Sending Away The Mother

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Ostensibly, the command to send away a mother bird before taking her eggs is a basic lesson in compassion to all creatures. Yet the Mishnah’s denunciation (twice!) of this attitude towards a divine command complicates our view of this mitzvah (Berakhos 33b; Megillah 25a). R. Natan Slifkin, the “Zoo Rabbi,” has e-published a booklet about this commandment in which he explores approaches to understanding this mitzvah (link to booklet).

The booklet is a study of rationales offered for the command, examining and categorizing the different approaches throughout history and concluding with practical ramifications. Namely, does it make sense to send away the mother bird if you do not want the eggs (discussed on this blog here: link)?

R. Slifkin is a careful researcher who has uncovered many important sources on this subject, explaining them in his characteristically clear and accessible way. His grasp reaches the gamut of sources from the Medieval until today, including traditional rabbinic studies, academic discussions, and the basics of Kabbalah. His treatment is not encyclopedic, which is for the best because that would render the booklet unwieldy. It is, rather, a thorough study, highlighting the important trends in interpretation and application.

In general, R. Slifkin distinguishes between what he calls Rationalist and Mystical approaches, those that speak of the humanistic impact of the mitzvah and those that refer to the metaphysical effect. In R. Slifkin’s reading, these two approaches are irreconcilable. According to the Rationalists, sending away a mother bird induces compassion in a person. Yes, you may need the eggs, but at least show mercy to the mother bird and send her away first. If you do not desire the eggs then there cannot be a mitzvah. According to the Mystics, when you send the bird away, the angels cry over the bird’s exile from its nest which leads God to show compassion to the Jews who are also in exile. Even when you do not need the eggs, the cosmic impact of the mitzvah remains.

While I find his study useful, I am unconvinced by R. Slifkin’s dichotomy. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Yes, one sees the sending away of the mother as an act of compassion and the other as an act of cruelty, but they can both be true. It is, from a bird’s perspective, tragic that her eggs are taken and she is sent away, but it is still a more merciful and compassionate way of taking the eggs. Consider a similar talmudic case of choosing the most painless way of executing a condemned criminal (Sanhedrin 44a). Why? Because we are commanded to love our fellow as ourselves. We must even perform an act of necessary cruelty — the execution of a criminal — in a merciful way.

Indeed, as R. Slifkin points out (p. 17), the Ramban appears to adopt both Rationalist and Mystical approaches. Following the Ramban, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik quotes his grandfather, R. Chaim, as saying that the rationales offered for the commandments are not intended as underlying reasons. They are “tastes,” ways in which we can relate and aspects we can understand of the divine intent. For example, in Exalted Evening (pp. 97-99):

Ramban (Deut. 22:6) elaborates in discussing the precept of shillu’ah ha-ken (the obligation to drive away the mother before taking her offspring from a nest). Ramban makes a distinction between an explanation of a commandment that involves God’s reasons and an explanation that describes the human benefit of a commandment. He uses the commandment of shillu’ah ha-ken to illustrate this point. The deficiency of the prayer “Your mercy extended to a bird’s nest” is the implication that it was God’s attribute of mercy that caused God to set forth this commandment. The implication that God decrees a commandment for His benefit, to fulfill His need to be merciful, is an unacceptable limitation of God’s perfection. However, it is perfectly appropriate to assert the human benefit in performing a commandment. Thus, it is appropriate to state that the commandment of shillu’ah ha-ken was designed to teach human beings to be merciful…

Rav Hayim further explained that ta‘amei ha-mizvot should not be understood as “the reasons for the commandments” but rather as “the flavor of the commandments,” as the verse states (Ps. 34:9) “ta‘amu u-re’u ki tov Hashem, taste and see that God is good.”

See also Man of Faith in the Modern World, pp. 96-98.

The upshot is that the Rationalist and Mystical approaches are not mutually exclusive. Mitzvah observance can improve a person’s character and also have metaphysical resonance. The dichotomy is exaggerated because there is also a middle ground, a multi-dimensional approach that is evident within tradition and accepts the conclusions of multiple streams in Jewish thought.

See also these posts:

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. “The upshot is that the Rationalist and Mystical approaches are not mutually exclusive.”

    Of course, we should be clear that in the particular case of shiluach haken they ARE exclusive, practically speaking. The rationalist approach tells you not to send away the mother if you don’t need the eggs (except perhaps due to a “lo plug” argument). The mystical approach tells you to send away the mother anyway.

