The Sending Away of the Mother Bird

  • Rav Michael Hattin







The Sending Away of the Mother Bird

By Rav Michael Hattin





Parashat Ki Tetze is replete with many mitzvot that cover a very broad gamut of contingencies and life events.  Bearing in mind that the people of Israel stand ready to enter the land, the section opens logically enough with legislation pertaining to warfare.  Other topics quickly come to the fore, however, including many matters pertaining to civil law, ritual practice, and religious conviction.


This week, we shall focus on a brief series of verses that introduce an unusual mitzva.  At first glance, the rationale for the mitzva seems straightforward enough.   We will discover, though, that this mitzva in fact serves the commentaries as a springboard for the formulation of a number of important principles that are enunciated in the course of their explanation.


The Observance and its Reward


"If you come across a bird's nest on a tree or upon the ground, containing chicks or eggs, and the mother bird is roosting upon the chicks or upon the eggs, then you must not take the mother along with the young.  You shall surely send away the mother and only then take the young, in order that it might be good for you and so that you shall merit length of days" (Devarim 22:6-7).  This short passage describes a deceptively simple ritual.  If one comes across a bird's nest and desires to take the eggs or the young birds, then one must first send away the mother bird, presumably to spare her the pain of having her young ripped from her feathery embrace.  The text then indicates a reward for proper observance: goodness and length of days.


On the surface, the mitzva of 'Shiluach HaKen' or the 'Sending Away of the Mother from the Nest' seems to address the necessity of humane behavior.  It is permitted to make use of other creatures, but it is not permitted to cause them undue pain or emotional suffering in the process.  In consonance with this obvious interpretation, a number of the traditional commentaries draw a connection between this mitzva and others mentioned elsewhere in the Torah that seem to address the same common theme: "You shall present the first fruits of your land at the house of God your Lord, do not seethe a kid in its mother's milk" (Shemot 23:19), "A cow and its offspring shall not be slaughtered on the same day" (Vayikra 22:28).  In all three cases, the Torah is concerned with respecting the bond between animals and their young, whether in the case of sheep, goats, cattle, or birds. 


Rashbam and the Related Mitzvot


As the Rashbam (12th century, France) explains concerning the prohibition of seething a kid in its mother's milk:  "It is an crude and gluttonous act to consume the milk of the mother along with her offspring.  This resembles the other prohibitions of slaughtering a mother and its offspring on the same day, as well as the command to send away the mother bird before taking the young.  The Torah desires to inculcate civilized behavior through these enactments" (commentary to Shemot 23:19).  On our passage, the Rashbam focuses on the negative side of abrogating these commands: "It is an act of cruelty and gluttony to take away, slaughter and cook a mother with its offspring" (commentary to Devarim 22:6). 


In his brief words, the Rashbam actually indicates that a careful reader of the text can detect the Torah's desire to broaden these narrow 'ritual' observances into character-shaping experiences.  Thus, we have one law that speaks of lambs or kids, and sheep or goats (seething a kid in its mother's milk), a second law that mentions cattle (slaughtering a cow and its offspring on the same day), and a third that addresses birds (sending away the mother bird).  In other words, the Torah desires us to demonstrate sensitivity to ALL other creatures, especially those with whom we tend to have the most interaction.


At the same time, the Rashbam suggests that there is deliberation in the Torah's discussion of COOKING a kid in its mother's milk, SLAUGHTERING a cow and its offspring on the same day, and TAKING the chicks or eggs away from the mother bird.  These three disparate acts describe three different stages in the process of exercising our control over other creatures.  We take them from nature, we kill them, and we prepare them for consumption.  The Torah thus suggests that humane, sensitive and compassionate behavior is required at every stage of our interaction, even during the final juncture of cooking by which time the link between the mother and the offspring has already long been severed.


Ibn Ezra and Reward


Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) offers an explanation that is in substantial agreement with that of the Rashbam, but he adds one important point: "'You shall merit length of days' – because you did not destroy the whole nest and left behind its main element" (Devarim 22:7).  In other words, the Torah's unusual description of a reward associated with this ritual, namely 'length of days', parallels the rationale behind the act.  By not taking the mother along with the young TOGETHER, one has not only avoided an act of gratuitous cruelty.  In fact, one has allowed for the possibility of the species to regenerate, for the mother bird is still capable of laying more eggs and raising more chicks to maturity.  By ensuring 'length of days' for the birds, one merits 'length of days' for oneself as well.


