The Mitzvah of Shiluach Hakein
Question #1: Required???
“Must I physically send away the mother bird? I am squeamish!”
Question #2: Keep the Babies
“Must I take the young to fulfill the mitzvah?”
Question #3: Educated!
“I am so excited about the opportunity to fulfill this special mitzvah, with all its rewards, but I want to make sure I do it properly. Can you please enlighten me?”
Well known and poorly understood
This week’s parsha includes the laws of a mitzvah, or more accurately, two mitzvos that are both well-known and yet poorly understood. The Torah teaches that when we happen to find a nest of birds, we are to send away the mother and keep the young; that is, either the baby birds or the eggs. An entire chapter of Mishnah and Gemara, the twelfth and last perek of Chullin, is devoted to understanding this mitzvah, which actually involves two mitzvos, a lo saaseh, a prohibition against taking the mother, and a mitzvas aseih, a positive mitzvah to send away the mother. At the same time, the Torah itself teaches of a very specific reward gained by someone who observes this mitzvah. We will therefore begin the study of this fascinating mitzvah in this article.
Let us rephrase briefly the first two of our opening questions:
1. Should I find such a nest, may I simply ignore it and continue on my way, or is doing so ignoring a requirement to fulfill a mitzvah?
2. “Must I take the young to fulfill the mitzvah?” When I send away the mother bird, am I required to keep the young, or, at least, to physically lift up the eggs or baby birds, thereby taking possession of them? Or have I completed the performance of the mitzvah simply by sending away the mother?
At this point, we should read the words of the Torah very carefully, because answering some of our questions will depend on properly understanding these words.
Ki yikarei kan tzipor lefanecha baderech, bechol eitz oh al ha’aretz, efrochim oh beitzim, veha’eim rovetzes al ha’efrochim oh al habeitzim, lo sikach ha’eim al habanim. Shalei’ach teshalach es ha’eim, ve’es habanim tikach loch, lemaan yitav loch veha’archata yamim.“If a bird’s nest, containing either chicks or eggs, happens to be before you on the road, whether it (the nest) is in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is nesting upon the chicks or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother from/with the offspring. (I will explain shortly why I left the translation this way.) You shall certainly send away the mother and take the young for yourself, so that it will be good for you, and you shall lengthen your days” (Devorim 22:6-7).
Off the derech
Several points in these pesukim are uncertain. The Torah states that the nest must be on the derech, which means on the way or road. Why does the Torah need to tell you that it was on the road? Does this mitzvah not apply if the mother bird is off the derech?
The Gemara first suggests that the Torah is teaching that there is no mitzvah of shiluach hakein if the bird built her nest on the water. However, the Gemara demonstrates that this halacha is inaccurate — a waterway is also called a derech, and, should one find a nest on a waterway, the mitzvah of shiluach hakein applies.
So, what case is exempt, because mommy bird is “off the derech”? The Gemara concludes that there is no mitzvah of shiluach hakein should the nest be on your property, since this is not called “on the way,” which implies an ownerless area (Chullin 139b). The Mishnah states that geese or chickens that set up their nests in an orchard are included in the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, whereas there is no requirement to send away the mother goose or hen if she set up her nest in the house. The Mishnah’s term “chickens that set up their nests in an orchard” means that they have run away from the owner’s jurisdiction. However, if the chickens or geese are “rebellious,” occasionally wandering beyond the confines of their usual home, but still returning to the owner’s barn for nesting, they are still considered “owned.” Similarly, the laws of shiluach hakein apply to an ownerless bird that nests on your property (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 292:2).
Late poskim explain that you are exempt from performing the mitzvah on birds that could easily become yours, even if at the moment they are not your property. Without delving into the halachic analysis entailed, they conclude that the mitzvah of shiluach hakein does not apply to chickens and similar domesticated species, unless this particular bird refuses to be domesticated (Shu”t Imrei Yosher #158; Minchas Shelomoh 2:97:26).
On the other hand, the mitzvah does apply, in general, to doves and pigeons, which, even when kept in dovecotes, are not as domesticated as chickens. However, one is exempt from performing the mitzvah of shiluach hakein in the case of homing pigeons, which accept human domination. This means that someone can remove chickens or homing pigeons roosting on a nest and bring them to the shocheit.
Mommy or daddy
There are species of birds in which the father roosts on the nest, or the two parents take turns. In this instance, does the mitzvah apply, regardless as to which parent is on the nest, or is the mitzvah gender-specific, applying only if the mother bird is on the nest? This question is debated in the Mishnah and discussed in the Gemara. Normative halacha rules that the mitzvah applies only if mother bird is on the nest. This conclusion is implied by the posuk when it says veha’eim rovetzes, “and the mother is nesting.”
Therefore, in order to fulfill the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, one must first determine that the nesting bird is, indeed, the mother. One does not require a DNA test to verify these facts – usually a bit of observation will show you whether one bird or two are nesting.
