A Kid in Its Mother’s Milk

A Kid in Its Mother’s Milk

Yoel Halevi 3 comments


This paper will discuss the meaning and context of the law regarding cooking/boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. The paper will examine the different interpretations and will present the most reasonable interpretation of the commandment. 

  1. Verses and context

The commandment not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk appears three times in the biblical text with the exact same wording. It is important to note that the MT reads ḥălēv (milk) and not ḥēlev (fat). If anyone wants to argue that the prohibition is about fat and not milk one has to prove without a doubt that the MT uses the wrong reading (Some Egyptian Karaites who didn’t read Hebrew very well made this mistake in the past). However, Jewish reading traditions, Samaritan, and Greek traditions show it is milk. Hence, the discussion will only be based on this common reading and not the speculation of what may have been (Propp, 2006, 286).

לֹא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ

Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk (Exo 23:19, 34:26, Duet 14:21).

All the cases of this clause appear as a side note in the text almost as an afterthought adding a final law to a list of laws that seem not to be connected to one another. The first and second cases appear after a series of laws regarding the feasts in different variations. The third case appears after a series of dietary laws. 

Here are the clauses in their original context:

רֵאשִׁית בִּכּוּרֵי אַדְמָתְךָ תָּבִיא בֵּית יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ

Bring the best of the first fruits of your soil to the house of YHWH your God. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.

רֵאשִׁית בִּכּוּרֵי אַדְמָתְךָ תָּבִיא בֵּית יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ.

Bring the best of the first fruits of your soil to the house of YHWH your God. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.

לֹא תֹאכְלוּ כׇל נְבֵלָה לַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ תִּתְּנֶנָּה וַאֲכָלָהּ אוֹ מָכֹר לְנׇכְרִי כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ.

Do not eat anything you find already dead. You may give it to the foreigner residing in any of your towns, and they may eat it, or you may sell it to any other foreigner. For you are a people holy to YHWH your God. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.

The first two cases seem to be in relation to the feasts and the context is maybe in relation to a first fruits ritual where one brings not only the fruit of the land but also the fruit of the animals which are the first-born new younglings. The third law is connected to the prohibition of eating an unproperly killed animal nĕvēlâh which is an animal found dead and the reason for death might have been sickness or old age (and not an unproperly slaughtered animal as rabbinic sources interpret). Levinson has shown that Deuteronomy has many places where it uses the same laws of Exodus and reinterprets them to fit a new reality or change in life which requires an adjustment of the law. Though this argument seems to be reasonable, it seems that in the case of this law, Deuteronomy does not change the context of the law. The next verses after 14:21 describe a temple context of tithing and bringing gifts to the temple during the feasts. It is hard to ignore the connection created by the close proximity of these laws. Hence it stands to reason that though the text before verse 21 deals with a dietary law, the next laws bring us back to the original context of the law which had to do with the feasts.   

  • Ancient interpretations

The Greek versions tend to translate the law sometimes with the word for a young goat and sometimes for a young lamb. This seems to relate to the idea that the law is not limited to young goats but to animals from the herd. Together with this, the Greek uses two different verbs. In Exo 23:19 and Duet 14:21, it uses εψησεις “to Cook”, while Exo 34:26 it uses the verb προσφερω “to bring”. It is difficult to determine if this difference is because of an interpretation or that the Hebrew text underlying the Greek actually used a different verb. However, what comes up from this is that the case of Exo 34:26 is understood not as eating but as offering the youngling to YHWH as part of the first fruits brought to the temple. 

Philo in his description of the laws of Moses understood the law in the context of cruelty and is a philosophical idea of teaching humans not to be cruel even to animals (De Virtutibus 143-144). Many Rabbinic commentators followed this line of thought, and it is common to this very day in academic understanding. 

