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As this question notes, the law concerning cooking a young goat in its mother's milk appears three times in Torah: Exodus: 23:19, Exodus 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21. It's placement in Deuteronomy fits somewhat with the preceding laws: do eat this, do not eat this, etc... - laws that all deal with diet.

However, its placement in the two passages in Exodus strikes me as unusual. In both cases it comes in sections dealing with the annual festivals. In Exodus 23:14-19, the law appears to be part of the instructions particular to the Festival of Ingathering (though perhaps not). While in Exodus 34, the instructions seem more applicable to festivals and sabbaths in general.

Why is this law specifically included in these two sections dealing with festivals?

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The three festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot) were times when everybody was commanded to assemble in Jerusalem. They were celebrated with festive meals, including some of the meat that had been offered on the altar. (These offerings are listed throughout Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.) The rabbis of the talmud understood that Shabbat should also include a meat meal. My impression is that, otherwise, meat was not incredibly common.

According to Isaac Abarbanel (15th century), boiling meat in milk was a pagan practice particularly associated with harvests. From this translation (thanks @msh210):

It seems to me… that idolators would do this when they got together: that is, they'd boil kids in milk when they harvested grain, thinking that they would thereby appeal to their god and get close to him, and he would instill blessing in what they were doing…. And certainly that the shepherds would do so when they gathered to do their thing: their food then was kids boiled in milk and all sorts of cooked meat-and-milk dishes. [...]

I think that really it was for this reason that God warned them that when they gather at Sukos they must not cook a kid in milk as [non-Jews] do. And to distance them utterly from the way of idolatry, He forbade eating it, deriving benefit from it, and cooking it….

I do not know Abarbanel's sources for the historical information on which he draws.

If Abarbanel is correct, then this prohibition would follow logically from a discussion of holidays, paricularly Sukkot (the fall harvest festival). The passage in Ex 34 is near a discussion of all the holidays and Shabbat, perhaps (my speculation here) as a reminder that this is a general prohibition and not Sukkot-specific.


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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If anybody thinks I should source the claims in my first paragraph please let me know. I'm not sure whether they can be taken as given or not. –  Gone Quiet Apr 30 '13 at 17:21
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According to Jacob Milgrom:

Both ideas inhering in the kid prohibition—the reverence for life and Israel's separation from the nations—are also present in the dietary laws, the former in the blood prohibition and the latter in the animal prohibitions. Thus the kid prohibition was automatically locked into Israel's dietary system. Therefore, it should occasion no surprise that the kid prohibition, which in Exodus is related to the cult and sacrifices, is transformed in Deuteronomy into a dietary law. Deuteronomy, it should be recalled, has transferred the act of slaughtering an animal for its flesh from the sanctuary to the home. With the centralization of worship at the Temple, Deuteronomy had to enact a concomitant law permitting common slaughter in order to obviate the necessity of journeying to the Temple each time a family desired meat for the table. The result is that the taboo of cooking a kid in its mother's milk, which needed but to be observed within the sanctuary compound while under priestly supervision, henceforth had to be heeded by every Israelite family, without outside supervision, in every kitchen.

I believe this theory assumes that Deuteronomy was edited into final form sometime during or after the establishment of Jerusalem and its Temple as the center of worship in Israel. However, the principle of decentralization of animal slaughter seems to be a theme of Deuteronomy.

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