If you come across a bird’s nest on any tree or on the ground, and it contains baby birds or eggs, then, if the mother is sitting on the chicks or eggs, you must not take the mother along with her young. You must first chase away the mother, and only then may take the young. (Deuteronomy 22:6- 7)
What is the reason for this unusual mitzvah? Maimonides argues that we send away the mother bird to teach us compassion. He insists that animal mothers, just as human mothers, suffer when their offspring are harmed. In Part 3, Chapter 48 of the Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides writes:
As far as pain is concerned, there is no real distinction between the pain of humans and the pain of animals, because the love and compassion of the mother for her young is not reasoned intellectually, but has only to do with emotions and instincts, which are found among animals no less than among human beings.
Others have different explanations for the mitzvah. A Mishna (Torah commentary) in Tractate B’rachot, Chapter 5, Mishna 3, supports a view that aspects of compassion are beside the point. The Mishna lists three occasions when a person praying must be silenced, and one case is when the worshiper prays to G-d to show him compassion, because G-d’s compassion extends even to a mother bird . In the ensuing Talmudic discussion, Rabbi Yossi bar Zvida explains that in calling attention to the mother bird, the worshiper presents the laws of G-d as “springing from compassion, whereas they are only decrees.” (B’rachot 33b) The foremost Torah commentator, Rashi, in clarifying Rav Yossi’s comment, writes that “G-d did not give us His commandments because of compassion, but rather to place upon the Jews a set of decrees to make them aware that they are His servants.”
A modern Torah commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, has another perspective on the Mishna in B’rachot. He indicates that compassion is indeed the issue and indicates that Maimonides would argue that Rav Yossi reflects a minority opinion. He stresses that G-d is known as Harachaman, the compassionate one, that in the attributes of G-d indicated in the Torah (Exodus 34:6), the first attribute of G-d, after omnipotence, is mercy, and that many examples of G-d’s mercy are indicated in the Torah.
Why, then is the worshiper to be silenced? Rabbi Riskin argues that the Mishna’s ruling is meant to teach us that sending away the mother bird is not a complete act of compassion; the true act of compassion would be if we were forbidden to disturb the nest at all. Rabbi Riskin believes that the permission to take the nestlings after sending away the mother bird is a concession, like the concession that G-d gave for people to eat meat. He asserts that the Torah’s ultimate goal is for us to be so sensitive that we won’t want to disturb the nest at all, but the Torah deals with reality, with the human instinct to take it all, mother and child. Hence, while the commandment to send away the mother bird aims to sensitize us to the moral ambiguities of eating foul, it can’t be invoked as an ideal of compassion based on which we can ask for G-d’s compassion.
In spite of Rabbi Riskin’s consideration of the limited compassion involved in the mitzvah, the Torah promises a great reward, a long life, to the person who fulfills it. (Deuteronomy 22:7) The only other mitzvah for which long life is promised is for honoring one’s parents, the fifth of the Ten Commandments. Many have puzzled over why the same reward is promised for the extremely difficult mitzvah of honoring parents and the relatively simple mitzvah of sending away a mother bird. Perhaps the connection is that when a child sees his parents showing compassion to a mother bird, he or she will be reminded of his obligations to his or her own parents.
But there is an even more incredible reward associated with the mitzvah that we are considering. For the Midrash, commentating on the Torah mitzvah states that “If you fulfill the law of kindness to birds (by sending away the mother bird), you will also fulfill the law of freeing Hebrew slaves, . . . , and you will thereby hasten the advent of Moshiach.” (Deuteronomy Rabbah 6.3)
How can the simple act of sending away a mother bird before taking the nestlings be connected with the Moshiach’s time of arrival? Perhaps we can deduce a possible answer by considering Jewish teachings on compassion for animals.
