Torah portion, Yitro, featured the most glorious moment in human history: God giving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The next Torah portion, Mishpatim, brings us back down to earth with a long series of laws, many of them seemingly mundane. It might feel anticlimactic, but the Torah’s message is that Judaism fills and sanctifies all areas of our lives, whether we’re praying in synagogue and dressed in our Shabbat best, or calculating damages because our ox gored someone else’s ox.
One of the ordinances in Mishpatim is the source of many of the laws of kashrut (kosher): “You shall not boil a kid its mother’s milk.” From this the rabbis deduce that we mustn’t consume milk and meat together, neither in the same dish nor as part of the same meal. According to Jewish law, we wait six hours after eating meat before we can eat dairy. However, after eating dairy we don’t need to wait nearly as long before eating meat. Why isn’t the wait time the same whether you eat milk or meat first? One explanation is that meat dissolves more slowly between the teeth.
To understand the time discrepancy on a deeper level, let’s first explore why we don’t eat milk and meat together in the first place. Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1167) says, “Eating the mother’s life-giving milk, with meat, the dead flesh of the offspring, displays callousness, Judaism requires our sensitivity to extend to our eating habits.” Boiling a kid in its own mother’s milk was a delicacy in the ancient world, but there’s a cruelty to the practice that is not in accordance with Judaism’s respect for all life. Milk represents life and meat represents death, and mixing life and death leads to moral confusion, which is antithetical to Torah Judaism.
Regarding the question of why we can eat dairy shortly before meat but not the other way around: milk represents not just life but kindliness. A mother feeding her baby does so out of love. Slaughtering an animal is done to fulfill the physical need to eat – and there’s nothing wrong with eating meat, according to Jewish teachings. But acts of kindness should always come first. That’s why we are commanded to feed our animals before we feed ourselves (derived from Deut. 11:15). Kindness to others is more important than satisfying our own physical needs.