YOU SHALL NOT BOIL A KID IN ITS MOTHER'S MILK
(From "Bible Review" - 1985)
by Jacob Milgrom
A PUZZLING VERSE
One of the oldest prohibitions in the entire Bible is the
injunction against boiling a kid in the milk of its mother. It is
repeated three times in identical words: "You shall not boil a
kid in its mother's milk."
From these words, the rabbis extrapolated a complex set of
dietary laws, which to this day prohibit observant Jews from
mixing foods containing milk or milk by-products with foods
containing meat. The prohibition against mixing milk and meat is
an essential element of the dietary laws of kashrut it is a
significant part of what it means to "keep kosher."
Yet the basis for the biblical prohibition itself is
elusive. Why would the ancient Israelites even have contemplated
boiling a kid in its mother's milk?
The cognoscenti know how modern archaeology has solved the
puzzle. It is a beautiful story, especially because the
archaeological solution was presaged by a famous medieval Jewish
exegete, Maimonides, who somehow managed to intuit from the text
itself the same solution archaeology produced centuries later.
In 1195, Maimonides suggested:
"As for the prohibition against eating meat [boiled] in milk, it
is in my opinion not improbable that - in addition to this being
undoubtedly very gross food and very filling - idolatry had
something to do with it. Perhaps such food was eaten at one of
the ceremonies of their cult or one of their festivals" (The
Guide to the Perplexed 111:48).
Maimonides admitted, however, that he could find no support
for his theory:
"[Although] this is the most probable view regarding the reasons
for this prohibition... I have not seen this set down in any of
the books of the Sabeans [pagans] that I have read."
On May 14, 1929, at a site in Syria that we now call Ugarit
and that the local Arabs call Ras Sharma, French archaeologist
Claude Schaeffer was excavating a room that turned out to be a
royal library. On that day he uncovered the first of more than a
thousand cuneiform tablets from about the 14th century B.C.,
written in a hitherto unknown script consisting of only about 30
signs - a kind of cuneiform alphabet.
Most of the tablets are typical of a state archive-
administrative texts, censors lists, economic texts and letters.
But the cache also included literary, mythological and religious
texts. Some of these tablets are of a more ritual character,
illuminating the daily practice of religion in ancient Canaan.
One scholar refers to a series of tablets relating to the
Canaanite god Ba'al, whose worship is so frequently condemned in
the Bible, as a "Canaanite Bible."
One of these tablets describes an obscure Canaanite
religious ritual. The tablet was first published in 1933 by
Charles Virolleaud, the local director of antiquities at Ugarit,
who later became instrumental in the decipherment and
publication of the Ugaritic tablets. Virolleaud called the text
"The Birth of the Gracious and Beautiful Gods." On one side of
the tablet was a list of ritual commands; on the other was a
story about some of the sexual escapades of the head of the
Canaanite pantheon, the supreme god EL.
In the myth related on one side of the tablet, El fathers
the gracious gods, who are suckled by the goddesses Athirat
(biblical Asherah) and Rahmay. Many scholars believe that the
text is actually the libretto of a cultic play in which the
mythological roles were played by human beings, perhaps
culminating in a sacred marriage rite. Performance of the rituals
prescribed by the text may have accompanied the reenactment of
these mythical events. The purpose of the ritual was to ensure
the land's fertility, symbolized by the birth of the good gods.
A DAMAGED LINE
Our present concern is with one line in this tablet.
Unfortunately, this critical line is damaged. Virolleaud
therefore "restored" as the scholars say - more accurately, he
reconstructed - part of the text. In the following quotation, the
pan in brackets is Virolleaud's reconstruction. As restated, the
text reads as follows: tb[h g/d.bhIb. annh[./bhm'at. Virolleaud
translated the first three words of the line this way (again the
restored pan is in brackets); "Fail (cuire un chelvreau tans le
lait" ("Cook a kid in milk").
A few years later, H.L.Ginsberg published several studies of
this text in which he drew attention to the biblical parallels.
