I've recently read (again) the verse "לא תבשל גדי בחלב אמו", meaning, "Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk".
How did anyone get from that, to "Don't eat meat with milk at all"? I've always been curious to know.
Basically, if you look carefully in Biblical Hebrew, g'di actually means "a young animal" -- usually if you didn't specify it meant a goat, but it could be a generic term for any young. Thus elsewhere it might specify g'di izim -- "a young goat."
So that gives us "don't cook a young animal in its mother's milk."
Why the thing about "mother's"? Hebrew lesson once again, the language is written without vowels. "Chalav" is milk; "chelev" is fat. So by adding in the phrase "mother's" we know it's talking about cooking it in milk, not fat.
We believe that an Oral Tradition was given along with the Bible as we know it, which meant that this verse was intended as:
The verse appears thrice in the Torah, giving us: don't cook it, don't eat it if it was cooked, and don't sell it if it was cooked.
In fact you'd only violate the direct Torah prohibition if it was cooked with milk; if you took a cold hamburger and soaked it in milk for an hour, that isn't in the prohibition. Centuries later, the rabbis of the Talmud added a prohibition of their own, knowing that if you okayed people to eat such a hamburger, it's likely they'll reheat it - thus getting to a Torah prohibition.
That pertains as the legal definition. As for the ethical message, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that meat is taking, and milk is giving. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook suggests going back to the simple reading of the verse -- once you kill an animal, its mother's milk has no use. To then take that milk and use it to make the meat extra-tasty is too blatant of a disrespect for animal life.
The Torah never says anything unnecessarily, yet it repeats the law about not eating a young animal in the milk of its mother three times when it could have said just one "Don't eat meat with milk". From here the gemara and later commentators pick up a few things: 1) There are three aspects - not cooking, eating or benefiting 2) The d'oraysa aspect only applies to kosher, domesticated mammals 3) Milk is kosher even though it was mixed with meat in the mother's udders. All these are learned (see gemara in Chullin as referenced above and elsewhere) from the wording of the three repetitive verses.
I hope this isn't disrespectful, but there are also health considerations. These words are much older than refrigeration-- and a combination of warming lactose (in the milk) and iron/protein (in the meat) can make you feel ill.
As a lawyer, I know that rules are to be interpreted by looking primarily to the plain meaning of the words. If the words are a prohibited commandment, then they must be sufficiently clear as to allow no ambiguity or misundestanding. Otherwise, they cannot be enforced. This commandment has always bothered me, because the interpretation is so far from the plain meaning of the words that it is more than ambiguous; it is creative imagination. No other commandment is, to my knowledge, so "creatively" interpreted.
As an amateur, but well-read, historian, I suppose that the Torah contained this commandment to differentiate and elevate the moral and ethical superiority of the Hebrew tribes from the Canaanite cultures they were to dispossess from the promised land. There probably was a Canaanite custom to boil a kid in its mother's milk. That was disrespectful to the miracle of life in all animals and insensitive to the feelings of animals. The Canaanite practice (assuming it existed and that my interpretation is correct) taught a form of cruelty. Thus, by prohibiting this particular practice, the Torah taught respect and humanity, ideas not usually found in the world and cultures of that time. It helped justify the apparent conflict with the commandment that we Hebrews were to make war, a most cruel act against an entire community, in order to replace that community with our own, which operated on a higher ethical and moral level.
The interpretation that all milk and meat must not be eaten together and that we must have separate plates, utensils and kitchens for each class of cuisine, must have come much later, introduced into the Talmud during the rabbinical period after the destruction of the Temple. I would bet that some Jewish communities in the diaspora that separated before the rabbinical period Talmud, do not follow this interpretation of the commandment.
Does anyone have reliable information about the practices of Ethiopian Jews or other ancient Jewish communities outside of Israel? Do they practice complete separation of milk and meat?
I believe this is an extremely important subject, because the burden of keeping strictly separate meat and milk kitchens (albeit within the same room in the house) is the hardest part of keeping kosher. More Jewish families would accept kashrut as a lifestyle if this were interpreted according to its literal meaning.