"When a bird’s nest is met before you in the way, in the tree or on the ground, chicks or eggs, and the mother is crouching over [them], you will not take the mother on top of the children. You must send the mother, and the children you will take, so that it will be well for you, and you will lengthen days." Deuteronomy 22:6-7
The following guest post is from Rabbi David Seidenberg, the creator of neohasid.org and the author of the acclaimed book, “Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World.” For more info, go to:kabbalahandecology.com. To read more of David’s writing, go to the Jewish Journal or The Times of Israel.
The answer is more complicated than you might think. There are four or five traditional interpretations of shiluach haken, and they pretty much map out both the history of Jewish thought and the range of ideas about ecology and animals, from the most ecologically sensitive to the most extreme lack of sensitivity.
I’m going to go through the spectrum of these interpretations below. Before you read further, though, think for a moment about your own interpretation. Why is this mitzvah specifically about birds? How does it relate to other mitzvot or ideas about our relationships to animals? Most people would connect shiluach haken to the mitzvah to not slaughter an animal and its child on the same day, and many also connect it to the mitzvah to not mix milk and meat. What do these mitzvot say about the significance of motherhood and of the relationships between animals themselves?
One thing to factor in is that the only animals the Torah permits us to eat come from classes that have strong parent-child bonds, mammals and birds. Most of our ancestors interactions with domestic animals would have been with mammals, while a greater number of interactions with wild animals might have been with birds. Another is that the Torah does not permit sterilizing animals, which means that the domesticated animals people use will tend to have offspring and relationships that our ancestors were very familiar with.
Perhaps this would lead you to the most obvious interpretation – even though we are taking a bird’s offspring, we should have compassion for the feelings of the parent bird and protect her in some small way from the suffering she would feel at seeing her children taken. This is the interpretation given by Moses Maimonides, also called Rambam (pronounced with a final “m” for Maimon, his father), and it is the occasion for his famous comment:
[There is] no difference regarding this pain between humankind and the other animals. For the love and the tenderness of a mother for her child is not consequent upon reason, but upon the activity of the imaginative faculty, which is found in most animals just as it is found in humankind. (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:48)
But if compassion were the main goal, why are we allowed to take the eggs or babies in the first place? In fact, Maimonides thinks that the complications created by shiluach haken have the intent of leading most people to “leave everything alone”.
How generously naïve that sentiment seems today. But it also seemed naïve to some of the people who commented on Maimonides. Nachmanides critiqued Maimonides’ intepretation from both sides. First, he asked, if the Torah cares primarily about the feelings of a parent for its child, shouldn’t we be allowed to kill the parent first and the child afterwards? And more importantly, if the animal’s pain is our main concern, why are we allowed to slaughter the young or take the eggs at all? Why are we allowed to kill any animal?
In rejecting Maimonides’ reasoning, Nachmanides or Ramban (“n” for Nachman) brings three alternative interpretations in quick order. The second interpretation he gives is the one that matters the most for our time:
The Torah will not permit doing any slaughter that would uproot a species, even though it permits slaughter of a particular species; and behold, one who kills mother and children in one day or takes them…is like cutting off the very species.
What’s especially interesting is that Nachmanides is not concerned with whether the slaughter of a particular mother and child would have an impact on a species. Rather, the very idea that one could act in a way that would ultimately kill a species is abhorrent. It is kind of like applying Kant’s categorical imperative that any action must be “universalizable”: if everyone were to take both parent and child, then the species would eventually become extinct. Therefore, no one may take both parent and child.
There’s a term for this that comes from the lingo of resource management: “sustainable yield”. One can only take from a natural system – i.e., an ecosystem or species – what that system can replace naturally. For Nachmanides, this didn’t apply just in the cases where the managers and scientists decided a species is endangered. It applied to all species at all times.
It occurred to me many years ago that Nachmanides’ reasoning would apply to any kind of harvesting that destroys an ecosystem, like clear cutting a forest, whether or not the species in that ecosystem were rare or endangered or precious to us, because by taking and destroying everything, these methods of “harvest” also take every single parent and child at the same time. [link to: The same reasoning would also forbid, for example, removing a mountaintop for coal-mining, or diverting the entire flow of a river for agriculture. So I find this part of Ramban’s interpretation exciting and significant for the challenges we are facing.
But that was not the part of his interpretation that excited the imaginations of most Jewish writers through the centuries, before ecology became so important. In fact, until fairly recently in Western civilization, no one even believed that a species could become extinct, because God would watch over every species. Instead, what excited people about Ramban’s interpretation were these words:
The reason for shiluach haken is not to let our heart become cruel…For God’s mercy doesn’t extend to living creatures to prevent us from doing with them what we need…but the reason for the restraint is to teach us the quality of being merciful. (commentary on Deut. 22:6)
Varied medieval and modern Jewish thinkers extrapolating from this sentiment declared that the purpose of laws commanding kindness or compassion toward non-human animals, including shiluach haken, was purely instrumental, for the sake of character formation. Many people inferred that this was also Ramban’s position, and this view is still predominant, especially in Orthodox circles.
Here is are two contemporary examples of this way of thinking. The first comes from an article on animal suffering found on Canfei Nesharim: “The Torah does not want us to engage in behavior that is subjectively cruel because it can lead us to evil character traits, even if objectively, the animal is not suffering… Presumably, Ramban’s position is that animals do not have enough intelligence or self-awareness to suffer.” But this reading is not correct: Ramban gives no indication that he believes animals cannot suffer, he only says that mitigating suffering is not the purpose of the mitzvah.