Both the Ugaritic text and the Bible contain references to
cooking a kid in milk. Ginsberg concluded that the ritual
described in the Ugaritic tablet was the "same idolatrous custom
that the Torah forbade." In the Canaanite ritual, the milk in
which the kid was cooked symbolized the milk that the newly born
gods were given when suckled by the pagan goddesses Athirst and
Rahmay. The cooking of a goat in milk was forbidden in the Bible
because it "symbolizes the suckling [by the pagan goddesses} of
the newborn gods!"
So here at last was the explanation of the biblical
prohibition. Maimonides' intuition was right; the biblical
prohibition was a reaction against a Canaanite ritual involving
the boiling of a kid in its mother's milk.
CANAANITE PAGAN RITUAL
In the ensuing years, this explanation gained wide
acceptance among both Ugaritic and biblical scholars, and indeed
became almost a dogma of scholarship. Anton Schoors concluded
that "the parallel is most striking and the biblical prohibition
is certainly directed against the practice described in this
text." Umberto Cassuto said, "It is clear that this was the
practice of the Canaanites on one of their holidays"
and we can now "guess that this custom was widespread in the
ritual of the [Israelite's] pagan neighbors." And Edward
Ullendorff found that the two texts "astonishing verbal
resemblance helps to illuminate some of the obscurities of both:
it is clear that the Pentateuch is inveighing against an
obnoxious Canaanite custom, perhaps a fertility cult or some
other ritually significant ceremony."
Bible commentaries quickly made use of the scholars' work of
illuminate this previously obscure commandment. The Interpreter's
Bible, Moody Bible Institute Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament
Commentary Daily Study Bible, New Century Bible Commentary, Torah
Bible Commentary, Bible Study Textbook Series, Old Testament
Library, and other commentators, all concluded that the Ugaritic
text conclusively demonstrated that the Bible prohibition was
aimed at discouraging the Israelites from participating in some
sort of Canaanite fertility rite.
RECENT SCHOLARSHIP YES NO
Recent scholarship, however, has thoroughly un-dermined this
First, the most obvious problems that the Ugaritic text
makes no reference to mother's milk. Even after the Ugaritic text
is reconstructed, it refers only to boiling a kid in milk, not in
is mother's milk.
Second, the reconstruction of the Ugaritic text is almost
certainly wrong. The scribes at Ugarit marked the division
between words with a special symbol, a small vertical wedge,
which epigraphers transliterate as a dot. There is little room in
the text of our tablet both for the customary word divider and
for the extra letter, h, that would allow the word Virolleaud
reconstructs as "cook" actually to be read that way. Even if the
h could somehow be squeezed into the line, however, the resulting
word tbh never means "to cook" in Ugaritic anyway, only "to
slaughter." So the text would refer to slaughtering a kid rather
than to cooking it.
Finally, the Ugaritic word gd doesn't mean "kid." It
probably means coriander, an aromatic herb, a meaning found in
So whatever it was that happened "in milk" during the
Ugaritians' ritual did not involve any cooking, and mother's milk
certainly wasn't used. Moreover, whatever happened "in milk"
didn't happen to a kid but to some kind of plant, probably
In short, no "cooking" no milk of "is mother" and probably
no "kid." There is thus no way that this Ugaritic tablet can be
used to illuminate the basis for the prohibition against boiling
a kid in its mother's milk.
We are left, then, with the same puzzle: what is the basis
for the biblical prohibition?
SO WHAT IS THE BIBLE SAYING?
One intriguing possibility is that the Bible verse has a
hidden purpose: it is actually directed against incest. Starting
with the hypothesis that legal prohibitions often reflect
society's taboos, the French diplomat-scholar Jean Soler
interprets the law concerning a kid to mean: "You shall not put a
mother and her son in the same pot any more than in the same
This explanation has one major drawback: it's not
linguistically sound. In order to fit within the "incest"
paradigm, we must have both a mother goat and her male offspring.
But the Hebrew word for kid, "gdy" is asexual. So the
prohibition, as it stands, applies to female kids as well as m
We must therefore look for a more plausible explanation.
