‘Mercy Sakes Alive’ Parashat Emor 5783
After defining which sacrifices should be offered on which occasions, the Book of Vayikra takes a closer look at which animals may and may not be offered as a sacrifice. The Torah [Vayikra 22:21-25] presents a list of blemishes that disqualify an animal from being offered on the altar after which it presents two additional disqualifications, both of which are time-related. The first disqualification is for animals that are less than eight days old. The second disqualification serves as the topic of this essay [Vayikra 22:28]: “An ox or sheep – you shall not slaughter him (oto) and his [male] offspring (b’no) in one day.”
The impetus behind this ruling is clear. A cow and her calf bond immediately after birth. Bonding is performed via physical contact, whether it be the mother licking her calf’s face or the calf suckling its mother’s udder. Mother-child bonding is hard-wired into the cow’s DNA: Oxytocin is released into the cow’s bloodstream during birth and the elevated oxytocin levels trigger maternal behavior. According to scientists, the presence of oxytocin in the olfactory bulb of the brain helps explain the important role of smell and odor in the bonding process. A cow recognizes her calf by smell – she can always pick her calf out of a group. In order to mitigate the stress suffered by an animal and her offspring, the Torah prohibits slaughtering both of them on the same day.
This explanation can shed light on a comment made by Rashi. Drawing upon a ruling in the Talmud in Tractate Hullin [78b], Rashi explains that the prohibition applies only to the female parent – the cow and not the bull – even though Scripture uses the masculine term “him (oto)”. That is to say, it is forbidden to slaughter the female parent and its male or female young in one day but it is permissible to slaughter the father animal and its young, whether male or female, on the same day. Seeing as it is the mother and not the father that suffers when its calf is taken from her, it is not unexpected that the prohibition of slaughtering the parent and the child on the same day should be relevant only regarding the mother animal. If so, we must address the elephant in the room: Scripture specifically states that it is prohibited to slaughter “him and his son (oto v’et b’no)” and not “her and her son (otah v’et b’nah)”. The Ramban asks this question and he answers it by directing us to the previous verse [Vayikra 22:27]: “When a [male] ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother”. The Ramban explains that the first verse lists the [male] species. The next verse teaches that concerning the species of animals mentioned in the previous verse, there is yet another commandment: that it and its young must not be slaughtered in one day. We’re already talking about guys so let’s just keep on talking about guys, even though we’re now talking about girls. I find this answer somewhat weak, particularly because the Torah first mentions sheep [Vayikra 22:27] using the male “kesev” and in the next verse, it mentions sheep [Vayikra 22:28] using the male “seh”. If the Torah is already straying from its original language, why not just refer to the sheep in the second verse by using the female “kisba (ewe)”?
To answer this question, we must first take a closer look at the motive for the prohibition of slaughtering a mother animal and her child on the same day. The Rambam, writing in the Guide for the Perplexed [3:48], asserts that the Torah is showing mercy towards animals. A similar example is found in the commandment to shoo away the mother bird (shiluach ha’ken) before taking her eggs. In both cases, the Torah is preventing “tza’ar ba’alei chaim” – “cruelty to animals”. A potential source for the Rambam can be found in the translation of the Torah attributed to Yonatan ben Uziel, who predated the Rambam by about one thousand years: “As our Father in heaven is merciful, so shall you be merciful on earth: neither cow, nor ewe, shall you sacrifice along with her young on the same day.” The commandment to show mercy upon G-d’s creations stems from the commandment to mimic G-d. Noting that it is the mother animal that suffers more than her child when the two are divided, the Rambam teaches that the commandment should be understood as “Do not slaughter an animal and her mother”, meaning that we must not slaughter an animal in the presence of her mother. But if this is the crux of the matter, why doesn’t the Torah just say so? The Torah could easily have written “A calf or sheep – you shall not slaughter him (oto) and his mother (imo) in one day” and everybody would have gone home happy.
Let’s continue down this path a wee bit further before circling back to answer our questions. The Ramban vociferously disagrees with the Rambam’s explanation, asserting that the Torah is less concerned about animals and more concerned about humans. The reason that it is forbidden to slaughter a mother animal and her child on the same day is not to prevent cruelty to animals but to inculcate humans the importance of mercy. Indeed, mercy is one of the trademarks of the Jewish People. Amonites and Moabites are forever barred from marrying a Jewess because they did not show mercy [Devarim 23:5]: “Because they did not greet you with bread and water on the way, when you left Egypt.”
Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi, writing in “Aseh Lecha Rav”, has great trouble with the explanations of both the Rambam and the Ramban. Rabbi HaLevi points to two corollaries regarding the prohibition of slaughtering a mother animal and her child on the same day. The first corollary states that if the mother or the child was slaughtered in a way that renders it not kosher then it is permitted to slaughter the other one on the same day. For example, if the butcher coughed while slaughtering the cow and as a result, his knife slipped, rendering the cow non-kosher (treif), then it is permitted to slaughter her calf immediately afterwards. The second corollary concerns the way in which a day is calculated. The ruling in this case is that a “day” begins and ends at nightfall. If the sun sets at 7:00 pm and the butcher slaughters a cow at 3:00 pm the next afternoon, then if he slaughters her calf at 6:59 pm that evening, he has violated the prohibition, but if he waits one extra minute, he has not. If we are concerned about mercy, why should these halachic technicalities matter? Can one minute or a sneeze should differentiate between mercy and cruelty?
The answer is a resounding “Yes”. The Torah is replete with lofty concepts. It issues directives such as [Vayikra 19:2] “You shall be holy!” and [Devarim 18:13] “Be wholehearted with G-d”. Nevertheless, Judaism does not live on lofty concepts alone. Both numinous moral concepts and the implementation of strict rules are critical for a well-functioning society. Lofty moral concepts provide a framework for ethical behavior and serve as a guide for individuals and communities to strive towards a higher standard of behavior. They can inspire us to act with kindness, compassion, and respect for others, and to work towards a more just and equitable society. However, the implementation of rules is also necessary to ensure that these moral concepts are translated into action. Rules and regulations provide a clear framework for behavior. Ultimately, both lofty moral concepts and the implementation of rules are necessary for a just and ethical society. While moral ideals provide a guiding vision, rules and regulations are necessary to ensure that those ideals are upheld and enforced in practice. We are commanded not to slaughter a mother animal and her child on the same day and to shoo away the mother bird before taking her eggs. The moral message is clear, that the Torah values mercy. But when we implement this commandment, we must be guided by halachic rigor. It is the Torah that decides what is merciful and what is not. Only by pedantically obeying its rules can we become the people that the Torah wants us to be.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yehuda ben Tzivia, Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.
 Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.
 Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known by his acronym “Ramban”, lived in Spain and Israel in the thirteenth century.
 Hebrew is a gender-centric language. The male word “bull (shor)” can be referring to a male bull or to the species of cattle that includes both male bulls and female cows.
 Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi was the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv from 1973 until his death in 1998.