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Flowing With Milk and Honey

The Torah describes the Land of Israel as “a land [where] milk and honey flows” numerous times, although its appearance in Parshas Kedoshim is the only time in Sefer Vayikra (20:24). What does this expression mean? What kind of milk and what kind of honey?

In his commentary on Shemos 13:5, Rashi says, “Milk flows from the goats and honey flows from the dates and from the figs.” Putting aside why Rashi waited until the third time the Torah uses the expression to explain it, his explanation differs from how he explains it in the Talmud (Megillah 6a), where he says, “The goats eat figs and the honey drips from them and the milk flows from the goats and they (the goats’ milk and the figs’ honey) form something that resembles a stream.” Although the milk is the same in both explanations, in the Talmud the honey is “fig honey,” while in the Chumash it’s both “fig honey” and “date honey.” It should be noted, though, that his explanation on the Talmud is based on how the Talmud itself (Kesubos 111b) describes a first-hand account of seeing the land “flow” with milk and honey, where the honey came from figs.

As far as why Rashi includes date honey in his commentary on the Torah, the honey of the seven species (Devarim 8:8) refers to date honey (see Rashi on Devarim 26:2, but it’s implied in the verse itself, since—as Ibn Ezra on Vayikra 2:11 points out—figs were already mentioned as one of the land’s seven special species). Therefore, the starting point is that the land flows with date honey, with the first-hand account of goats eating figs and honey dripping from them adding a second type of honey. Elsewhere (Vayikra 2:11), Rashi says that “honey” refers to fruit-based sweetener, implying the sweetness of any fruit (not just dates and figs), something he says explicitly in Shevuos 12b.

Just as “honey” can refer to the extraction of any sweet fruit, “milk” is not limited to goat milk. As Ramban puts it (Shemos 3:8), “It’s a land [fit] for cattle because it has good pasture (for grazing) and its waters are nice, so the animals produce a lot of milk—as good, healthy animals that produce an abundance of milk require a good climate, lots of vegetation and good waters. And because that occurs in marshes and or on top of mountains—where fruits aren’t so plump or nice—(the Torah) says that the fruit is so plump and sweet that honey oozes from them.”Nevertheless, since the eye-witness accounts were of goat milk and fig honey, and the “honey” of the seven species is date honey—not to mention that these are the ones normally abundant in the Land of Israel—this is the “milk” and “honey” that are most associated with the land..

In Mechilta d’Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai (on Shemos 13:5, quoted by Midrash HaGadol), R’ Eliezer doesn’t understand “milk’ ‘ to mean animal milk, but the liquid that oozes from fruit. (He also says “honey” refers to date honey; I assume date honey is a separate category because it’s thicker than what oozes from other fruits.) Rabbi Akiva argues, insisting that “milk” means animal milk. He brings two proof-texts, one (Yoel 4:18) to prove that “milk” refers to animal milk, and the other (Shmuel I 14:26) to prove that “honey” is not limited to date honey. Interestingly, honey (which was in a forest) is not fruit honey. According to Rashi, the “forest” refers to sugar canes, with the “honey” being sap that flowed from them. Radak disagrees, saying the “forest” refers to trees (as it usually does), with honey flowing from the beehives in those trees. If we connect the dots (Rabbi Akiva using the verse to “prove” which honey flows in the Land of Israel and Radak saying it was bee honey), one could argue that the expression (also) refers to bee honey. But the simpler, more straightforward way to understand it is the honey that oozes from its fruits, which usually manifests itself in date honey and fig honey. Similarly, “milk” is commonly understood to be animal milk (not the liquid that oozes from overly plump fruit), as one of the reasons given (Bechoros 6b) for the permissibility to drink the milk of kosher animals is that the Torah praises the Land of Israel for its milk.

Midrash Lekach Tov (Bamidbar 13:27) describes the report of the scouts—when they verified that the land flows with milk and honey—being “the honey flows from the trees, and the goats graze underneath and the milk of the goats flows underneath them, and the honey and the milk mix together.” Although this sounds similar to Rashi’s commentary on Megillah 6a, there the type of fruit was mentioned, and the goats were eating the fruit, causing the fruit’s honey to ooze out and mix with their milk. This Midrash has the goats grazing there (implying that they were eating the vegetation growing on the ground), without mentioning any fruit, with the implication being that the “honey” was the sap that flowed directly from the trees rather than liquid that oozed from fruit. Either way, it indicates how bountiful the land is.

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Two other things caught my eye as I was researching this topic. In Shemos 3:8, Shadal instructs us to see his commentary on 13:5, but in the most widely available editions, his commentary there has been edited out. I’m not sure whether leaving in the reference was an oversight, and when it was decided to take out his quotes of non-Jewish sources they forgot to take this out too, or to give them credit for leaving evidence that they censored his commentary. (In the unedited editions, Shadal quotes non-Jewish poets who included flowing milk and honey as indications of bounty and said the expression was meant as poetic hyperbole. I am more uncomfortable with not taking the eye-witness accounts of the Talmud seriously enough than I am about quoting non-Jewish poets.)

Abarbanel (on Shemos 3:8) says that the expression is designed to contrast the Land of Israel with Egypt, since the latter does not support livestock well nor are there many trees, whereas the Promised Land supports its animals so well that they produce an abundance of milk, and its trees produce fruits so luscious that there is an abundance of fruit honey. I found this interesting because Dasan and Aviram told Moshe he had taken them out of a land that flowed with milk and honey and they were referring to Egypt! Nevertheless, they were contrasting their situation in the desert with how things were in Egypt; they used this expression for effect, even if—in the context they were using it—it was technically inaccurate.


Rabbi Dov Kramer prefers honey in his fruit-flavored herbal tea, and only eats dates on Rosh Hashanah. As a kid, he enjoyed dried/pressed figs, but is wary of infestation, so has avoided them. After giving up coffee post heart attack, milk is no longer part of his diet either. Most importantly, he hasn’t moved to the Land that flows with milk and honey—yet, but yearns for the redemption, when we can all return there.

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