Sending the mother bird: a window into the soul of Judaism

wire-tailed swallow, @kannur, Wikipedia public domain
wire-tailed swallow, public domain

What is our responsibility toward other species? What are their rights? And how can they thrive alongside us? The Torah portion of Ki Teitzei includes an extraordinary mitzvah that has been the ground for intense debate related to questions like these over millenia. Deuteronomy 22:6-7 instructs us:

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. Sending you must send the mother away, and the children you will take, so that it will be well for you, and you will lengthen days.

The debate about the purpose of this mitzvah, called shiluach haken, starts with the question of whether the commandment to send away a parent bird before taking the eggs or babies is an expression of compassion for the bird. More broadly, is shiluach hakenan examplar of the prohibition against causing pain to animals, tzaar baalei chayyim, or does it serve other ecological, psychological or spiritual purposes?

There are at least eight other interpretations of shiluach haken that cover a whole range of possibilities. They pretty much map out 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.

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 three mitzvot say about the significance of motherhood?

One factor to consider is that the Torah permits us to eat come from warm-blooded species that have strong parent-child bonds among (land) animals, that is, only mammals and birds. Most of our ancestors’ interactions with domesticated animals would have been with mammals, but a greater proportion of their interactions with wild animals might have been with birds, as reflected in the verse, where one stumbles upon a nest in the wild.

This might lead you to the most obvious interpretation – even if we are taking the 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 (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, 12th century), 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 should we be allowed to take the eggs or babies in the first place? In fact, Maimonides thinks that we really shouldn’t. He believes the complications created by shiluach haken have the intent of leading most people to “leave everything alone”.

How generous, and perhaps naïve, that sentiment seems today. But it also seemed naïve to some of the people who commented on Maimonides. Nachmanides or Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, 13th century) critiqued Maimonides’ interpretation 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 then the child afterwards? But 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?

We might sharpen that question further: if Torah wants us to have compassion for the animals we use, then why are we only permitted to eat the types of animals—mammals and birds—that have strong bonds with each other, where our action might cause them to suffer the most?

In rejecting Maimonides’ reasoning, Nachmanides brings three alternative interpretations in quick order. The second interpretation he gives is the one that matters the most for ecology, and therefore the one I will start with:

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 (commentary on Deut. 22:6).

Nachmanides is not literally concerned with whether the slaughter of a particular mother and child would have an impact on a whole species. Rather, the very idea that one could act in a way that would ultimately kill a species is abhorrent. He is applying something like 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 grouping—i.e., an ecosystem or species—what that grouping can replace naturally. For Nachmanides, this didn’t just apply just in cases where a species is endangered. It applied to all species at all times.

It occurred to me years ago that Nachmanides’ reasoning should apply to any kind of harvesting that destroys an ecosystem, like clearcutting a forest, because by taking and destroying everything, these methods of “harvest” also take every single parent and child at the same time. It would not matter whether the species in that ecosystem were rare or endangered or precious to us; in all cases such destruction would be forbidden.

The same reasoning would also forbid removing a mountaintop for coal-mining, or diverting the entire flow of a river for agriculture. This part of Ramban’s interpretation is exciting and significant for the challenges we are facing. It also doesn’t contradict Maimonides’s explanation. Rather, it raises compassion to a higher level: we are called to have compassion upon whole species, rather than just upon individual animals.

But that was not the part of his interpretation that excited the imaginations of most Jewish writers through the centuries, before ecology became a science, and before our awareness of climate disruption, environmental crisis, and the sixth mass extinction. In fact, until fairly recently in Western civilization, no one even imagined that a species could become extinct, because they believed that God watched over and protected every species.

Instead, what excited people about Ramban’s interpretation was his first explanation for the mitzvah:

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.

Various 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—ignoring his second and third reasons for the mitzvah.

This reading of Ramban still predominates, especially in Orthodox circles. Here are two contemporary examples of this way of thinking. The first comes from an article on animal suffering found on the website of the Orthodox environmental group 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 interpretation is wildly incorrect. 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 further state that “humans are prohibited from treating [animals] sadistically in order to cultivate the qualities of mercy and environmentalism.” By referencing “environmentalism”, these authors give glancing acknowledgment of the second reason Ramban gives, which is certainly better than nothing. But they make a tragic 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, even idiotic, 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 this position, it is also true that there were many traditional Jewish thinkers who saw animals that way.