This question is germane to pigeons, who present the most common contemporary application of shiluach hakein, since non-domesticated ones often create their nests near or in human habitation. Pigeons, which are loyal to their mates for life, take turns roosting on the nest. Usually, the daddy bird takes day shift and mommy does the night shift. (During their time off, each parent goes out to earn a living. Not many social-life options in a full nest.)
There are several halachic ramifications to this social knowledge of pigeon family structure, of which I will share two. Should someone be interested in harvesting both a pigeon parent and its eggs or young, he can determine which parent is male, and then, at the appropriate time, seize daddy bird and the young at the same time without violating any prohibition of the Torah.
A second ramification applies to someone eager to fulfill the mitzvah of shiluach hakein. Before sending away the nesting bird, one should determine whether, at the moment, mommy or daddy is roosting there. If it is daddy, no mitzvah is fulfilled by sending him away, even if you are a father’s rights activist.
From or with?
Allow me to return to the laws that we derive from understanding the posuk. The Torah writes, lo sikach ha’eim al habanim, which can be translated and explained in more than one way. It could mean that you should not take the mommy from the young, which would mean that the prohibition is taking the mother, even should you leave the offspring, which is the way Rashi explains the verse (as explained by Maharal; note that Mizrachi seems to have understood Rashi differently). On the other hand, the Rambam (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saaseh #306) translates the phrase ha’eim al habanim as with the young, meaning that one violates the lo saaseh prohibition only if one takes both mother and offspring. Should someone take the mother and not the offspring, in the Rambam’s opinion, he violated the mitzvas aseih commanding him to send away the mother, but not the lo saaseh. According to Rashi, this person also violated the lo saaseh. Thus, we see that a halachic difference can hinge on how you translate the preposition al.
Earlier in this article, I translated this passage as “You shall not take the mother from/with the young.” This was in order to avoid biasing someone from translating the posuk in a way that supports either side of the dispute between rishonim.
Our opening question was: “Must I physically send away the mother bird? I am squeamish!” Or, as I explained it: Should I find such a nest, may I simply ignore it and continue on my way, or would I thereby be ignoring a requirement to fulfill a mitzvah?
To explain this a bit better: The Torah includes mitzvos that I am required to observe, such asputting on tefillin and eating matzoh on Pesach. Shiluach hakein is certainly not such a mitzvah, since it depends upon circumstance and applies only when I find a nest. However, among mitzvos of the Torah that are non-obligatory, there are different levels of requirement. Some mitzvos are simply a matir, they permit me to do something, but I have no obligation to do them, whereas others become obligatory when certain circumstances apply.
Some examples will make our explanation clearer. Here is an example of a mitzvah that is not required: shechitah. I am not required to walk down the street looking for animals to shecht. Even if I am a shocheit and someone asks me to shecht for them, it is not a requirement. The mitzvah is simply: If you want to eat meat, the animal must be shechted in a specific way. If one does not shecht it correctly, one may not eat the meat.
This type of mitzvah is a matir. There is no requirement to observe the mitzvah, but if I want to gain a certain benefit, the Torah provides me with specific instruction how to permit it.
If we understand shiluach hakein to be a matir, then what the Torah instructed is that if I find a nesting bird, I may not take both the young and their mother for my purposes. If I want to take the young, I must first send away the mother. (By the way, it is forbidden to take the mother, even if I do not want to take the young.)
There is another way to understand shiluach hakein, which holds that this mitzvah is not a matir, but a requirement, should I encounter the appropriate situation. I will explain the second approach by comparison to a different mitzvah.
One of the Torah’s mitzvos is to return lost objects. There is no requirement for me to try to find lost objects in order to return them to their owner. However, once I see a lost object, I am required to retrieve the item and return it. If one understands that the mitzvah of shiluach hakein is comparable to hashavas aveidah, then, although I am not required to go looking for nesting birds, should I find one, I am required to send away the mother.
Based on Talmudic sources, early acharonim discuss whether shiluach hakein should be considered a matir or a requirement. If it is a matir, then our squeamish questioner is not required to fulfill the mitzvah. However, if it is a requirement, then it is a mitzvah that must be fulfilled. Halachically, it will be approximately equivalent to living in a house and not putting mezuzos on the doors.
The question is how one explains the words of the posuk, which says Shalei’ach teshalach es ha’eim, “You shall certainly send away the mother.” Here are two ways:
There is no requirement to send away the mother, but should I happen upon a nest and want to eat the mother bird, the young, or both, I may not take the mother, but must send her away. The act of sending away the mother permits me to keep the young, should I want to take them. According to this approach, the mitzvah of shiluach hakein is similar to shechitah. There is no requirement to shecht, but should I want to eat meat, this is the way to do so.