  • Rabbinic and non-rabbinic interpretation

Probably one of the most intriguing issues with the subject at hand is the leap that rabbinic and even non-rabbinic groups made from cooking younglings in milk to a prohibition on eating meat with milk. All Torah observant groups known from history forbid eating meat with milk both on an interpretative and traditional understanding. Jewish lawmakers such as rabbis and Karaite teachers forbid eating meat with milk (Babylonian Talmud, Hulin 108a, Erder, 2012, pp. 61-64). Though we find some variations on what exactly is forbidden, we still see that both groups forbid the act. The basis of the argument is that cooking is an action that is used to make an item edible. Hence cooking is only a prerequisite for eating and the text is saying don’t eat them together.  When looking at Samaritan and Ethiopic practices the same can be found. This may be a result of the positioning of the clause in Duet 14 in the proximity of dietary laws. This may also indicate that the placement of this verse is very old and appeared in all variations of the text. We can also add that what we are observing might be a result of reading methods that developed in the Hellenistic world in parallel to the Alexandrian school which had a particular way of reading Homeric literature. In this method, the historical context was not relevant and the allegoric meaning took over. As a result, one may have found readings that went beyond the simple text which would have led the reader to extend the meaning of the law beyond the original nature of the commandment. This in turn may have led to a moralistic ideology that required the practitioner to refrain from anything resembling the original prohibition. This may be understood from Philo’s remark on the subject where he describes the reason for the prohibition as being a form of cruelty. 

There is no record of when or how this change accrued, but the fact that all groups have the same understanding is very telling. It seems in my opinion that the practice of not eating meat with milk appeared somewhere in the Hellenistic era and spread throughout the Torah-keeping groups. It stands to reason that this interpretation was part of “halakhic” innovation in the Torah-keeping world done by multiple groups at the same time. One can also argue that the original meaning was expanded due to changes in Torah-keeping culture which wanted to expand practices beyond the original law. This is consistent with practices in the second temple era where one can see how laws such as phylacteries, laws in regards to Shabbat, bathing in water pools for purification, and others were being added to daily life (Adler, 2022).

  • Modern academic interpretations

The modern academic method has attempted to explain the historical background of this prohibition with several methods of understanding. This method leans upon previous interpretations by Jewish and Christian scholars from late medieval times. The basis of the discussion is that commandments are first and foremost given with the understanding that the literal meaning is the original intent of the law. Any exegesis or traditional interpretations are an extension and sometimes a fence to prevent the Torah keeper from violating the base law. 

The first approach to be dealt with is that of U. Cassuto who used an ancient tablet found in Ugarit at the beginning of the 20th century. In his examination based on the reading done by Gordon (UT), he pointed to a line in tablet 52:14 which has been reconstructed as:

‘l išt šb’d ‘zrm

ṭb[ḥ g]d bḥlb/’nnḫ cḫn’t

on the fireplace abundant libations

cook a kid (?) in milk/an animal in butter

Based on this text, Cassuto suggested that the origins of the prohibition had to do with a Canaanite ritual where a dish of new meat and milk was presented during the berthing of younglings to honor the gods (Cassuto, 1997, p.305). His understanding is very similar to that of Maimonides who stated that he heard that there was such a cruel ritual in the past (Guide to the Perplex Section 3 ch.48). 

Loewenstamm objected to the reading proposed by Cassuto had claimed that the completion of the first clause by placing  and g in the first words as ṭb[ḥ g] is forced. This would remove the act of cooking and reduce the text to maybe dealing with the idea of cooking a kid in milk (Loewenstamm, 1973, pp.209-211). I will add that the fact that the text does not mention mother’s milk shows that the link found between the two texts by Cassuto is weak. 

