This week’s parsha contains one of the most interesting as well as most pondered mitzvos in the entirety of the Torah, namely, the mitzvah of shiluach ha’kein, or “sending away the mother bird.” While many would, of course, translate or explain the mitzvah as I just did, we shall herein examine the actual textual origins of the commandment, and propose a fascinating and unique approach to understanding this commandment.
Little known to most, the Torah actually presents the law of shiluach ha’kein as two separate commandments — both a positive and negative commandment. The positive commandment would seem to be obvious enough: send away the mother bird before taking of her eggs. What is the negative commandment associated with this mitzvah? This is less obvious. While you might think that there is a prohibition of taking the eggs while the mother is still present, that is not actually what it says in the Torah. Right before the mitzvah of sending away the mother prior to taking of her eggs is presented, the Torah first states something else rather strange for a mitzvah seemingly all about making sure a mother does not see her young being taken away:
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׃ שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת־הָאֵם וְאֶת־הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח־לָךְ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים׃
If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.
Before the formal mitzvah of shiluach ha’kein, the Torah first prohibits one from taking the mother bird along with her young. Who has ever heard the mitzvah of shiluach ha’kein described in this way?! And yet, there it is, plain as day in the text of the Torah. Abarbanel takes note of this and directs our attention to a prohibition the Torah lays down just a few chapters before ours:
כִּי־תָצוּר אֶל־עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ לֹא־תַשְׁחִית אֶת־עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו גַּרְזֶן כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ תֹאכֵל וְאֹתוֹ לֹא תִכְרֹת כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר׃ רַק עֵץ אֲשֶׁר־תֵּדַע כִּי־לֹא־עֵץ מַאֲכָל הוּא אֹתוֹ תַשְׁחִית וְכָרָתָּ וּבָנִיתָ מָצוֹר עַל־הָעִיר אֲשֶׁר־הִוא עֹשָׂה עִמְּךָ מִלְחָמָה עַד רִדְתָּהּ׃
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.
The Torah prohibits cutting down fruit-bearing trees — even while at war — as it is wasteful and disrespectful (Mishneh Torah Hilchos Melachim 6:8-9). This, Abarbanel explains, is in essence the same mitzvah as shiluach ha’kein. According to Abarbanel, the mitzvah is not about showing compassion for the mother bird (for more on this, see our “Fundamentals” series on Ta’amei Ha’Mitzvos), but about the general relationship between consumer and that which he or she is consuming.
Allow me to elaborate. Whatever one’s personal inclination, the Torah clearly gives humans license to consume meat. Further, whatever one’s political leanings, consumerism is undeniably affecting and slowly eating up the world (pun intended?). And it is these verses in the Torah that tell us that this is fundamentally wrong. We cannot kill the golden goose, as it were. We can take of a bird’s eggs for our own consumption, but we must remain respectful of the source of those very eggs. We are likewise prohibited from killing a fruit tree, a source of our food. We must instead be aware of and respect the maintenance and real hard work that goes into bringing us our food.
For Abarbanel (though most other commentators do notably take a very different, more classic approach), when the Torah promises “וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים,” or a long life, to anyone that fulfills the mitzvah of shiluach ha’kein, it is not some Divine reward assuring this person a 100th birthday party. Rather, it is an assurance of sustenance and substance for life. If we are respectful and aware of the source of our food, we will naturally make sure that it remains properly cared for and preserved. The Torah is here speaking a truth: he who is mindful of the source of his sustenance will surely live a long life.
This is a powerful and sorely needed message in modern society.
A general disdain and unawareness of where our food comes from — beyond the local supermarket or even our refrigerators — has left us completely disconnected from the actual source of our very sustenance. Our desire for our food is destroying the very food we so desire. It doesn’t have to be that way, though, and it is for this very reason, according to Abarbanel, that the Torah instructs us in the laws of shiluach ha’kein.