Light from the Sidra

Mishpatim ('Laws')

Torah: Exodus. 21:1-24:18. Haftarah: 2 Kings 12:1-12:17(16)*

You can’t get there from here

I once took a colleague for lunch at the most famous kosher restaurant in London before it eventually closed. Blooms was famous for high prices and the rudeness of the staff and it lived up to its reputation. The waiter was brusque and we paid over the odds for our unappetising chicken sandwiches, each of which consisted of a piece of chicken between two slices of thin, unlubricated, curling white bread. I had to explain to my colleague why she had been served non-dairy coffee whitener with her tea instead of real milk and advised her not to make a big deal out of it. We ate up, drank up, I paid the bill and we left never to return, but not before curtly demanding to know how you seethe a chicken in its mother’s milk.

I didn’t actually say that but I wanted to. In case that comment is lost on you, Bloom’s refusal to serve a dairy product with meat is based on Exodus 23:19: ‘You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’ The prohibition against cooking a young goat – possibly symbolic of all young animals – in its mother’s milk may have reflected Canaanite religious practice. The ban is repeated in Ex. 34:26, where it is linked to the presentation of first-fruits to God: ‘The choicest firstfruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the LORD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk’. The birth of goats near the Feast of Ingathering and their inclusion in celebratory meals may be the basis for this law and may be a reference to Canaanite fertility rites in which the gods were induced to give good harvests by the sacrifice of a goat cooked in the milk of its mother. I once heard that Arabs still have a dish called ‘Kid in its Mother’s Milk’. 

The mishpat is repeated once again in the book of Deuteronomy, which indicates how serious the injunction was and also that the practice was probably common among Israel’s pagan neighbours: ‘You shall not eat of anything that dies of itself; you may give it to the stranger in your gates, that he may eat it; or you may sell it to a foreigner; for you are a holy people to the LORD your God. You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk’ (Dt. 14:21). The law against boiling kids in the milk of their mothers is linked here to the holiness of Israel. While a goat cooked in this way might be a tasty delicacy, Israel was to be holy and that particular pagan gastronomic delight was denied them.

Astonishing as it may sound, it was on the grounds of that mishpat, or law, that my colleague was refused tea with milk after eating a chicken sandwich. What on earth does a chicken sandwich without butter and tea without milk have to do with a prohibition against seething young goats in their mothers’ milk.

Pirke Avot, a tractate in the Mishnah, begins: ‘Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.’

The law relating to the eating of young goats in the milk of their mothers is the outstanding illustration of the principle of fencing the Torah. Based on that law, Jews are not allowed to eat meat and dairy products together, such as in a cheeseburger; they are not permitted to put milk in their tea or coffee for at least four hours after eating meat; they must have two separate sets of crockery, one for dairy products and the other for meat products; they must have two sinks in the kitchen, one for dairy and the other for meat, and two sets of tea towels, one exclusively for dairy and the other for only meat. All this legislation from that one verse! How do you get from there to here?

A well known rabbi once explained to a friend of mine that the rabbis add their own laws to the Torah in order to strengthen God’s law. ‘God gives one law,’ he explained, ‘and we give many more laws. We surround God’s law by our laws. Our people may break the man-made laws but they’ll not reach God’s law. We are defending God’s law.

Today, the leaders of certain groups of Jews continue to fence the law. Using an elevator on Shabbat was seen as an infringement of the law against kindling a fire on Shabbat because pushing the button causes an electrical spark. To get over this, elevators in high rise buildings in Israel automatically stop at every floor on Shabbat, eliminating the need for the pious to kindle spark by manually pushing a button. But a few years ago, the leader of a particular religious group in Jerusalem ruled that the use of elevators in high rise buildings contravened Shabbat altogether and he declared that Jews who live in such buildings have to use the stairs on the day of rest. Around the same time, another rabbi ruled that picking one’s nose desecrates Shabbat!

Such pedantry and punctiliousness hardly makes Shabbat a delight (Is. 58:13). Shabbat was given by God as a gracious gift to enable his people to be holy by reflecting his character because God rested after creating the universe. The gift of Shabbat also prevented the exploitation of workers by their employers. It seems that over the years, however, some rabbis have made Shabbat a grievous burden. In the Talmud, Berachot 14b says ‘a man ‘should first accept Upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and then accept the yoke of the commandments.’

Sanhedrin 94b praises ‘the latter generations who made heavy the yoke of the Torah upon themselves and are therefore worthy of having a miracle wrought for them, like those who passed over the [Red] Sea and the Jordan.’

According to Talmud, making the yoke of Torah heavier is meritorious. How different to Jesus the Messiah who called the burdened people of his day: ‘Come to me all you who labour and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. Then you will find rest for your souls, because my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

What incredible chutzpah! Who was this man who called Israel to come to him rather than to God and to take his easy yoke rather the heavy yoke imposed by the rabbis? How dare he speak like that? Who did he think he was? God?

In the last half century there has been a movement within Judaism to reclaim Jesus as a Jewish sage, a great moral teacher or even a prophet. The Jewish reclamation of Jesus is fine as far as it goes. Jesus was Jewish. He grew up in Israel and had total recall when it came to Torah but the quote above from the Gospel of Matthew (Mattityahu) raises a huge question. How could a great moral teacher say things about himself that can only be applied to God? In his classic book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis answers that question far more eloquently than I can:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

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