The prohibition of basar v’chalav (meat and milk) constantly permeates a Jewish home, perhaps more than any other mitzvah or prohibition. Let us explore possible reasons behind this core mitzvah.
The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 92) presents two reasons for the basar v’chalav restrictions. One is that meat and milk were sacrificed in the ancient world as part of pagan rituals. Second, is that it resembles a form of witchcraft. For better or worse, these reasons are irrelevant for our times and leave us with reason to search for explanations that “speak” to us, especially for a mitzvah that takes up so much of our attention.
The Tzeror HaMor
The Tzeror HaMor explains, based on Kabbalah, that meat represents din, Hashem’s strict justice, and chalav signifies rachamim, Hashem’s merciful side. Separating meat and milk means separating din and rachamim. However, this explanation appears difficult since Hashem blends din with rachamim, as stated in Rashi to Breishit 1:1 s.v. Bara Elokim.
Moreover, dayanim (rabbinic judges) prefer to adjudicate monetary disputes in peshara kerova l’din style. Peshara kerova l’din blends strict justice with equity and fairness, similar to Hashem partnering din with rachamim. Why should we separate din and rachamim if Hashem combines them and the Halacha encourages us to follow His example?
Rav Soloveitchik’s Methodology For Explaining Mitzvot
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, (in the last section of “Halachic Mind”) advocates a different approach to understanding mitzvah observance. He urges us to shift from asking why Hashem commands a particular mitzvah to reflecting on how we experience mitzvot. Hashem’s reasoning transcends ours (as emphasized by Yeshayahu HaNavi 55:8-9), and attempts to understand His reasoning will inevitably fall short. We are capable of retrospectively discerning what we gain from our mitzvah observance.
A New Suggestion
In light of Rav Soloveitchik’s insight, we suggest that havdala (separation) lies at the core of our separating meat and milk. In Parashat Bereishit, on each day of creation, Hashem separates something (like the sea and the land, light and dark, day and night, and the waters above and below). In addition, Tehillim (104:9) describes Hashem creating the world with firm boundaries that are not to be breached.
During the Mabul (flood), Hashem destroyed the world by separating the boundaries between the sea and land and the waters below and above. He did so because humanity profoundly degraded the world by disrespecting boundaries.
By forbidding us to have meat and milk together, Hashem sets up firm boundaries for us. The halachot regarding basar v’chalav require a massive effort to observe properly. Dividing two entirely permissible parts of one’s kitchen is no small endeavor. Success lies in setting firm demarcations between meat and milk. By doing so, we deeply inculcate the crucial need to create strong boundaries throughout our lives, so necessary for success in all we do.
Hashgacha (kashrut supervision) organizations forbidding serving meat and milk at one establishment underscores the difficulty of separating meat and dairy. The Torah prohibiting cooking and benefitting from meat and milk reinforces the eating prohibition and helps us committed Jews maintain the indispensable firm boundaries between milk and meat (see Kesef Mishneh to Hilchot Tumat Meit 1:2 for a similar approach).
We similarly separate the genders, Yisrael and the amim (nations), and Shabbat and tov for the rest of the week and year. Just as we make separations in our ritual life, so too we separate ourselves from immorality and unethical behavior. For Jews, Havdala is not just a ceremony we perform after Shabbat and Yom Tov; it is a way of life.
In addition, waiting between meat and milk develops our ability to wait. Psychologists have discovered that a central characteristic of long-term success is the ability to delay gratification. Wikipedia describes the famous “Stanford marshmallow experiment” as follows:
The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a study on delayed gratification in 1972 led by psychologist Walter Mischel, a professor at Stanford University. In this study, a child was offered a choice between one small but immediate reward, or two small rewards if they waited for a period of time. During this time, the researcher left the child in a room with a single marshmallow for about 15 minutes and then returned. If they did not eat the marshmallow, the reward was either another marshmallow or pretzel stick, depending on the child’s preference. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI) and other life measures.
The beginning of Parashat Toldot vividly depicts Eisav’s inability to delay gratification. He preferred a bowl of soup today over the birthright whose benefit would ensue much later. According to Rashi, the Cheit HaEigel (Sin of Golden Calf) occurred due to our lack of patience to wait a few more hours for Moshe Rabbeinu’s return. Failure ensues from an inability to postpone.
Waiting is an acute problem in contemporary society. We have become accustomed to lightning-fast food preparation, travel, and communication and are very impatient when we do not receive needed services quickly. Rav Dr. Abraham Twerski z”l, a noted expert on addiction and recovery, says that astronomic growth in addictions stems greatly from people’s inability to wait.
Thus, while some may moan that the waiting is the hardest part, it is an essential component of a functional and successful personality. Therefore, waiting is an integral and recurring component of Torah life. We wait patiently until we are permitted to eat milk after meat, the end of a “three-day Yom Tov,” and we are smart enough to be patient until marriage.
Conclusion: Transcending Biology
Finally, limiting our diet elevates humanity. Animals are driven by their biological urges to consume food thoughtlessly. Humans uplift themselves by limiting what they eat and thinking before devouring food. While all kashrut observances facilitate achieving kedusha (holiness) by transcending our biology, basar v’chalav does so more acutely than all other Kashrut laws. Its ubiquity forces us to ascend higher constantly.
Rabbi Jachter serves as the rav of Congregation Shaarei Orah, rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County, and a get administrator with the Beth Din of Elizabeth. Rabbi Jachter’s 17 books may be purchased at Amazon and Judaica House.