One of our main religious tasks today is to reject these interpretations in favor of a view that includes the multiple reasons for shiluach hakentzaar baalei chayyim, and other mitzvot governing our relationships with the other animals around us, including the reasons given by Maimonides and by Nachmanides.

Before we get to the next two interpretations, there is one more “anti-interpretation” that is widely disseminated: 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 the mitzvah, they still thought the mitzvah had a reason (Mitzvah 545).

Given how easy it is to come up with reasons for this mitzvah, it seems like a cop-out to throw up one’s hands. But there is a long tradition that interprets shiluach haken this way, and it is rooted in two early rabbinic statements. One is that when someone is leading prayer, they shouldn’t ask for God to be compassionate toward us by reminding God of God’s compassion toward nesting birds (Mishnah Berachot 5:3 and Megillah 4:9).  The other is that God didn’t tell the Jewish people to slaughter by cutting the throat instead of the neck for any other reason than to refine them by enjoining obedience (Genesis Rabbah 44:1).

What may be surprising is that Maimonides in his compendium of law called Mishneh Torah also says that shiluach haken is simply a divine decree. He wrote the Mishneh Torah when he was a young man, and this is one of many examples where Maimonides rejected his youthful position after 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. Maimonides’s respect for animals appears elsewhere in the Guide for the Perplexed — he even insists on talking about humanity and “the other animals”, including humanity as one animal species, every place where he discusses animals.

The next two interpretations of shiluach haken are Kabbalistic, but they are polar opposites. Ramban’s third hypothesis for why we send the mother bird away is that we are “honoring the mother of the world”, which in Kabbalistic terms is the divine quality called Binah or Understanding. According to Kabbalah, Binah, the third Sefirah sometimes called mother, became a kind of womb through which the divine unfolded and developed, leading to the birth of this Creation that we inhabit. This reason is ready and waiting to be woven into a feminist spirituality. It also aligns with a revolution in ethics that emerges in many writings of the Kabbalah: the ultimate value is not human life, but the principle of Life itself.

But the Zohar undoes all that great good when it gives a truly perverse reason for shiluach haken. According to Tikkunei Zohar 23a, we send away the mother bird and take the eggs in order to cause the mother to suffer and cry out, because when the mother cries out, this arouses the Shekhinah (the divine feminine presence that nurtures the world), and that arouses the Holy One (the divine masculine) to have mercy on the Shekhinah. 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. Anything to do a mitzvah that promises long life.

One could scarcely imagine an interpretation of this mitzvah that would be more contradictory to Maimonides, to common sense, and to ethical human development. However, when people actually do the mitzvah for this reason, they usually use pigeons nesting on Brooklyn windowsills, sometimes paying good money to file through an apartment, take the eggs in hand, and put them back, so the ecological impact is minimal. But the Zohar isn’t just coming up with a crazy rational for the mitzvah – it is also admitting that birds have real emotions, emotions that are important enough to impact the world and God’s relationship with the world.

There is a midrash from the 9th century that gives similar credence to the reality of the mother bird. According to Deuteronomy Rabbah 6:5, the reason it is necessary for shiluach haken appear in the Torah is that the Holy One said, “Since she (the bird) busies herself with building the world (or: the glory of the world) and maintaining the world / binyano shel olam v’tikkuno shel olam, it is right/worthwhile that she would be saved.” The mother bird’s actions measure up to human moral standards, and command our respect and God’s. Her actions and her feelings are morally substantive, and they create in us an obligation to protect her, and to protect her work, her tikkun, which is to create a living and livable world.

The reason you probably never heard of this text, however, is that the people who first published the midrash didn’t believe that it could be saying what it was saying. So they rewrote it, by just dropping one letter, the heh at the end of the phrase “she busies herself / nit’askah”.  They just thought they were correcting a mistake: a bird can’t be a moral actor, so the midrash must be referring to the person shooing the bird away. It must really be saying “he busies himself / nit’asek”. Since the (male) person is involved in building the world through his meritorious actions, it is right for him to accrue even greater merit by letting the bird fly away.