  2. I was reading the Little Midrash Says to my child the other night. It says that the Talmud (Nedarim 10a) tells of some tzaddikim who would become nezirim just so that they could bring a korban chatas. It appears that there’s a machlokes about the history, though: a different sage said that tzaddikim did not become nezirim on purpose in order to bring a chatas.

    My point in offering that gemara is that there seems to be a position which says that some tzaddikim went way out of their way to fulfill a certain mitzvah. This, to me, sounds pertinent to the issue of why some people (perhaps not tzaddikim) peculiarly go out of their way to do shiluach haken.

  3. How about the “I just do what I’m told” school (maybe there’s a rational reason and maybe there’s a kabbalistic one but I don’t get the big bucks for thinking about it, I just take orders, do what I’m told and trust the commander)


  4. Both the mystical and the rational need not be in conflict. One can easily make the case that sending away the mother bird when one wants the eggs is an act of mercy that makes the angels weep. When one sends away the bird without wanting the eggs, the angels do not weep because the bird will quickly be reunited with its progeny. Thus there is no justification for sending away the bird if you do not want the eggs.

  5. It can be further posited that by sending away the mother bird without wanting the eggs you are making the angels weep on false pretense. In other words you are faking out the angels so they weep so that God shows mercy. This can only be viewed as a SCHEME…as if God can be tricked.

  6. Joel: I believe R. Chaim’s approach incorporates what you are saying. Ultimately it is a matter of obedience but we can also find “tastes” of human benefits. That is the Rav’s point in the essay in Man of Faith in the Modern World.

  7. The core dichotomy of Judaism is the following:

    1) I am but ashes and dust.
    2) The entire world was created for my sake.

    Both ideas are on the surface contradictory but they are core ideas. How does this apply to this issue? A simple act of compassion towards a bird has local significance…it is an act of fulfilling a mitzvah in time. It is therefore of the ashes and dust variety…ie. it is material. However, we can also believe that an act of compassion towards the bird has cosmic significance as well. If we can hold those two things in our minds, we can perhaps act in the manner that Hashem requires of us.

  8. R’ Gil,
    I suppose the gzeira approach I described could be subsumed under R’ Chaim’s but need not be. The real challenge to it imho is then how do you extrapolate to any other cases (or is everything not covered halachically not informed upon)?

  9. joel rich – indeed the rambam pirush hamishnayot megillah 4:9 says on shiluach hakan the reason is not out of mercy but its a geairat hakatuv – scriptural decree. there is a difference between giving reasons – taamei hamitzvot – and being submissive to out creator (which is the basis of all halacha).

  10. What is exactly is a rationalist understanding of a chok that, by definition, defies our reason? We can have plausible views about the chok, but these views cannot define its requirements.

    The problem that remains is how to resolve which mesorah is more authoritative,

    (1) to send the mother bird away only if the eggs are desired?
    (2) to send the mother bird away regardless?

    (3) to seek out opportunities to do this mitzvah?
    (4) not to seek them out?

  11. >What is exactly is a rationalist understanding of a chok that, by definition, defies our reason?

    A chok does not, by definition, defy reason. It is a perfectly fine Hebrew word that means “statute,” and if you look it up in a biblical concordance you can see many uses that have nothing do with laws which defy reason.

  12. In one of the seforim about RSZA or in one of the volumes of the Sichos of R Nevenzal, I think that there is a picture of RSZA performing this Mitzvah.

  13. Shkoyach, your comics from before 9/22/04 don’t work!

  14. The argument re rachmanut is contradicted by the halachic details. E.g, ki yikore vs. porat limezuman. Same re oto ve’et beno (shechting oto ve’et bno same day, when a minute’s interval may be sufficient as in before nacht and after nacht etc.) It is here that the arch-rationalists argument for taameihamitzvot breaks down.

  15. >It is here that the arch-rationalists argument for taameihamitzvot breaks down.

    Not really. The details are because it’s also law and you have to shave the rounded edges off and make rulings for the ambiguities. In the United States one minute can make a difference between a minor and an adult who can vote, or an adult who can’t legally drink and one who can. There’s nothing mysterious about it, but there has to be some definition.

  16. R’JR- Is it enough to be satisfied with “doing what we are told”? HaRav Kook takes it a step farther.We do what we are told because our inner being ca not allow us to do anything else. This is “hashvayat haritzonot, the confluence of wills which is the epitome of avodat Hashem.
    R’Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk put it this way-“If we perform the mishpatim as if they are chukim, then we will be able to perform the chukim as if they were mishpatim.”

