Rabbi Elazar says “chalav” refers to the “milk” of fruit; “honey” refers to date honey. Rabbi Akiva says: “chalav” is to be understood simply, as the verse states ‘And it shall come to pass on that day that the mountains shall drip with wine, and the hills shall flow with milk.’” [Yoel 9:18]
[Mechilta d’Rebbi Shimon bar Yoḥai 13:5]
Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel) is described numerous times in the Torah as a “Land flowing ‘chalav’ and honey.” The simple meaning of ‘chalav’ seems to be that the milk produced by animals in Eretz Yisrael is of the choicest quality. Nonetheless, Rabbi Elazar, in the Midrash quoted above, understands the Torah’s intention to be quite different: “chalav and honey” are both praise of the fruit of the Land, not of its animals. Why does Rabbi Elazar change the ‘simple’ meaning of the Torah?
Reflection on additional Pesukim (verses) and Chazal’s (our Sages’) comments indicates that the Torah’s intention in describing the Land as “flowing ‘chalav’ and honey” is different than our initial assumption, and perhaps Rabbi Elazar did not change the verse’s simple meaning.
To explain, we will quote a Mishna in Mesechet Bikurim and attempt to understand it.
Bikurim May Not be Brought from the Eastern Side of the River Jordan
“ואלו מביאין וקורין, מן העצרת ועד החג, משבעת המינים, מפירות שבהרים, מתמרות שבעמקים, ומזיתי שמן מעבר הירדן. רבי יוסי הגלילי אומר, אין מביאין בכורים מעבר הירדן, שאינה ארץ זבת חלב ודבש”
And those that bring recite: (one who brings) from Shavuot until Sukkot; from the seven species; from produce on the mountains (which are superior); from dates of the valleys, and from oil-olives (even if they are) from beyond the Jordan. Rabbi Yose HaGalili says: First fruits are not brought from beyond the Jordan, for that is not (referred to as) a Land flowing milk and honey. (Mishna Bikurim 1:10)
The basis of Rabbi Yose’s opinion is his understanding of the pesukim which present the declaration of bikurim: “And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this Land, a Land flowing ‘chalav’ and honey,” [Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26:9] to exclude the eastern side of the Jordan.
Consideration of the Mishna raises two difficulties:
- While it is understandable that bikurim must be brought specifically from a “Land flowing ‘chalav’ and honey” since the honey which flows from its fruit indicates that those are the choicest fruits; yet we can wonder what the connection is between the Land flowing ‘chalav’ and honey and bringing bikurim from her. Why does the Torah connect these two things?
- How can Rabbi Yose assert that the eastern side of the Jordan is not a Land flowing ‘chalav’ (milk) and honey? The claim of the tribes of Gad and Reuven, which was the basis of their request to be given their portion of the Land east of the Jordan, was “the land that the Lord struck down before the congregation of Israel is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” [Bamidbar (Numbers) 32:4] A land for livestock is suitable for producing wool and milk. Thus, the Torah tells us that the eastern side of the Jordan produces quality milk. The question arises how/when does Rabbi Elazar declare that the eastern side of the Jordan is not a Land flowing milk and honey?
In order to understand, we must reflect on Yaakov’s blessing to his son Yehuda.
Red-eyed from Wine and White-toothed from Milk.
“אֹסְרִי לַגֶּפֶן עִירוֹ וְלַשֹּׂרֵקָה בְּנִי אֲתֹנוֹ כִּבֵּס בַּיַּיִן לְבֻשׁוֹ וּבְדַם עֲנָבִים סוּתוֹ: חַכְלִילִי עֵינַיִם מִיָּיִן וּלְבֶן שִׁנַּיִם מֵחָלָב”
He ties his donkey to a vine, and the colt of his donkey to the choice vine. He washes his clothes in wine, and his robes in the blood of grapes. (He is) red-eyed from wine and white-toothed from ‘chalav’. [Bereishit 49:11-12]
Yaakov’s blessing describes the portion of Yehuda, which has an abundance of vineyards. The grapevines of Yehuda’s land will be so fruitful, that it will require a donkey to carry the yield of a single vine [Rashi on the verse]; wine will be so plentiful in Yehuda’s domain that he will be able to launder his clothes in wine; Yehuda will be red-eyed from drinking so much wine and white-toothed from ‘chalav’. What is the connection to ‘chalav’? The pesukim have been describing the excellence of Yehudah’s grapevines, how does ‘chalav’ suddenly come in?
Midrash Rabba provides the answer. On the words of the posuk “He washes his clothes in wine,” the Midrash expounds: “Rabbi Yehuda says ‘He washes his clothes in wine’ refers to ‘chalav’, ‘And his robes in the blood of grapes’ refers to the red (wine).” This Midrash is surprising, how does Rabbi Yehuda change the clear intent of the verse, understanding it to refer to milk rather than to wine? Matanot Kehuna (16th century commentary on Midrash Rabba) explains that when Rabbi Yehuda spoke of “milk,” his intention is white wine, and therefore the continuation of his comment is “‘the blood of grapes’ refers to red wine.” According to this, white wine is referred to as “milk.” Yaakov’s intention in the blessing is that Yehudah’s eyes will be red from drinking red wine and his teeth white from drinking white wine.
Additional Proofs that “Milk” Refers to White Wine
In his sefer (book) HaMikra V’haMasoret, Rabbi Reuven Margaliyot asks why the Torah so often praises the Land as flowing milk and honey, and does not praise its excellent wine, which is mentioned frequently in the Torah? He answers by quoting the above-mentioned Midrash and suggests that in using the phrase “milk and honey” the Torah actually refers to a Land flowing wine and the honey of fruit.
