Hunting – not a popular activity in Israel
While Nimrod, the first biblical hunter, and then Ishmael and Esau are the only career bowhunters that the Bible names, none of them is a bona fide Israelite. In this weekly Torah portion, Reh-eh, Moses permits the otherwise sparsely meat-eating Israelites to slay their domesticated animals, even for mere ordinary food (provided, however, that one craved for such flesh). Heretofore an Israelite could slake his appetite — in Hebrew the word ‘’appetite’’ (te’avon) is a derivative of the word ‘’lust’’ (ta’avah), a word that is usually invoked in negative connotations for illegitimate urges — for meat, only by bringing an animal offering to a sole altar at the Tent of Meeting. Now, Moses permits his fellow Israelites to moonlight and hunt on occasion ‘’deer, gazelle, and roebuck, wild-goat, ibex, antelope, and mountain sheep’’ (Deuteronomy 12:22, 14:5). Israelite hunters, however, were required to avoid consuming the animal’s blood ‘’and pour it out upon the earth as water’’ (12:24).
Indeed, it seems that harvesting venison for the occasional hunter was not a frequent occurrence. Inferring from the permission that the Torah gives to meat-craving Israelites to eat it outside the sacrificial system, or secularly slaughtered, as often or infrequently as they eat the flesh of the deer or the gazelle, meat was not on the daily menu for the average Israelite. The Torah is not a fan of meat eating, albeit sanctioning it.
It, therefore, would be safe to presume that hunting did not happen frequently, if only because the Torah sought to limit the consumption of the farmstead animals to the rate of venison eating: ‘’Only wherever your appetite’s craving maybe you shall slaughter and eat meat… just as the gazelle and the deer are eaten, so too may you eat it’’ (Deut. 12:22). And indeed, why spend long hours in the hunting field, with all the attending risks, and at times returning home empty-handed — like the famished Esau who traded his birthright for Jacob’s lentil stew — when home-cooked kid stew tasted very similar to venison, both on account of flavor or texture.
Whilst Israelites who hunted might not have intensively pursued this activity, they hardly, however, engaged in trapping. When Isaac sends off Esau to hunt game for him, he does not even allude to trapping gear. It seems that trapping was limited only to birds; Hosea refers once to ‘’the snare of a bird’’, as does Amos to a bird’s ‘’trap on the ground’’, the Psalmist (twice) and Proverbs (once) refer similarly to the ‘’snare of the fowlers’’, but that’s about it.
If we exclude Samson’s one-time mind-boggling and atrocious catching of 300 foxes in the fields of Timna, the paucity of references to trapping in the Hebrew Bible indicates that Israelite hunters did not ensnare other animals, while entrapping birds does not seem to have been a highly popular activity either.
Eventually, post-Bible rabbinic law made hunting disappear de facto from Jewish practice by insisting that once a wild animal was wounded its throat would have to be promptly and meticulously sliced to resemble a ritual slaughter; and this is mostly infeasible given the realities of hunting where the bleeding animal suffers for a long time until it is tracked down, if at all. And since most wounded animals do gratuitously suffer, which means cruelty, such game flesh could not be sanctioned as kosher.
A keystone rabbinic perspective on pastime hunting is manifested in the response of Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, a.k.a ‘’Nodaʿ Bi-Yehuda’’ to a question he was asked in Prague (18th C) about the permissibility of hunting. Unless hunting was one’s very livelihood, (e.g., to harvest leather), it conflicted with ‘’the way of the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’’ and constituted a cruel pastime. Dr. Rabbi Marcus Mordecai Schwartz in ‘’Hunting: How It Became Un-Jewish” (The Torah.com – 2020) quotes from Solomon Freehof’s Rabbinic response on hunting that relates to Walther Rathenau, the slain foreign minister of the Weimar Republic (1922). This Jewish German patriot ‘’never enjoyed hunting’’ with his aristocratic associates. ‘’He found it cruel and repulsive to his Jewish sense of mercy. He once said that any Jew who says that he enjoys killing animals in a hunt is not telling the truth.’’
Postscript: Reb Yisroel — before he was known as ‘’The Baal Shem Tov’’ — was a ritual slaughterer in his hometown Okup. He was known to have wetted his sharpening stone with his tears” (Tales of the Baal Shem Tov).