Haran also objected to Cassuto’s interpretation and in a lengthy paper from 1978 he presented a list of reasons why to reject this understanding. His first objection stems from the reconstruction of the Ugaritic text. He claimed that the reading is problematic and one cannot accept that the text is a ritual. He also objected to the idea that the structure is a synonymous parallel and that the second animal is not an animal but a word for a specific herb common in the region. He also objected to the erotic interpretation of the text which led scholars to think that the text relates to a fertility rite. However, all of this in his opinion was not in the tablets and should be rejected (Haran, 2009, 435-439). Haran then suggested that the text is describing a common practice of herders who would cook younglings who have very little fat on them in a form of cheese (Leben) and it was part of a diet eaten as a delicacy (p.440, Propp, 2006, p.285). Haran linked the practice to the time of birth of younglings and the feast of Shavuot/Bikurim and concluded that the prohibition was linked to the feast because it was common to eat this meal at this time and that the prohibition was in connection to cruelty. He saw the prohibition as being in line with the prohibitions of not slaughtering a youngling with the parent (Lev 22:28) and not taking eggs when the parent is in the nest (Exo 22:29, Lev 22:27). 

Similar to Haran, Tegai had recognized a similar problem with Cassuto’s interpretation and had recommended seeing the prohibition as a command to move away from cruelty and prohibit the practice of eating younglings cooked in a thick form of soft cheese. He identified such a practice in the tale of Sinuhe the Egyptian and understood it was considered a delicacy in the region of greater Syria. According to Tigay the placing of the law in Deuteronomy together with dietary laws makes this law not ritualistic but dietary (Tigay, 2016, pp. 404-405, Propp, 2006, p.285).

Labuschagne took a completely different approach to the subject and linked the “milk” to red colostrum which he understood to be parallel to blood. Hence, he understood the prohibition as relating to not eating blood. Houtman argued against this interpretation because it assumes too much and cannot be proven. Houtman then goes on to say that the law should be seen as a separate clause not connected to the previous statement and that it should be seen as a separate dietary law (Houtman, 2000, pp.268-269). Propp agrees with this understanding and admits that scholars have tried to connect the clause to the above laws without success (Propp, 2006, 286) Houtman understood the verb בשל as meaning “to prepper” which is preparing for cooking and the consuming (as rabbinic sources interpreted). 

  • Discussion 

There are two main questions that need to be answered:

Is it a ritual?

What does context tell us?

No matter how one looks at it, the idea that the law forbids eating meat with dairy as practiced by so many Torah-keeping groups is very difficult to sustain. If anything close to this can be said it is that there is a particular situation prohibition of eating meat with dairy and that it is only when it is a youngling with its actual mother’s milk. One can argue that kid is a general word for any youngling and that the word gĕdî is only used because it is the most common animal farmers would have eaten (Propp, 2006, 284). 

The verb בשל bšl can be understood as being a general verb to describe cooking and the meaning of this verb can be easily expanded to all forms of cooking and food preparation. This use of the verb is common in Hebrew and other cognate languages. Hence, it stands to reason that this is probably how the midrash made during the Hellenistic era developed into eating meat with dairy. Because cooking is a form of a peroration that is done for eating, the law was expanded to include eating meat with dairy. 

The inclusion of the clause within the law of first fruits seems to tell us that the law is in the context of the offerings of the time. Hence, it is very logical to state that the prohibition relates to some kind of “ritual” or common practice and not a dietary law. However, the appearance of the law in Deuteronomy lends to the possibility of it actually being somewhat of a dietary law that is expanded beyond the ritual. Though Deuteronomy places the prohibition in a series of dietary laws it is still in the context of tithing keeping the law in the context of feasts. Hence, though the law is slightly morphed into a different law due to context, the setting retains the original context of Exodus. 

The text from Ugarit seems to relate to a meal, but the ritual idea is difficult to prove. The text does not mention the mother’s milk and the completion of the vacats of the text is suspect. Hence, it is much simpler to say that the description is more about a delicacy meal for the gods and not a sacrifice (Haran, Propp). 

