The Command to Send Away the Mother Bird

  • Rav Michael Hattin



As Parashat Ki Tetze opens, Moshe's life and the Book of Devarim that constitutes his parting words draw inexorably closer to their conclusion.  Moshe's impassioned exhortations that opened the Book had been followed by a systematic review of the Torah's mitzvot, in order to prepare the people for the new life awaiting them on the other side of the Jordan River.  Parashat Ki Tetze is replete with a great variety of those mitzvot, and although many have been presented elsewhere in the Torah, some are introduced here for the very first time.  One of the most intriguing of these mitzvot concerns the "bird's nest," and this week we shall examine how the commentaries' analyses of this seemingly innocuous passage yields some very significant and fundamental ideas.


"If you come across a bird's nest on any tree or on the ground, and it contains baby chicks or eggs, you must not take the mother along with her young.  You shall surely send away the mother first, and only then may you take the young, in order that you might enjoy goodness and length of days" (Devarim 22:6-7).


The Approach of Ibn Ezra


In general, the Torah deliberately omits mention of a rationale for specific mitzvot, and this case is no exception.  The outline of the act, however, is clear: an individual who happens to pass a nest and desires to take the eggs or chicks for personal use may not do so as long as the mother bird is present.  Rather, the mother bird must be first sent away, and only then may the young be taken.  Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) attempts to explain the passage in a straightforward manner, and provides a rational interpretation that is compelling:


"The reason for this mitzva is that expunging the mother with her young constitutes cruelty of heart, as the Prophet Hoshea describes 'the mother dashed to pieces with her young.'  This is also the rationale for the Torah's prohibition concerning slaughter of the cow and her offspring on the same day (see Vayikra 22:28)." 


In other characteristically terse comments concerning the passage in Shemot 23:19 that forbids one 'to seethe a kid in its mother's milk,' Ibn Ezra remarks:


"There is no need for us to search for the rationale behind this injunction, for even the wise cannot explain it.  Perhaps the Torah prohibits this act because it constitutes cruelty of heart to boil a kid in its mother's milk, just as we are forbidden to kill a cow and its offspring on the same day or to take the mother bird along with its young."


The Inherent Sanctity of Life


For Ibn Ezra, it is clear that all three of these mitzvot draw their inspiration from a single idea: to kill a mother creature and its offspring at the same time betrays a lack of sensitivity to life that is inexcusable.  Interestingly, for the Ibn Ezra, it is not the feelings of the mother animal that are at the core of the legislation, for he nowhere states that the aim of the injunctions is to minimize her pain on seeing her offspring taken from her or put to death.  In fact, in the case of 'seething the kid in its mother's milk,' or concerning the act of 'slaughtering the offspring on the same day,' the mother is not even necessarily present.  Rather, it is the character of the perpetrator that is of paramount concern, for the indiscriminate destruction of life, symbolized by the mother perishing along with her young, is what is too abhorrent for the Torah to countenance. 


This reading is supported by the Ibn Ezra's proof text from the Book of Hoshea, for in its larger context, the verses there describe the ghastly aftermath of a battle, in which the enemy wantonly exterminated not only the lives of the vanquished, but their own moral conscience as well:


"...Therefore shall a tumult arise among your people, and all of your fortresses shall be plundered, just as Shalmon conquered Bet Arbel on the day of battle, when the mothers were dashed to pieces with their young" (Hoshea 10:14). 


Although the identity of Shalmon and the location of Bet Arbel have been lost in the sands of time, the memory of flagrant disdain and bloodthirsty disregard for the sanctity of life, the proverbial killing of mothers along with their children, is still painfully familiar to even us, the proud humanity of the Enlightened Age. 


In light of the above, we may now better appreciate Yaacov's anxious characterization of his brother Esav on the eve of their confrontation.  Recall that when Yaacov was fearfully and feverishly preparing to meet his estranged brother, after an absence of twenty-odd years, he implored God's mercy to be saved from the latter's wrath:


"Please save me from the hands of my brother, from the grasp of Esav, for I fear that he will attack me and slay the mothers along with the children" (Bereishit 32:12). 


Esav's predilection for barbarity, his lack of any moral compunction, is here exemplified by Yaacov's expectation that his brother's attack will culminate in the wholesale massacre of his entire family.  Esav will spare no one, even slaying the mothers with their children.


Formulating a Comprehensive Principle


To go one step further, by linking the three prohibitions of the kid, the cow and the bird, Ibn Ezra may be suggesting that there is a common thread that winds its way through all of the Torah's teachings, for each one of the three occurs in a completely different book of the Chumash (Sefer Shemot, Sefer Vayikra and Sefer Devarim respectively).  According to his interpretation, one might surmise that the Torah is stating a pervasive foundation principle that attempts to transcend the specific and somewhat narrow ritual application of each of the three laws.  Taken together, they constitute a powerful statement about the sanctity of all life, and the restraint that we must exercise towards not only other living creatures, but more importantly towards other people as well.  The prohibition of taking the life of the mother with its young, in all of its variations, seeks to address much broader concerns.  The Torah demands that we strive to nurture sensitive and compassionate characters that are not indifferent to life's inherent value and not apathetic to its inviolability.