While the Torah places humanity above the animal kingdom and indicates that people are to have dominion (generally interpreted as stewardship) over animals, animals are part of G-d’s creation and people have special responsibilities to them. In the Garden if Eden, there was a harmony between people and animals. The important Hebrew term nefesh chaya (“living soul”) was applied to animals as well as people (Genesis 1:21 and 1:24). G-d even made treaties with animals as well as with people (Genesis 9:9, 10; Hosea 2:20).
Judaism has beautiful and powerful teachings with regard to showing compassion to animals. The following are a few examples:
Moses and King David were considered worthy to be leaders of the Jewish people because of their compassionate treatment of animals, when they were shepherds. Rebecca was judged suitable to be a wife of the patriarch Isaac because of her kindness in watering the ten camels of Eleazer, Abraham’s servant.
Many Torah laws mandate proper treatment of animals. One may not muzzle an ox while it is working in the field nor yoke a strong and a weak animal together. Animals, as well as people, are to rest on the Sabbath day. The importance of this concept is indicated by the fact that it is part of the Ten Commandments and by its recitation every Sabbath morning by many Jews, as part of the kiddush ceremony.
The psalmist indicates G-d’s concern for animals, for “His compassion is over all of His creatures” (Psalm 145:9). And there is a mitzvah-precept in the Torah to emulate the Divine compassion, as it is written: “And you shall walk in His ways” (Deuteronomy 28:9). Perhaps the Jewish attitude toward animals is best summarized by Proverbs 12:10: “The righteous person considers the soul (life) of his or her animal.”
In summary, the Torah prohibits Jews from causing tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, any unnecessary pain, including psychological pain, to living creatures. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, an outstanding 19th century philosopher, author, and Torah commentator, eloquently summarizes the Jewish view on treatment of animals:
Here you are faced with God’s teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours. (Horeb, Chapter 60, #416)
In spite of these beautiful and powerful teachings, the harmony between people and animals in the Garden of Eden no longer exists. The Torah relates that after the flood in the time of Noah, people were given permission to eat meat (Genesis 9: 3), directly after G-d indicated that non-human animals would fear and dread human beings (Genesis 9:2). Commenting on these verses, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stated that the attachment between people and animals was broken, which initiated a change in the relationship of people to the world.
Animals today are treated cruelly in many ways. Rather than being treated as “living souls”, they are often treated as machines, as useful tools from which profits can be made. As a result, modern intensive livestock agriculture is often called “factory farming.” In the United States alone, 9 billion farm animals are slaughtered annually, after being raised in cramped conditions where many are denied fresh air, sunlight, and the fulfillment of their natural instincts. An indication of just how far we have moved from compassion to birds, annually in the United States, over a quarter- billion male chicks are killed via suffocation immediately after birth, because they cannot produce eggs, and they have not been bred to have sufficient meat to justify raising them to maturity.
Judaism teaches that in the Messianic times, the harmony between people and non-human animals that existed in the Garden of Eden will be reestablished. As Isaiah stated, it will be a time when “. . . the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, . . . the lion shall eat straw like the ox, . . . and no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of My (G- d’s) holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11: 6-9) Based on these verses, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, argued that people will be vegetarians during the time of Moshiach, as they were in the garden of Eden.
Judaism teaches that a way to hasten the coming of Moshiach is to start acting out the conditions that will prevail during the Messianic times. For example, there is a teaching that states that if every Jew properly observes two consecutive Shabbats, with proper devotion to G-d and concern about all of G-d’s creatures, this would bring Moshiach.
This may provide insight into the connection that we are seeking: when one applies compassion to a mother bird it will lead to greater concern also for people, and one aspect of this will be freeing of slaves. For, as Maimonides indicates, as the Torah mandates that we should not cause grief to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be that we do not cause grief to fellow human beings. Finally, this increased compassion for all of G-d creatures will lead to a greater appreciation of the Creator, and hence a greater commitment to performing all of G-d’s mitzvot, and finally to that ideal time of justice, compassion, and harmony that represents the Messianic vision.