The authors of this article are Orthodox environmentalists. They further state that “humans are prohibited from treating [animals] sadistically in order to cultivate the qualities of mercy and environmentalism.” Thus they combine two of the reasons given by Ramban in their interpretation, which is more than many others do. But they have made a dangerous leap from Ramban’s complex position to a reductionist interpretation that denies animals any subjectivity.
The second example, from a mainstream article about Judaism’s supposed position on animal, states the following:
[T]he prohibition of tzaar baalei chayim does not apply when there is a human need that involves causing an animal to suffer. Animals were created to serve humankind, and although it is forbidden to cause them pain, where there is a human purpose for it, the prohibition does not apply.
It seems plainly silly, knowing what we know about how complex and wondrous the world is, to say that every other being is here to serve us. However, even though it is easy to come up with teachings that contradict these positions, it is also true that these are authentically traditional ways of seeing animals. Our main concern today then must be to reject these interpretations in favor of a view that includes multiple reasons for shiluach haken, tzaar baalei chayyim, and other mitzvot governing our relationships with “the other animals”.
Before we get to the last two reasons, there is one more “non-reason” that is given by many. They say: we chase away the mother bird simply because the Torah says to, or in rabbinic idiom, “g’zeirah hi”. There is no special meaning or teaching embedded in the mitzvah. Rather, God is testing us to see if we will be obedient. Sefer Chinukh argues against this position at length, using Rambam and Ramban to show that even when the greatest sages disagreed about the reason for a mitzvah, they still thought the mitzvah had a reason. (Mitzvah 545)
What may be surprising is that Maimonides in his earlier work also says that shiluach haken is simply a divine decree, in his compendium of law called Mishneh Torah. This is one of many examples where Rambam rejected his youthful position when he had matured. Instead, he insisted more strongly than any other Jewish thinker before or after that an animal’s subjective experience mattered to God and to the Torah.
But the Zohar gives a truly perverse reason: we send away the mother bird and take the eggs so that the mother will suffer and cry out, because when a mother cries out, it arouses the Shekhinah (the divine nurturing presence in the world) and it arouses the Holy One to have mercy on the Shekhinah. (See more here from Zoo Torah.) It is this last interpretation from the Zohar that lends itself to the obsessive quest in some Haredi circles to find a nest and take the eggs even when they have no intention of using the eggs. One could not imagine anything so utterly contradictory to Maimonides, to common sense, and to ethical human development.
One more point: go back and read the first quote from Maimonides. You’ll notice something I already mentioned above in passing. When Maimonides wants to talk about humanity and animals together, he talks about “humans and the other animals”. That is his language throughout the entire Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides, the unparalleled giant of rationalist theology, talks about humans as a member of the class of animals, without compunction, and without denying the Torah’s view of humanity.
Like Maimonides, science in our time has matured. Most scientists now reject the modern and Enlightement idea that only humans have true emotions and awareness. Yet such ideology has strangely enough become mainstream in the Orthodox Jewish world. Fortunately, two giants of Orthodoxy, Rav Avraham Itzhak Kook and Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, have blazed trails that lead their followers to behold a larger vista.
To me, the only interpretation of shiluach haken that seems rational is that the Torah values three things: compassion for individual animals and their feelings, respect for human needs, and finding a way to interact with the natural world that is cognizant of both, taking what we need in a way that is sustainable. Taking our needs from the world around us, including eating animals, need not spring from an attitude of harm. Rather, it should be a kind of symbiosis. (This is not possible in the factory-farm system however, which is why it is correct to say that factory-farmed meat is treif.)
One may not take the mother bird along with the young, because we must take from other species in a way that enables it still to thrive. One must also chase away the mother so that she cannot see, because we care about animals suffering and we accept that animals have minds and emotions that allow them to suffer. And doing both together, we strive to interact with the world in a sustainable way that fulfills both our needs and the needs of other species.
There are times when one of these values appears to take precedence over another. That is why we cannot say that shiluach haken is only about compassion or only about sustainability, but about both. And if sending away the mother also teaches us to be better people, as Ramban taught, why would this reason contradict or limit the other reasons?
Why after all do we do this mitzvah, or any mitzvah? The end of the verse about shiluach haken that describes the consequence of sending the mother bird away reveals so much. We do this so that “it will be well for you, and you will lengthen days”. This phrase appears uniquely in conjunction shiluach haken, though it is used several times to describe the general reward for observing all the commandments.
Many people will point out that this phrase also describes the reward for honoring one’s parents, but that is not quite correct, because the verse about parents says “lengthen your days” – because the meaning is personal. With respect to shiluach haken, and the Torah as a whole, the meaning is much broader: lengthen not just your own days, but also lengthen the days of society, of humanity, of Life – and of all those creatures participating in life.
Do this for the sake of all Creation, which includes you!
For further reading:
The Ecological Message of the Torah: Knowledge, Concepts and Laws which Made Survival in a land of Milk and Honey Possible, by Aloys Hfttermann
A Vision of Eden, by David Sears
Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World, by David Seidenberg
Man and Beast: Our Relationships with Animals in Jewish Law and Thought by Natan Slifkin
“Animal Rights in the Jewish Tradition“, by David Seidenberg