Compassion Leads to Life

This week's Dvar Torah was written by Prof. Jeffrey Weinstock, one of our Melton & More Faculty. Prof. Weinstock will be teaching two courses this coming Fall Semester: A Nation Sings: The Evolution of Israeli Pop Music and a Melton Scholars Course “From Sinai To Seinfeld: Jews and their Jokes”. Registration goes LIVE Monday August 31st.

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom (1826), National Gallery of ArtWashington, DC


This week’s parshaKi Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19), contains an enormous set of mitzvot (commandments).  In its 110 verses, the parsha lays out 74 commandments, 27 positive and 47 negative, on topics as varied as the treatment of female captives, what to do with the body of an executed person, rooftop safety and the prohibition on wearing shatnez (mixtures of wool and linen).

One especially notable commandment in the parsha is shiluach ha’kan (often referred to as “shiluach ha’ken,” which literally means “sending away the nest”). Here the Torah defines what we must do when we come across a bird’s nest with both mother and young:

כִּי יִקָּרֵא קַן-צִפּוֹר לְפָנֶיךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּכָל-עֵץ אוֹ עַל-הָאָרֶץ, אֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ בֵיצִים, וְהָאֵם רֹבֶצֶת עַל-הָאֶפְרֹחִים, אוֹ עַל-הַבֵּיצִים--לֹא-תִקַּח הָאֵם, עַל-הַבָּנִים. 

6 If a bird's nest chance to be before you in the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young

שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת-הָאֵם, וְאֶת-הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח-לָךְ, לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ, וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים.  {ס}

7 you shall in any wise let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself; that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days.

These two short verses have captured the attention of Torah commentators for thousands of years. Why must we send the mother away? Why are we permitted to take the baby birds but not the mother? And why will following this commandment “prolong our days” (i.e., give us long life)?

Rambam, the medieval Spanish physician and scholar, speaks of this verse several times. His most-quoted discussion revolves around the idea of compassion. It would be too cruel for the mother bird to see us taking the baby birds so we must send her away. (The Talmud, incidentally, says that if the mother returns to the nest – even 100 times – we must still send her away, such are the depths of the mother bird’s love and devotion to her young.)

In his Morei Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed) (3:48), Rambam writes:

אין הפרש בין צער האדם עליו וצער שאר בעלי חיים כי אהבת האם ורחמיה על הולד אינו נמשך אחר השכל רק אחר פועל הכח המדמה הנמצא ברוב בעלי חיים כמו שנמצא באדם

וזה הטעם גם כן ב'שילוח הקן…

There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings…The same reason applies to the law which enjoins that we should let the mother fly away when we take the young.”

Furthermore, Rambam says that this practice will teach us deep compassion towards our fellow human beings

ואם אלו הצערים הנפשיים חסר התורה עליהם בבהמות ובעופות כל שכן בבני האדם כולם

If the Torah prohibits causing such suffering to cattle and birds, how much the more so must we be careful not to cause them to our fellow human beings.”

Thus, Rambam finds a deep moral imperative in this commandment: We learn from it the value of showing kindness and compassion towards all living creatures, whether on two legs or four.

(This vegetarian author would tend to agree…)

Other great medieval scholars such as Ramban (Nachmanides) and Ralbag found additional significance in this mitzvah. By not taking both the mother and the babies, we are protecting the species from extinction. The mother can subsequently come back to the nest and raise new baby birds.

This idea of perpetuation of the species is reflected in other Torah commandments such as the prohibition on killing a cow and its offspring on the same day (Leviticus 22:28):

וְשׁוֹר, אוֹ-שֶׂה--אֹתוֹ וְאֶת-בְּנוֹ, לֹא תִשְׁחֲטוּ בְּיוֹם אֶחָד. 

28 And whether it be cow or ewe, you shall not kill it and its young both in one day.

We even find faint echoes of this in the famous verse in Exodus that is the basis for many of the laws of kashrut/keeping kosher (Exodus 23:19):

רֵאשִׁית, בִּכּוּרֵי אַדְמָתְךָ, תָּבִיא, בֵּית יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ; לֹא-תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי, בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ.  {פ}

19 The choicest first-fruits of thy land you shall bring into the house of the LORD thy God. You shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk.

Thus, whether it be out of compassion towards the mother, fears of making a whole class of animals extinct or just the sheer horror of cooking a creature in its mother’s milk, the presence of these prohibitions is felt throughout the Torah.

However, this still does not answer the fundamental question: Why will obeying this commandment prolong our days?

The answer may be found, perhaps, in another commandment that promises the same reward. In Exodus 20:12, in the reading of the Ten Commandments themselves, we are told:

כַּבֵּד אֶת-אָבִיךָ, וְאֶת-אִמֶּךָ--לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִכוּן יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.  

12 Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God gives you.

Rabbi David Fohrman, echoing the Chatam Sofer, finds a beautiful and deeply moving parallel between our parsha and the passage in the Ten Commandments. He notes that the first part of the text in Deuteronomy actually says “Thou shalt not take the mother on the children.” Why “on” the children?

Birds have a natural ability to avoid predators, animal or human: they simply fly away. However, when a mother bird sees a human about to take her babies, she hovers over them. She knows that she, too, is in danger, but her motherly instinct supersedes her instinct for self-preservation. The mother bird will sacrifice her own life for her children.

Normally, it is virtually impossible to catch a mother bird, but in this situation, we could easily grab her as she hovers over her babies trying to protect them with all her might. Yet doing so would be cynically exploiting the mother’s love and fierce devotion to her children and, thus, a desecration of the concept of motherhood itself.

By observing the commandment of Shiluach HaKan, we are showing respect for the sacred bond between mother and child. We are showing respect for the source of the baby birds’ lives and for the source of our own lives. And for that reason, just as we are promised in the Ten Commandments, we will be, G-d willing, rewarded with long lives of our own.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova to all. 


·       Rabbi David Fohrman, Shiluach HaKan, The Parent Trap,

·       Natan Slifkin, Shiluach HaKein, The Transformation of a Mitzvah,

·       David Seidenberg, Sending the Mother Bird: A Window into the Soul of Judaism,

Shabbat Shalom


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