“We are dealing with a free bird, a sparrow, because it does not accept authority.”
Today’s Daf Yomi text deals with a specific act that is prohibited on Shabbat: the trapping of an animal. Of course, the Talmud being the Talmud, we are never provided with the simple prohibition of “don’t do it on Shabbat’ (or perhaps ever). The Rabbis parse what is allowable according to if someone is large enough to create a “human lock” in a doorway where a trapped animal resides (he is liable) or trim enough that he needs a second person to block the way (in which case the second person is liable).
One who traps a bird in a closet or cage or a small enclosure where he does not need to stretch very far to trap it is liable. If the enclosure is a large cage, like the type you see in arboretums, one is not liable because he would have to exert great effort to catch the winged creature. If the bird lives inside your home – perhaps your beloved cockatoo – it is ok to capture him on Shabbat because he is already caged (and you are just trying to steer him to safety.) What you must not do is capture a little sparrow who lives freely in the world. It is prohibited on Shabbat (and ever) to clip the wings of a living creature who habitats in nature and “does not accept authority.”
In early March when I was first coming to terms with the reality that something ominous was encroaching on New York City, I found a dead sparrow on my balcony. This was a bit of a crisis for me. I am not someone attuned with nature and accustomed to disposing of dead birds. I have lived in the city most of my adult life. And there was a dead little being with his beak faced down on my balcony.
It seemed like a very bad omen and I imagined that somehow the virus had caused the little bird to fall from the sky. His body was intact and there was no sign of his having fallen from a large distance. He was mostly gray with some red marks on his back. He was not the type of bird you would expect to find on a concrete balcony in the middle of Chelsea. I wrapped him in a paper towel, shrouded him in a plastic bag and disposed of him down the garbage shoot.
The incident reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s poem, The Darkling Thrush, except this bird was dead and had no voice at all. Thomas Hardy writes of a bleak winter landscape that is punctuated by the voice of a small, aging bird: “An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small/ In blast-beruffled plume/ Had chosen thus to fling his soul/ Upon the growing gloom.” The still body of this little brown soul, laying on my balcony in the concrete gloom, overwhelmed me with terror. Perhaps the virus had invaded the sky and more birds would fall to their demise. And what had become of our world when birds were falling from the sky?
I researched what it meant to find a dead bird on your property and although there are various interpretations, the one that resonated with me is that it can be a sign of a new beginning. And like the small thrush in Hardy’s poem who offered “Some blessed hope, whereof he knew/ And I was unaware,” perhaps this little brown creature on my balcony was there to offer some small amount of hope in what seemed like a landscape that was blighted by “the ancient pulse of germ and birth.”