Thus far, we have examined this mitzva and its rationale through the prism of the rationalists.  Simply stated, the Torah demands of us to eschew mercilessness, to avoid excess, and to condemn cruelty.  Presumably, by exercising restraint and demonstrating compassion to even the lower creatures, we may come to behave kindly to other people as well!


Rambam and Expanding the Principle


In his 'Guide to the Perplexed', Rambam often links mitzvot together under broader categories: "Our nutritional needs require us to consume other creatures…and therefore we must slaughter them as humanely as possible.  It is forbidden to torture them through painful killing methods, or to sever limbs while the animal is still alive.  Similarly, it is forbidden to slaughter a cow and its offspring on the same day, in order to ensure that one does not come to kill the offspring in its mother's presence.  The pain that an animal suffers under such circumstances is very great.  There is no difference between the pain of a human mother and the pain of an animal mother, because love and compassion for one's offspring is not a function of reasoning capacity but rather of innate feeling that many other creatures possess.  This law was restricted to cattle and sheep, for these types are permitted for our consumption from among the domesticated creatures, and among them it is possible to ascertain the mother of the offspring.  A similar rationale animates the command to send away the mother bird.  In general, eggs that the mother has already roosted upon as well as very young chicks are unfit for consumption.  When the mother is sent away, she is spared the pain of losing her offspring.  In fact, the person will often then decide to leave the nest undisturbed, since the eggs or chicks are not edible in most cases.  IF THE TORAH SHOWED CONCERN FOR THE PAIN OF OTHER ANIMALS AND BIRDS, ALL THE MORE SO WITH RESPECT TO HUMANITY AS A WHOLE…I maintain that the mitzvot have a rationale and are not simply Divine imperatives…" (Rambam, Guide to the Perplexed, 3:48).


Here, the Rambam introduces a number of significant thoughts.  Firstly, he draws a parallel between the emotional capacity of higher animals and that of man.  Although, humanity and other creatures are separated by the unbridgeable chasm of reason, moral choice, and awareness of God, with respect to innate emotion and feeling, we are the same.  Every mother feels compassion for its young and experiences intense pain when the natural bond of parenthood is unexpectedly and cruelly severed.  However, explains the Rambam, the aim and objective of the Torah's legislation are not only and not even primarily to create a kinder, gentler world for animals, but rather to fashion a more compassionate world for PEOPLE.


The Mitzvot and Human Reason


The Rambam concludes his remarks with what may be mistakenly regarded as an afterthought, but it is pivotal:  "I maintain that the mitzvot have a rationale and are not simply Divine imperatives…." Some of us may believe that the mitzvot of the Torah are nothing more and nothing less than Divine decrees that have no rational basis, and that from our point of reference are arbitrary.  According to such a conceptual model, the attempt to comprehend God's commands according to logical principles is misguided and unproductive.  Thus, to take our example, the mitzva to send away the mother bird has nothing to do with inculcating compassion and kindness, but is simply an expression of God's will.  As the Talmudic view advocating this approach states: "God's attributes are not expressions of compassion and mercy, but rather definitive decrees" (Mishna Berakhot 5:3).


Rambam vehemently disagrees with this approach.  According to his view, the mitzvot can be comprehended rationally because they have a rational basis.  It is the case that we must perform them because we are subject to God's sovereign will and not because we feel that they are reasonable.  At the same time, however, the mitzvot are not to be construed as capricious acts that are to be performed solely as expressions of our allegiance to the Supreme Being.  Rather, the mitzvot are meaningful activities that human logic and analysis can grasp and appreciate.


Ramban's Contribution


Like his predecessors, the Ramban sees in this mitzva a condemnation of cruelty and brutality.  Like the others, he connects it to the prohibition of slaughtering a mother and its offspring on the same day.  Like the Rambam, he embraces the principle of a rational basis for the mitzvot, for "each one of them is beneficial for the improvement of the human character, in addition to carrying a reward from God who commanded them" (commentary to Devarim 22:6).