It seems more than the law is related to a common spring custom of eating younglings in milk or thick soft cheese and the law is prohibiting eating the youngling in the milk of the actual mother. This is a logical assumption due to the fact that the mothers would be producing milk at this time and the younglings have very little to no fat in their bodies. The Torah is forbidding the offering and consumption of such a dish, even though it was considered a high-value delicacy for many farmers. This same dish is also prohibited to offer as a gift to YHWH. The idea of offering such a dish is based on the fact that most of the sacrifices are similar to the common diet of people living in the Levant. Hence, offering such a dish was a simple and reasonable step in honoring God. As part of the first fruits of the time one would offer not only the fruits but also animals as the Torah commands in the verses leading to the prohibition. Because milk was also a basic staple of food, one would want to offer milk as an offering. However, milk was not offered to YHWH and the combination of milk and meat was considered forbidden to offer and an abomination when done with a kid in its mothers’ milk.

It stands to reason that the cruelty principle seems to be the correct venue to look at as the reasoning for this prohibition, and there is no reason to believe that the historical context was a prohibition on eating meat with milk. Needless to say that this shows that most of the meat and milk laws practiced in Judaism should be seen as a specific social taboo created by second-temple Jews and it is not the original practice referred to in the Pentateuchal texts.  


  1. The law is about a spring dish which was a mix of younglings in their mother’s milk. This dish was cooked and served to farmers in the fields. This dish was associated with springtime and the bringing of the first fruits to the temple. 
  2. The prohibition is about cruelty.
  3. There is no actual law prohibiting eating meat products with dairy. 
  4. During the Hellenistic era, an exegetical practice expanded the original law to prohibit all cases of milk and meat consumption together in the same dish. This, later on, was expanded to all forms of eating meat with dairy, even cold food. 


Adler, Jonathan, The Origins of Judaism: An Archeological-Historical Reappraisal, New Have-London, 2022.

Cassuto, Umberto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Jerusalem, 1997.

  • The Goddess Anat, (Hebrew) Jerusalem, 1965.

Erder, Yoram, Methods in Early Karaite Halakha, (Hebrew) Tel Aviv, 2012. 

Gordon, Cyrus, Ugaritic Textbook, Rome, 1965.

Haran, Menahem, “A Kid in Its Mothers Milk”, in The Bible and its World Selected Literary and Historical Studies, Hebrew) Jerusalem, 2009, pp.433-444.

Houtman, Cornelis, Exudes Volume 3, Leuven, 2000. 

Levinson, Bernard M., Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, New York-Oxford, 1997. 

Loewenstamm, S.E., “Logographical Notes on 1. ṭbḥ; ḫnny/ḫlny”, UF 5, 1973, 209-211.

Propp, William H.C., Exodus 19-40, New York, 2006.

Tigay, Jeffery H., Deuteronomy Vol. one I:1-XVI:17, (Hebrew), Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, 2016.


Theresa Simons

August 10, 2023 at 5:25 pm

My husband suggested it could also mean we should not take a baby lamb, who is still nursing, away from its mother and slaughter it.


August 20, 2023 at 5:52 am

Thank you, very well written!

Felipe Madrigal

August 23, 2023 at 4:26 pm

Shalom Yoel
The conclusion I came to see and think and ofcourse you don’t have to agree with me is that after analyzing and doing my research about these verses is that it doesn’t have to do with eating but a ritual to produce a good harvest. It was like a source of witchcraft.
This ritual of the young cooked in its mother’s milk was done and then spread over the field on the crops to have a good harvest.
Deuteronomy 14:21 is divided wrong and the part that says “You must not cook a young goat in the milk from its mother.” Should be part of the following verse. So as to read
Deuteronomy 14:22 You must not cook a young goat in the milk from its mother.You must put away in a special place, a 10th part of all the food that grows in your fields. You must be careful to do this every year.
Making it the same as the 2 previous verses.
It may have become a dietary delicacy later on but it was mainly to have a good harvest.
What HASHEM is saying is that in order to have a good harvest you will bring the tithe to me because I am the one that provides you not this ritual.
This is the one that makes more sense to me.

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