The Interpretation of Rambam – Concern with Emotional Anguish


The Rambam (12th century, Egypt) addresses the mitzva of 'Shiluach Ha-ken' (sending away of the mother bird) in his Guide to the Perplexed. 


"The command concerning correct slaughter is essential, for proper nutrition depends upon vegetation as well as upon meat.  The healthiest meats come from those animals that the Torah has permitted us to consume, as any physician knows.  Since our nutritional needs depend upon the consumption of other creatures, the Torah has mandated for us the most painless and humane method of killing them.  Thus, one is forbidden to cause unnecessary pain to those animals by using methods of slaughter that are slow or less effective, or by cutting off a limb from a living creature. 


"The prohibition of slaughtering the mother and her offspring on the same day is a safeguard, lest one come to kill the offspring in front of its mother.  The anguish that the mother would suffer under those circumstances is very great, for there is no difference between the pain of a human being and the pain of an animal in that situation.  After all, the love and concern of a creature for its young is not a function of our enhanced cognitive ability, but rather of emotional states that are common to most higher life forms.  The Torah has limited this law to the cow, sheep and goat, for these domesticated creatures are the ones that we typically consume, and in these cases the mother of the offspring can generally be identified. 


"This is also the reason for the command to send away the mother bird.  By doing so, her anguish is minimized when the eggs and chicks are taken away.  Additionally, the eggs that she has already roosted upon as well as the young chicks are generally unfit for human consumption.  It is therefore likely that the person will, in the end, decide to leave the nest untouched.  If the Torah shows concern for the emotional wellbeing of animals and birds, all the more so should this be true of our concern for human beings in general" (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:48).


In the above passage, the Rambam indicates that the Torah is directly concerned not only with the physical pain, but also with the emotional feelings of lower creatures.  Although we are permitted to consume other animals, we must be especially careful not to cause undue distress and suffering in the process.  The method of killing must therefore be quick and immediate, and we must additionally eschew any possible emotional torment by not dispatching the offspring in the presence of its mother.


Comparisons and Contrasts


Although the general thrust of Rambam's approach of shunning savagery seems to concur with that of Ibn Ezra, there are nevertheless a number of subtle but significant differences between the two.  According to Rambam, the passages can be understood in the most direct and straightforward way.  Send away the mother bird so that she does not suffer the pain of seeing her young taken from her.  Do not slaughter the mother and its offspring on the same day so that you will not come to slaughter the offspring in its mother's presence. 


For Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, there is a more subtle message that must be extrapolated from the specific injunctions.  His analysis introduces the thesis of the sanctity of life, which is presented as an abstract inference that naturally arises from the three cases.  The Torah mandates the sending away of the mother bird so that one does not come to kill the mother and the chicks.  The injunctions concerning seething the kid in its mother's milk or killing the animal and its offspring on the same day are understood as protests against a savage worldview that would sanction ruthless and indiscriminate killing.  To kill a mother and its young is to extirpate man's ethical sense, and constitutes the abnegation of any noble higher purpose to which man must aspire.  It is not a concern with the pain of a specific mother or offspring that constitutes the kernel of the Torah's legislation, but rather with the more inclusive (and elusive) aim of indelibly imprinting upon the human psyche the ideal of life's intrinsic and inestimable worth.


Significantly, unlike Ibn Ezra, the Rambam does not link these two injunctions with the third, namely the prohibition of seething the kid in its mother's milk.  Rambam prefers to link the latter with idolatrous practices that the Torah therefore repudiates, rather than with ideals of sympathy and compassion.  This 'omission' is readily intelligible, for the case of seething the kid in its mother's milk is the only one of the three that involves an offspring that has already been killed.  Since at the stage of food preparation, the meat of the kid is not readily identifiable as her offspring, nor is the process of cooking the meat an activity at which the mother is likely to be present, the prohibition must therefore derive its justification from another source.


For Ibn Ezra, in contrast, who develops a more formal principle of life's inviolability, the injunction of seething a kid in its mother's milk constitutes an appropriate source for the derivation.  It is a deed that suggests insensitivity towards the precious life-affirming relationship that is embodied in the embrace of a mother for its young.


Finally, it is essential to take note of the fact that for both Ibn Ezra and Rambam, the primary thrust of the various injunctions is that they should leave their mark upon the human condition.  For Ibn Ezra, the proof text from Hoshea was critical, and that passage surely speaks of the world of man.  For Rambam,


"if the Torah shows concern for the emotional wellbeing of animals and birds, all the more so should this be true of our concern for human beings in general." 


The Torah's mitzvot are not meant to be understood as narrow ritual acts that address restricted or picayune circumstances, but rather as specific, directed activities that ideally should impact upon every facet of our lives and every fiber of our beings.  Often, we fall prey to practicing the mitzvot as detached ceremonial.  As these two commentaries make quite clear, however, we must rather strive to develop, by way of the mitzvot, ethical and upright personalities that encompass the entire experience of our lives and our relationship with others  "in order that you might enjoy goodness and length of days."


Shabbat Shalom