Rabbi Margaliyot garners support for his assertion from additional sources:
- Yechezel 27:18 states: “דַּמֶּשֶׂק סֹחַרְתֵּךְ בְּרֹב מַעֲשַׂיִךְ, מֵרֹב כָּל-הוֹן; בְּיֵין חֶלְבּוֹן, וְצֶמֶר צָחַר” (“Damascus was also your trading partner because of your numerous products and your great wealth of every kind, (trading) in wine from Ḥelbon and white wool”). Rashi explains “Ḥelbon” to mean white wine. (Since “Ḥelbon” is related to the word “ḥalav”, meaning milk, Rashi’s comment can be seen as confirmation that white wine is called “milk.”)
- The words of Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) [5:1] ” בָּאתִי לְגַנִּי אֲחֹתִי כַלָּה אָרִיתִי מוֹרִי עִם בְּשָׂמִי אָכַלְתִּי יַעְרִי עִם דִּבְשִׁי שָׁתִיתִי יֵינִי עִם חֲלָבִי אִכְלוּ רֵעִים שְׁתוּ וְשִׁכְרוּ דּוֹדִים” מתרגם התרגום : “אתקבל ברעוא קדמי ניסוך חמר סומק וחמר חיור דנסיכו כהניא על מדבחא”. (“I have come to my garden-my sister, my bride. I gather my myrrh with my spices. I eat my honeycomb with my honey. I drink my wine with my milk. Eat, friends! Drink abundantly, beloved ones”) are translated by the Aramaic Targum to refer to red and white wines, which were poured on the altar by the Kohanim. Again, we have a traditional source which understands “milk” to refer to white wine.
- In the matter of Moshes’ meraglim (spies), the pesukim state: “וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד נַחַל אֶשְׁכֹּל וַיִּכְרְתוּ מִשָּׁם זְמוֹרָה וְאֶשְׁכּוֹל עֲנָבִים אֶחָד וַיִּשָּׂאֻהוּ בַמּוֹט בִּשְׁנָיִם וּמִן הָרִמֹּנִים וּמִן הַתְּאֵנִים…. וַיְסַפְּרוּ לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ בָּאנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלַחְתָּנוּ וְגַם זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ הִוא וְזֶה פִּרְיָהּ”. (“When they came to the Valley of Eshcol, they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes, which was carried on a pole by two men. (They) also (took) some pomegranates and figs. … They reported to Moshe: ‘We went into the land where you sent us. Indeed it is flowing milk and honey, and here is some of its fruit.’” [Bamidbar (Numbers) 13:23, 27] Rabbi Margaliyot comments that there is no apparent connection between the meraglim’s statement “It is flowing milk and honey” and “here is some of its fruit,” unless we understand that “milk” refers to white wine. Thus, the meraglim brought back evidence of the “milk” and “honey” (derived from figs, Rashi notes that all sweetness derived from fruit is termed “honey.”)
Exposition of the Mishna in Mesechet (Tractate) Bikurim
Above, we raised two questions concerning the Mishna in Mesechet Bikurim:
- What is the connection between “flowing milk and honey” and bringing bikurim?
- Since the eastern side of the Jordan is suitable for cattle, why is it excluded from being a “Land flowing milk and honey?”
Having established that “milk” refers to white wine, the matter is clarified. The fact of the Land flowing milk and honey clearly indicates the quality of its fruit, and therefore it is connected to bringing bikurim. As well, there is no question based upon the request of the tribes of Gad and Reuven, since the eastern side of the Jordan is suited to producing animal’s milk, not to raising grapes which produce the “milk” referred to in the praise of the Land – white wine.
“Milk” – the “Milk of Fruit”
It seems that the Midrash with which we opened is attuned to Rabbi Margaliyot’s comment. Rabbi Elazar’s opinion is that it is unlikely that the Torah would praise Eretz Yisrael for its cattle rather than for the fruit the land itself yields, and thus he understands “milk” to refer to the “milk” of fruit, namely white wine, rather than animal’s milk.
Richer than Milk and Sweeter than Honey
The Gemara Ketuvot 112b presents a similar concept:
Rav Ḥisda says: Why is the Land of Israel compared to a deer? [Yirmiyah 3:19] As the deer is the swiftest among the animals so is the Land of Israel the swiftest of all lands in the ripening of its fruit. In case (one should suggest that) as the deer is swift but his flesh is not fat, so is the Land of Israel swift to ripen but its fruits are not rich, it was explicitly stated in Scripture, “Flowing milk and honey,” (indicating that they are) richer than milk and sweeter than honey. Ketubot 112b
Even assuming this Midrash does not refer specifically to wine, it clearly attributes the praise of “milk and honey” to fruit, not to animal’s milk. Maharsha notes that the Talmud was bothered by the question we dealt with: why would the Torah praise the Land for animal’s milk as opposed to its produce.
‘Chalav’ in its Simple Meaning
Despite what we have said, there is an alternate opinion among Chazal: Rabbi Akiva, who understood “milk” in its simple meaning. This opinion is also presented in the Gemara [Ketubot 111b] which relates that on a visit to Bene Brak, Rami bar Yeḥezkel saw goats grazing under fig-trees while honey was flowing from the figs, and milk ran from them, mingling with each other. Rami remarked: “This is indeed, is ‘(a Land) flowing milk and honey.’”
Of course, אלו ואלו דברי אלוקים חיים (“These and these are the words of the living God” and according to both, our Land is blessed with an abundance of the choicest fruit and animal’s milk. Chazal merely debate whether the Torah intends “milk” in the praise of the Land as a reference to animal’s milk or white wine.
May we always merit speaking in praise of the Land, the Land flowing ‘chalav’ and honey.