“Sending the Mother Bird Away”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, we learn of the fascinating mitzvah of “Sheeluach Ha’Kayn,” sending the mother bird away from the nest when taking the chicks or the eggs.

The Torah states in Deuteronomy 22:6-7, “Kee yee’ka’ray kahn tzeepohr l’fah’neh’cha ba’derech…v’ha’aym rovetzet ahl ha’ef’ro’cheem oh ahl ha’bay’tzim, lo tee’kach ha’aym ahl ha’baneem,” If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest before you, or in any tree or on the ground, with young chicks or eggs, and the mother is roosting on the chicks or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the children. You shall surely send the mother away, and keep the children, so that it may go well with you and that your days will be lengthened.

Our rabbis tell us that the mitzvah of sending the mother bird away is a mitzvah that applies at all times, whether in Israel or the diaspora, pertains only to kosher birds, and applies only to a nest that is located in a public place. This mitzvah therefore does not apply to private breeders, and also excludes chicks that are able to fly on their own and eggs that are already inseminated.

Although I have never had the privilege of fulfilling this mitzvah, it is a mitzvah that many make special efforts to pursue. I recall hearing that a resident of the Hotel Esplanade on the Upper West Side of Manhattan once had a nest outside his window. He invited many great rabbis to visit his home, so they could have the opportunity to perform this unusual mitzvah.

In his comprehensive analysis of the mitzvah of Sheeluach Ha’Kayn, Rabbi Yehuda Nachshoni (Studies in the Weekly Parashah) shows how the commentators labor diligently to uncover the rationale that lies behind this intriguing mitzvah.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) explains that the mitzvah of sending the mother bird away is not performed for the sake of mercy, but rather to underscore the religious and legal obligations of the people of Israel. The law of sending the mother bird away, and other such laws, are decrees that are often unfathomable to human beings. By performing them, the people of Israel proclaim to all that they are G-d’s servants, who faithfully observe the Al-mighty’s mitzvot, even those observances that may appear to be irrational, and that others ridicule. While Rashi believes that sending the mother bird away from the nest certainly displays G-d’s mercy toward His creatures, he rejects the opinion of those who conclude that this as the sole reason for the mitzvah.

There is an interesting difference of opinion between the Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician) and the Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) regarding the purpose of this mitzvah.

The Rambam, in his Commentary to the Mishna, explains the mitzvah of Sheeluach Ha’Kayn, sending the mother bird away, as a mitzvah for which there is no logical explanation, and declares that it is forbidden to consider mercy as its raison d’etre. If mercy were its true purpose, argues the Rambam, Jews would not be permitted to slaughter animals or fowl for human consumption.

In his Guide to the Perplexed 3:48, however, the Rambam states that there definitely are elements of mercy in many mitzvot, such as when the Torah permits slaughtering of animals for food. That is why the Torah demands that death be implemented in the easiest possible manner. Maimonides goes so far as to say, “There is no difference between the distress of man and the distress of animals, because the love and tender mercy of the mother toward its young is not a matter of intellect, but of visualization, which is a power found in most animals, as it is in man.”

Nachmanides also regards the element of mercy as playing a key role in the mitzvah of Sheeluach Ha’Kayn, but argues that the attribute of mercy should be ascribed not to G-d, but to the human being. Nachmanides argues that one cannot attribute any human emotions, such as mercy, to G-d. The reason that G-d gave the Torah to the People of Israel was in order to refine them, and to implant in them lofty and moral ethical values. That is why He permitted the slaughtering of animals for food, but only in a manner that would develop the merciful tendencies of the human being.

The Netziv (R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893, head of the famed Yeshiva in Volozhin, author of Ha’amek Davar) adds another important element to the discussion concerning this mitzvah by noting that the mother bird could have fled to save her life. By not fleeing, the bird displays exceptional mercy, being prepared to give up her life for her children in order to protect them. Therefore, one is forbidden to abuse the mother’s mercy, and capture the mother at the time when she shows such extraordinary commitment to her offspring.

The mitzvah of Sheeluach Ha’Kayn is one of three mitzvot in the Torah for which G-d promises to lengthen the life of the person who performs them. The best known of these mitzvot is the mitzvah of honoring father and mother. The least known of the three is the one that appears later on in parashat Kee Teitzei (Deuteronomy 25:15) regarding the mitzvah of ensuring proper weights and measures in the marketplace. The Talmud, Hullin 142a, tells the fascinating story of the great young scholar, Elisha ben Abuya, who eventually became an apostate. The Talmud speculates that the reason for Elisha ben Abuya’s apostasy was a tragic incident that Elisha witnessed. He saw a young boy climb a tree at the behest of his father to chase away the mother bird and take the eggs. On his way down, the boy slipped and fell from the tree. Despite the double mitzvot that the young man had fulfilled, honoring his father by doing his bidding and chasing away the mother bird, he died. Elisha ben Abuya could not fathom the death of a child who had fulfilled two mitzvot in which the Torah emphatically states that one’s days shall be lengthened. He subsequently became an apostate.

The rabbis conclude that Elisha ben Abuya should have known that not all reward is given in this world. In fact, most reward remains for the World to Come.

What is, of course, impressive, is the extraordinary emphasis that the Torah places on the prohibition of causing undue pain to animals, especially in light of the fact that contemporary civilization in the time of the Torah was deeply callous and indifferent to the pain of animals. Many ancients, in fact, used to eat animals alive. It is also fascinating to recognize how much effort the rabbis invested in trying to understand the reason behind each and every mitzvah, and what role the quality of mercy played in understanding this mitzvah, whether it was G-d’s mercy or human mercy.

As the month of Elul progresses, the month that initiates the intense penitential period, we hope that our Father in Heaven will look down upon us and be particularly merciful toward us. We hope that the Al-mighty, like the mother bird, will hover over His children, refusing to abandon them in their time of need.

May the mercy of the All Merciful hasten the ultimate redemption, and may the Redeemer appear quickly in our day.

May you be blessed.