Several exegetes have suggested that the prohibition against
boiling a kid in its own mother's milk has a humanitarian basis,
that it s a sort of "kindness to animals" legislation. In the
end, however, this theory is also an unsatisfying solution to the
Those who espouse the humanitarian theory point to the
biblical passages showing a special concern for the comfort and
even "feelings" of animals. The Israelites are commanded to be
especially sensitive to the tender relationship between a mother
animal and her young. For example, animals may not be slaughtered
on the same day as their offspring (Leviticus 22:28); a wild
mother bird may not be taken out of her nest along with her eggs
or fledglings (Deuteronomy 22:6-7); and no animal may be
sacrificed to God unless it has first been given a week with is
mother (Leviticus 22:27; Exodus 22:29).
According to these scholars, a kid may not be boiled in its
mother's milk for the same reason: to prevent cruelty to animals.
The reason this solution is unsatisfactory is that, while it
is true that the Bible recognizes that a mother and her young
feel pain at separation, this principle is not taken to extremes.
A dam and her offspring certainly can be slaughtered on
consecutive days, a bird and its fledglings may be taken
separately from the nest, and an eight-day-old lamb or kid may be
sacrificed, even if it is still nursing. In our case, a concern
about maternal sensibilities could not have given rise to the
prohibited practice because the mother goat can't possibly be
aware that her offspring is boiling in her milk.
A second humanitarian-type motive for our biblical passage
has been advanced by scholars: that its purpose was to maintain
the comfort of the mother animal. This interpretation depends on
a different translation of the Hebrew text, made possible once
the text is freed of the incubus of the supposed "Ugaritic
Under this new reading, the Israelites are commanded to make
certain, when they bring their first fruits and then first-born
animals to Jerusalem to sacrifice, that they do not sacrifice (by
boiling) "a kid [which is yet] in the milk of its mother": in
other words, still nursing, and supported solely by its mother's
The nursing kid prohibition so interpreted would thus be
closely related to the command to refrain from sacrificing a
newly born animal during the first week of its life (Leviticus
22:27; Exodus 22:29). The basis for this command is a principle
of animal husbandry that would have been well known to the
agricultural Israelites. Philo of Alexandria explained it this
"During the first week after the birth of its offspring, the
mother's udders are a true fountain, but [the mother] has no
young ones to suck when one removes them. Since the milk fords
no more exit, the teats become hard and heavy, and by the weight
of the milk stuck inside they begin to hurt the mother" (Philo,
De Virtute, 128-129).
Thus, the prohibition may be just a shorthand reminder to
the Israelites of a salutary husbandry rule set out elsewhere in
the Bible; for the mother animal's comfort, her newly born
offspring should not be taken away from her for sacrifice during
the first week of their life, while they are still sucking their
Again, the fatal flaw in this theory is philological - in
biblical Hebrew it is not possible, as this interpretation
requires, to refer to a "suckling" as one that is "in his
THE SWISS SCHOLAR KEEL
Yet another possibility has been advanced by the Swiss
scholar Othmar Keel. In a new book he brings together a wealth of
icono-graphic material from the ancient Near East - seals,
pottery and rock tomb-paint-ings - bearing the image of a mother
nursing her young. He thinks that this material has a special
significance for the biblical prohibition. According to Keel, the
pervasiveness of this image reflects its symbolic power for the
primarily agricultural societies of the Bible: The nursing mother
is a source of fertility and benevolence, and her milk is a fount
of growth and new life.
The symbolism takes on cosmic dimensions because the animals
portrayed in this Near Eastern iconography can stand for
In Ugaritic mythology, for example, the goddess Anat,
daughter of El and Athirat, assumes the shape of a heifer and
acts as wet nurse to the gods, as does Athirat. Both goddesses,
in addition, suckle specially deserving humans who are destined
for great things.
The Egyptian goddess Hathor is also represented as a cow.
She is depicted suckling Pharaoh Menwhotep 11 on the rock
painting found at Deir elBahari.
In Babylonia, the mountain goddess Ninhursag is pictured
flanked by the wombs of animals, suckling a child.