The Ramban, however, finds it necessary to emphasize that when we say that the mitzvot have a rational basis that is comprehensible and meaningful for man, that does not imply that they are rational from God's perspective.  In other words, the utility of the mitzvot is exclusively one sided.  God, as an absolute and transcendent Being, derives no efficacy whatsoever from our performance of the commandments.  "Rather, their benefit is for humanity, to save us from harm, to preserve us from false beliefs, to eliminate loathsome character traits, to remind us of God's miracles and wonders so that we may come to know Him…" (commentary to 22:6).


Towards the end of his remarks, Ramban offers a puzzling comment that seems to undermine his and the other commentaries' previous explanations.  The Talmudic source that the Rambam found troubling, namely that "God's attributes are not expressions of compassion and mercy, but rather definitive decrees", is not a rejection of the attempts of human reason to comprehend the mitzvot.  Rather, Ramban explains, it is an emphatic statement that "these commandments concerning animals and birds are not acts of compassion towards them, but rather decrees THAT ARE MEANT TO TEACH US PROPER CONDUCT." 


Strangely enough, Ramban seems to be suggesting that the command to send away the mother bird or to not slaughter the cow and its offspring on the same day is not motivated by the Torah's compassion for these hapless creatures, but rather by its desire to see us nurture proper character traits.  Of course, this appears paradoxical.  How are we to achieve this 'proper conduct' that is the goal, except by demonstrating kindness and compassion towards these cattle and birds?!  Is the Rambam incorrect in proffering that "there is no difference between the pain of a human mother and the pain of an animal mother, because love and compassion for one's offspring is not a function of reasoning capacity but rather of innate feeling that many other creatures possess"?


The Difference Between Rambam and Ramban


Clearly, Ramban now appears to be rejecting Rambam's thesis, its eminent reasonableness notwithstanding.  But why?  Considering the matter, it emerges that Rambam's explanation may be somewhat limiting, precisely because it is so reasonable!  It may indeed be the case that many animals suffer great pain when their offspring is wrenched from them.  It may indeed be the case that to do so is cruel and brutal.  In fact, it is so obviously insensitive that it is difficult to conceive of any reasonable person behaving so crudely.  What human heart could see the suffering of that mother and not be moved to compassion?


But, says the Ramban, that is precisely the drawback of Rambam's thesis.  The Torah does not only ask of us to be compassionate towards cow 'x' or sheep 'y' or bird 'z', to exercise sympathy when confronted with the specific situation of slaughter or the particular episode of the bird's nest.  These are rather local occurrences that will no doubt elicit a natural and instinctive stirring of concern from every human heart, excepting perhaps one made out of stone.  But very few of us will ever engage in slaughter, and almost none of us will have occasion to come across the bird's nest.  And besides, the aim of the Torah, as Rambam readily acknowledges, is not to be compassionate under ONLY such circumstances, but under ALL circumstances, not ONLY towards these animals, but also towards ALL animals, and ALL people. 


How then will we succeed in inculcating the compassion that the Torah so desires, so that it affects every aspect of our lives and becomes part and parcel of our very disposition?  We may never have occasion to perform this mitzva or others like it, for the unique set of circumstances that are necessary for its fulfillment may not occur during the course of our rather routine lives.  Conversely, we may have the opportunity to come across the mother bird and send it away as the Torah requires, but how shall we incorporate that singular event into the very fiber of our being so that it doesn't eventually dissipate or else become a faded and tattered memory? 


The answer, says the Ramban, is to regard these mitzvot as OBJECT LESSONS.  True, they may have specific and precise applications that are to be realized in this coarse world of ours.  They are not simply metaphors for good living.  But, at the same time, there is a truth to these acts that surpasses their specific and relatively narrow sphere of fulfillment, that addresses the broader problem of the human condition and the recalcitrant human heart that can yet yield to God's healing words.  Having mercy on a specific animal and bird may not be enough to develop a more refined character.  The instinctual sort of identification that occurs when a human parent witnesses the pain of an animal parent will not, in and of itself, be translated into moral development.  Moral development comes from constant effort, from deliberate and prolonged study and contemplation of the good and the upright, by the persistent and unceasing exercise of the moral will.  Only by considering the sending away of the mother bird as more (but not less) than a specific act, as greater than a local episode, as rather a grand and comprehensive charge to develop a benevolent and thoughtful character, can we do justice to its deceptively simple rationale.


Shabbat Shalom