  17. R’DT,
    Not for me, but I’m articulating a philosophy I have heard.

  18. I think the issue of whether the two approaches are mutually exclusive or not (and I am convinced they are not) is rooted in the authenticity of kabbalah – either it was written with ruach hakodesh and therefore essentially has the status of divrei Chazal, or it was not written with ruach hakodesh, and therefore we – post-modern achronim – can argue with it, as the Zoo Rabbi has done.

  19. I meant to say that if it was not written with ruach hakodesh, then we post-modern achronim can ask educated questions on it, humbly at least. (Making conclusions is another thing.) Or a third possibility: Some of it was written with ruach hakodesh, and therefore we should be cautious and not argue with it (unless there are differing opinions, in which case we could choose one over the other, unless one has been more widely accepted). Kol tuv.

  20. two points

    1) rabbeinu bechaya brins both the rambam and this “zohar”(couldn’t find it inside) in ki teitzei, the rambam as pshat and the zohar as sod. it doesn’t seem like he has any contradiction. furthermore, in his hakdama, he says he is trying to make a cohesive commentary on the torah.

    2) he also brings down an alternative pshat al pi sod. so who says their is only one interpretation al pi sod that the rambam has to shtim with?

  21. I posted the following as a comment to the original article in the Rationalist Judaism blog. The gist of my comment is that Kabbalah cannot tell us anything about reasons for mitzvos, with the result that a Kabbalist will have to use rationalistic reasons for mitzvos or take the position that there is no reason for the mitzva.
    This booklet assumes that both Rationalists and Mystics are giving reasons for mitzvos. I disagree with that assumption that Mystics can give mystical reasons for mitzvos. My argument is that mystical “reasons” for mitzvos are given by theurgical statements in the form of “If you do X, Y will occur.” These types of statement may make us want to do X, in order to accomplish Y, but they do not give us any reason why God made the world with these rules. The opposite could easily be true. Thus, the “reasons” given by mystics are not reasons for mitzvos, but effects of mitzvos. The mystic has only moved the question from why we should do X, to why does X have such an effect. The mystic is then faced with the real issue of what is the reason for the command to do X. There are several possible answers. One answer is that there are no reasons other than the will of God. The Rationalist approach, which the Ramban adopts is that the world is structured with these mystical effects because God wants us to act in a certain way. Thus, the rationalistic approach is perfectly compatible with the mystical approach. The last approach, which illustrates the danger mysticism poses to traditional religion, is the deterministic approach under which God does not structure the world at all: the world, including all the mystical effects of mitzvos, is unchangeable. Many Mystics, such as the Ramban have adopted the rationalistic view. Many have adopted the view that there are no reasons for mitzvos. However, it cannot be assumed, simply from the fact that the Mystic discusses only mystical reasons for mitzvos, that he believes that there are no reasons for mitzvos. He may be discussing the mystical effects of mitzvos, without focusing on the reasons for mitzvos. Because the deterministic view is usually seen as heretical, we find many qualifications in mystical literature that try to avoid this view, where the robust mystical system reaches only up to a given point, while the ineffable God, who acts with a will is above this system.

  22. Simon- Perhaps you should first define what you mean by “mystical”. This is not a Torah term and IMHO it is not applicable to explaining the Tradition Kabbalah or CHEN(Torat haNistar).Leaving practical kabbalah aside;kabbalat Haari and the kabbalah that is the basis of Chassidic thought, and that of modern streams of thought such as that of HaRAV Kook,R’Shagar ztz’l and R’Ginsburg Shlit’a are systematic attempts at describing the presence of the divine which is hidden behind the veil of nature. We say “l’yichud kudsha brich hu” before doing a mitzvah in order to infuse the action with the feeling that we are performing it in the presence of the divine. This is not ta’am hamitzvah but rather ta’am ASSIYAT hamitzvah. In this view the mitzvot which may or may not have rational reasons are really a way of kirvat Hashem as the Korbanot were in the Bet Hamikdash. By doing His will and making His will our will we are establishing the presence of Shechina in our world.

  23. David Tzohar – That is my exact point. No matter how you view Toras Hanistar or Kabbalah, it can only give you effects of doing mitzvos. It cannot give you the reason why God gave mitzvos. For that, if you believe that mitzvos have any reasons, you have to give rational reasons. There is no alternative.

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