If you’re scratching your head about what that means – the answer is that you’re right, it doesn’t really make sense. But it made more sense to many medieval and modern Jewish thinkers than the idea that a bird’s feelings and actions were morally and psychologically significant.

Like Maimonides, we have matured beyond that perspective. Science has also matured: virtually all scientists now reject the Enlightenment and Cartesian idea that only humans have true emotions and awareness. Yet such ideology strangely enough became mainstream in the Orthodox Jewish world, even though it is utterly alien to ancient Judaism. Thankfully, there are giants of Orthodoxy like Rav Avraham Itzhak Kook and Rav Joseph Soloveitchik who have blazed trails that lead to a larger vista.

Following the Maimonides of the Guide, we also need to reject interpretations that arise from the immature perspective that the world revolves around us. We need to grow up in our relation to the Earth, to enter into mutual relationships, to cherish kinship with all life, rather than reward exploitation. How we interpret shiluach haken offers us a window into our own souls and a yardstick to measure how far we have come along that path.

So we have three deep reasons for shiluach haken– compassion for another animal mother’s suffering, refusal to do anything that might cause extinction, and honoring the principle of Life itself. We have one overarching ethical reason: because acting with compassion is a good thing for human beings to do. We have two shallower ones: because it says so, and because it will teach us not to be cruel to people. And we have one wild one: chase the bird away and steal her babies so that she will suffer and God will take pity on the world.

“So we have three deep reasons… We have one wild one: chase the bird away and steal her babies so that she will suffer and God will take pity on the world. And we have the interpretation that a bird, like a human being, can be a moral and practical agent of tikkun olam.
But to me, the only interpretation of shiluach haken that seems rational is one that integrates the best of these reasons, which we might also see as enfolded in the midrash’s idea of tikkun olam. The Torah values compassion for individual animals and their feelings, and it values compassion and responsibility for species and their survival, and it values human needs. In the case of shiluach haken, one may not take the mother bird along with the young, because we may only take from other species in a way that enables them to thrive. One must also chase away the mother so that she cannot see, because we care about suffering, and we accept that animals have minds and emotions that allow them to suffer and to have agency.”

(Neither goal is achievable in CAFO’s [concentrated animal feeding operations] or in the factory-farm system in general, which is why it is correct to say that factory-farmed meat is treif.)

The Torah and Judaism call us to be cognizant of individual animals and animal species, and to take what we need from the natural world in a way that is sustainable. We call that sustainablity, but we could just as well call that behaving compassionately toward our fellow species. Taking our needs from the world around us may never spring from an attitude that we have a right to cause harm. Rather, our relationships with the other animals, however we use them, should be symbiotic, meaning we must strive to fulfill both our needs and the needs of other species.

That is why we cannot say that shiluach haken is only about compassion or only about sustainability. 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 hints at the ultimate reason: “that it will be well for you, and you will lengthen days”.

This phrase appears uniquely in conjunction with shiluach haken. A similar phrase also describes the reward for honoring one’s parents, with a subtle but important difference. The verse about parents says “lengthen your days”. 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 all days, the days of society and humanity, of ecosystem and field and forest, of Life, and of all those creatures participating in life. Do this for the sake of all Creation, for all our relations, and for all the creatures, which includes both the mother bird and you.

That’s why we are commanded, “Choose Life!” Choose not your own lives, but Life itself – for that is how “it will go well for you”.

An early version of this article was published in jewschool in 2016.

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 Mevorach Seidenberg

Man and Beast: Our Relationships with Animals in Jewish Law and Thought, by Natan Slifkin

“Veganism and Covenantalism: Contrasting and Overlapping Moralities” by David Mevorach Seidenberg, in Jewish Veganism and Vegetarianism

“Animal Rights in the Jewish Tradition” by David Mevorach Seidenberg, in Ecyclopedia of Religion and Nature

About the Author
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and the translation of Laments. David also teaches nigunim and is an avid dancer. He was ordained by both JTS and Reb Zalman.
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