The nursing mother image as it appears in the art of
Syro-Palestine, unlike the Ugaritic, Egyptian and Babylonian
iconography, is not attributable to any particular deity. For
this reason, Keel believes that the image could easily have been
absorbed into the monotheism of the Israelites. A ban on seething
a kid in is mother's milk makes sense against this Canaanite
cultural background, for boiling a kid in the milk of is mother
would be opposed to and would vitiate the life-sustaining and
divinely ordained nurture inherent in all living being.
ON THE RIGHT TRACK...BUT
Keel is, I submit, on the right track. But his explanation
is not fully satisfying. The kid of the biblical command is not
being suckled; it has already been separated from is mother. The
focus in the biblical verse is upon the kid, not upon the nursing
mother - in fact, the mother, which under Keel's theory
represents the transmission of the life-force, is totally absent.
Only her milk is present. In the biblical image, we do not find
the image of the suckling mother representing the transmission of
the life-sustaining force proceeding from generation to
PHILO ... PROBABLY MORE CORRECT
I believe it is more productive to take our cue from Philo,
the first-century Hellenistic Jewish philosopher and exegete. As
Philo put it, it is "grossly improper that the substance which
fed the living animal should be used to season or flavor it after
its death" (De Virtute, 13).
Hence, according to Philo, the root rationale behind the kid
prohibition is its opposition to commingling life and death. A
substance that sustains the life of a creature (milk) should not
be fused or confused with a process associated with is death
This prohibition is, thus, simply another instance of the
emphasis on opposites characteristic of biblical ritual and
practice: to separate life from death, holy from common, pure
from impure, Israel from the nations. The reverence for life and
Israel's separation from the nations are ideas reflected
throughout the dietary laws. For example, the reverence or life
is reflected in the blood prohibition. Separating Israel from the
nations is re reflected in the prohibition against eating certain
animals such as pig and crusta-ceans.
Thus the prohibition against cooking a kid in its mother's
milk conforms neatly with Israel's overall dietary system.
The command not to boil a kid in mother's milk is first set
forth in Exodus, where the context in which it appears shows that
it probably applies only to kids sacrificed on one of the
Israelites pilgrimage festivals. By the time the command appears
again in Deuteronomy, however, it is apparent that it has been
transformed into something much broader, a new dietary law.
It is easy to see why this prohibition would have been so
quickly integrated in the Israelites' dietary system. It bodies
two common biblical themes reverence for life, even dumb animal
life, and Israel's separation from the nations.
This life versus-death theory also completely and neatly
elucidates the other biblical prohibitions mentioned earlier
that, heretofore, have been explained as having humanitarian
NO FUSION WITH LIFE AND DEATH
However the common denominator of all these prohibitions
is that they prevent the fusion of life and death. Thus, the
life-giving process of the mother bird hatching or feeding
her young should not be the occasion of their joint death
(Deuteronomy 22:6). The sacrifice of the newborn may be
inevitable, but not for the first week while it is constantly
at the mother's breast (Leviticus 22:27); and never should both
the mother and its young be slain at the same time (Leviticus
22:28). By the same token, mother's milk, the life-sustaining
food for her kid, should never become associated with is death.
Is it, then, so far-fetched for the rabbis to have deduced
that all neat, not just of the kid, and all milk, not only of the
mother, may not be served together? In a fundamental way, the
rule encourages a reverence for life, a separation of life
and death - and separates Israel from the nations.
I think putting it in simple terms we can deduce this from Jacob
Milgrom. The new born kid, calf, sheep, should not be killed
within the early new life it has, then be cooked in its mother's
milk (possibly because it may give some added flavor to the meat)
that it was depending on for life. As Milgron states, that would
be confusing life and death, hence a teaching to instill in
Israel a certain reverence for life and death - a separation of
life and death, which many of the nations around them did not
practice. As Milgrom has given, thus the life-giving process of
the mother bird hatching or feeding her young should not be the
occasion of their joint death (Deut.22:6). The sacrifice of the
newborn may be inevitable, but not for the first week while it is
constantly at the mother's breast (Lev.22:27); and never should
both the mother and its young be slain at the same time
(Lev.22:28). By the same token, the mother's milk, the life-
sustaining food for her kid, should never become associated with
its death - Keith Hunt
Entered on this Website October 2007