Observant Jews, in following the Mosaic Law, seek to obey the laws regarding food, primarily found in Leviticus chapter 11. However, there is a common Jewish dietary practice that is not found in Leviticus 11 or anywhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures. Most observant Jews do not eat animal and dairy products together, or even in the same meal. They do not consider mixing dairy products and meat to be kosher—cheeseburgers are off the menu. If the command not to mix meat with dairy is not found in the Hebrew Scriptures, where did it come from?
The practice of avoiding dairy products in a meal with meat comes from Exodus 23:19, which reads, “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” The command does not overtly relate to dietary restrictions; rather, it prohibits cooking a certain type of meat a certain way. A normal reading of Exodus 23:19 seemingly allows for a young goat to be cooked in milk, as long as the milk is not from its own mother. Further, the command’s narrow scope would seem to allow for any other type of clean animal (besides a goat) to be cooked in its own mother’s milk. The command does not say anything about whether dairy and meat can be consumed in the same meal. So how can Exodus 23:19 be used to forbid dairy and meat being consumed together?
The tendency in Jewish rabbinical tradition, over a period of thousands of years, was to expand the commands in the Mosaic Law to cover more activities. The purpose of such expansion was to insulate the Jews from possible violations of the law. So, if the law prescribed a ten-foot fence, the rabbis made it a fifteen-foot fence, just to be safe. As a result, the “young goat” in Exodus 23:19 was interpreted as “all meat” in Jewish tradition, and “its mother’s milk” became “any dairy product.” Consuming any type of meat with any dairy product in the same meal became a violation of the kosher laws. One rabbinic teaching even prohibits the use of the same knife to cut meat and cheese or the use of the same tablecloth to serve both.
This treatment of God’s law is an example of what Jesus referred to when He rebuked the teachers of the law for “straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel” in Matthew 23:24. Of course it is good to stay as far away from violating God’s law as possible. But to expand a law to the extent that it barely resembles the original statute cannot be justified. Eating meat and dairy in the same meal was not forbidden in the Mosaic Law. Deuteronomy 4:2 declares, “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.” It was a direct violation of God’s law for the Jews to add a prohibition not directly stated or implied in the law.
Whether a person eats a cheeseburger is not the issue. Followers of Jesus Christ are not under the law (Mark 7:19; Romans 10:4; Galatians 3:23–25; Ephesians 2:15). We have freedom in Christ, and that freedom extends to our diet (Galatians 5:1). If people desire to obey the Old Covenant dietary laws or the expanded Jewish kosher laws, they are free to do so. The issue here is the fact that the Jewish expansion of “do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk” into “do not eat any type of meat with any dairy product in the same meal” is a violation of God’s prohibition against adding to the Lord’s commands.
So, what was the command of Exodus 23:19 truly prohibiting? Most likely, the rule had to do with keeping the Israelites free from idolatry and superstition. Several commentators conjecture that boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk was a pagan rite performed as part of a fertility spell. God wanted His people to have nothing to do with such wickedness. Other commentators point out that cooking a young goat in its own mother’s milk seems cruel, considering the goat is being cooked in the very thing that was intended to give it life.