On the other hand, perhaps the mitzvah of shiluach hakein is similar to the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah. This would mean that should I find a nest, I am now required to send away the mother.
Among the early acharonim, we find a responsum from the Chavos Ya’ir (#67) discussing this issue. To quote the Chavos Yair: “I was asked: if someone comes across a nest while he is walking through a field, is he required to send away the mother, or may he just continue on his way without doing anything?”
The Chavos Yair analyzes several passages of the Gemara in his attempt to prove which approach is correct. Based on his analysis of several texts of Chazal, he concludes that shiluach hakein is like hashavas aveidah, and, should one find a nest that meets the halachic requirements, there is an obligation to send away the mother, even though one has no interest in the young. This position is also accepted by several other prominent, later poskim (Shu”t Chacham Zvi #83; Rabbi Akiva Eiger to Yoreh Deah 292:1; Aruch Hashulchan, Yoreh De’ah 292:1-2).
On the other hand, there are several prominent poskim who dispute this ruling, concluding that shiluach hakein is a matir, like shechitah (Sefer Hamitzvos Hakatzar [of the Chofetz Chayim] Mitzvos Aseh #74; Chazon Ish (Yoreh De’ah 175:2); Shu”t Avnei Neizer, Orach Chayim #48; Minchas Shelomoh 2:5:4 [5760 edition].
Keep the babies
Our second question that I quoted above was: “Must I take the young to fulfill the mitzvah?” I explained that the question is: When I send away the mother bird, am I required to keep the young, or, at least, to physically lift up the eggs or baby birds, thereby taking possession of them? Or have I completed the performance of the mitzvah simply by sending away the mother?
This is another halachic question that is dependent on the translation of a word of the posuk: The Torah says “You shall certainly send away the mother and take the young for yourself.” Does the Torah mean that you may take the young for yourself or that you are required to take the young? According to the second approach, the mitzvah is fulfilled only if one picks up the eggs or baby birds. If one does not pick them up, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah. According to the first approach, the mitzvah is fulfilled by sending away the mother. Once one has sent her away and fulfilled the mitzvah, one may pick up the eggs, should one want them, or leave them as is.
Again, the correct interpretation depends on a proper understanding of the posuk.
The Torah states, ve’es habanim tikach loch, “And take the young for yourself.” Is this part of the requirement of the mitzvah? In other words, did the Torah command that we perform two steps, send away the mother and take the young? Or, more simply, the Torah instructed that once you sent away the mother, you are permitted to keep the young for yourself.
This question is discussed by a prominent, early acharon, the Chacham Tzvi (Shu”t Chacham Tzvi #83). To quote him: “That which you asked me: One who sends away both the mother and the offspring, did he fulfill the mitzvah of shiluach hakein? Do we say that the words of the Torah, send away the mother and keep the young, must be fulfilled literally to fulfill the mitzvah, or not? You wrote me that the great scholars of Lublin were uncertain about this.”
The Chacham Tzvi rallies source material from the Gemara that the mitzvah is to send away the mother, and one fulfills the mitzvah, even if one does not take the young. Therefore, taking the young is not a requirement for the fulfillment of the mitzvah, but presents an option for the individual performing the mitzvah. He compares this to the words of the Torah, “Six days shall you work, and do all your melacha.” Clearly, the Torah is not requiring one to work, but limiting one’s work time to six days of the seven-day week. Similarly, shiluach hakein should be understood that should you want to take the young, you may do so only after sending away the mother, but there is no requirement to take the young. Put in other terms, sending away the mother is a matir that permits taking the young, similar to shechitah being the matir permitting one to consume the meat. Just as shechitah does not require that someone eat the meat, so too, it is not required to take the young, and one fulfills the mitzvah without taking them.
Other acharonim disagree, demonstrating from the Zohar that one is supposed to take the offspring (Beis Lechem Yehudah). The Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh Deah 292:3-4) concludes, like the Chacham Tzvi, that there is no requirement to take the offspring. Nevertheless, since the posuk implies that one should, and there is evidence of this approach from some rishonim, the Aruch Hashulchan concludes that the proper approach is to make a kinyan on the young, such as by lifting them up. Furthermore, he notes that, according to the reason for the mitzvah of shiluach hakein proposed by many early authorities, which I hope to discuss in a future article, one should take the young.
The mitzvah we have just studied teaches that although we may eat kosher birds, we are prohibited to take a mother bird when she is in her nest tending to her young. In explanation of the reason for this mitzvah, Rav Hirsch sees a lesson to be learned regarding the sacred role of motherhood. To quote him: “The respect that a nation accords to the woman’s calling is a reliable barometer of that nation’s moral level… the paramount importance the Torah attaches to the woman’s activities… traces even into the sphere of animal life. It assures protection for a mother bird while she is engaged in her activity as a mother and it demands that everyone… should demonstrate through his actions this appreciation of the female as she carries out her task.”