Commentary for Shabbat Chol haMoed Sukkot

2 Oct

This week’s Torah reading is a special reading for whenever Shabbat falls on a non-Yom Tov day of Sukkot or Passover. It begins with Moses pleading with God to forgive the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf. It then continues with God forgiving the Israelites, but once again warning them not to turn to false gods. It then concludes with a loose collection of laws related to Shabbat and holidays and holiday sacrifices before closing with the seemingly unrelated prohibition against boiling a calf in its mother’s milk.


This commandment appears in the Torah in three different places (Ex. 23:19, Ex. 34:26, and Deut. 14:21). Rabbi Ishmael on Chulin 115b teaches that the three appearances of this commandment are to teach us that there are three different aspects to this prohibition: the physical act of cooking them together, eating them together (even if someone else cooked it for you), and deriving benefit from the two being cooked together (you can’t own a restaurant that sells it even if you don’t do the cooking and you never eat the food).


Today, on Sukkot, we find ourselves in a very similar position to the one our ancestors were in at the end of this week’s Torah reading. Yom Kippur was barely a week ago. We have just been forgiven for our sins, and are ready to forge ahead into the new year, having promised to rededicate ourselves to God and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past year. Sukkot is our first big chance to do all of the positive holiday mitzvahs we can, but the “thou shalt” mitzvahs are usually not the ones that we struggle with the most. Our Torah reading ends with the negative commandment “do not boil a calf in its mother’s milk” to remind us to be mindful of the negative commandments as well, and because its three prohibitions serve as an example of how we can help ourselves from falling into old patterns of sin in the coming year: by not just following the letter of the law, but by removing ourselves from situations where such things would feel commonplace to us.

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