today’s foods, substitutions are quite easy. A veggie burger with cheese is very acceptable, as is a real hamburger with imitation non-dairy cheese.
As with many of the customs and laws of Judaism, things have crept into Jewish culture, which make Jews distinct people. Just as there are food taboos in other cultures, the Jews too have added their own particular mix. To a vegetarian, fish could be considered meat, but alas, it is exempt from the prohibition about mixing milk with meat. I would ask: “Is a little fishie any less a creature of God to be respected?” Fish, like birds, lay eggs, so no milk is involved. But who is to tell what mother fish gave birth to whom? It is a thought, however far-fetched.
In the whole scheme of things, there are some laws in Judaism that we just cannot explain. We call this chok, a statute we follow because God has told us to do so. We can come up with any number of reasons and interpretations, but in the end, we follow them because they were commanded to us to do so in order that we would lead holy lives.
With this in mind, pass me a veggie burger with mushrooms and Swiss cheese — and don’t forget the kosher pickle.
Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Ocala with her husband, Phil. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.