Parshat Ki Tetze


Rabbi Bernard Fox


“You must first send away the mother and then you may take the young.  This is order that you have it good and will live long.” ( Devarim 22:7)

This passage commands us to send away the mother bird before removing the eggs or chicks from the nest.  In other words, we are not permitted to capture the mother bird with her chicks or eggs.  First, we must send away the mother and then, we can take the eggs or chicks from the nest.

The Torah does not provide any explanation or rational for this commandment.  However, the commentaries discuss the extensively the reason for this mitzvah and offer a number of suggestions.  Maimonides suggests that the mitzvah is designed to reinforce our sense of compassion.  He explains that the anguish that the mother bird experiences at seeing her nest raided is similar to the feeling a human mother experiences over the loss of a child.    We are commanded to send away the mother and spare her this anguish.  We are required to act with sensitivity and compassionate even in our treatment of animals.  If we follow this practice, this sensitivity and compassion will – hopefully – find expression in our relationships with other human beings.  The converse is also true.  If we treat animals with cruelty, this callousness will be expressed in insensitivity in our treatment of human beings.[1]

Nachmanides offers an alternative explanation for the requirement to send away the mother bird.  He suggests that the commandment is designed to assure the maintenance of the species.  We are permitted to take the eggs or the chicks for our use.  But we must spare the mother.  We must allow some members of this “family” to survive.  We cannot wipe-out the entire unit.  Our authority to harvest the birds and animals of the world for our own use is moderated by this commandment.  This helps assure the survival of some members of the species that can continue to procreate.[2]

Why is the survival of each species important?  Sefer HaChinuch expands on Nachmanides’ explanation.  He explains that Hashem created our world with its variety of species.  It is His will that His creations – the species – survive.  Sefer HaChinuch asserts that Hashem’s divine providence does not just extend to human beings.  It also extends to each species.  Of course, there providence that human beings experience is far more extensive and detailed that the providence experienced by animals.  But Hashem does extend His providence over animals to the extent of assuring that each species survives.

We are required to serve Hashem.  We serve Him by conforming to His will.  Therefore, we must take care to not endanger the survival of any species.  If we are not conscientious in these efforts or if we endanger a species’ survival, we are demonstrating disregard for Hashem’s will.[3]

Of course, it is tempting to treat Nachmanides’ and Sefer HaChinuch’s perspective as an endorsement of modern environmental and ecological efforts to save various species from extinction.  However, this is not completely appropriate.  It is important to recognize that modern science has developed an elaborate system for the classification of species.  Even two creatures that seem essentially identical may be identified as separate species.  Our modern efforts to battle the extinction of species are designed to save as many species as possible irregardless of the existence of similar species that are not threatened.  No one would suggest that we should allow the bald eagle to slip into oblivion because there are so many other species of eagles that are not threatened.  But it is not clear that Nachmanides and Sefer HaChinuch would accept our modern classifications of animals into a vast array of difference species.  It is likely that the Torah would define species more broadly.  In other words, many of the similar animal groups that modern classification recognizes as separate species, the Torah might consider as included in a single species.  It is not clear that the Torah would regard the bald eagle as a separate and distinct species.  So, it may not be appropriate to recruit Nachmanides and Sefer HaChinuch to participate in our modern ecological and environmental campaigns.

All of these authorities are concerned with an interesting teaching in the Talmud.  The Talmud teaches that a person should not pray to Hashem to be merciful towards us just as His mercy extends to the birds.  The Talmud explains that this prayer implies that Hashem commands us to spare the mother bird as an expression of His compassion.  Instead, we should regard his commandments as decrees and not attribute them to His mercy.[4]

This teaching seems to imply that we should treat the commandments as decrees from Hashem.  A decree is an imperative that is followed without question or analysis.  In comparing the Torah’s commandments to decrees, the Talmud seems to imply that we should regard their reasons and rational as inscrutable or irrelevant.  We should refrain from attempting to explain the commandments.  In fact, any attempt to explain the significance of a commandment is inappropriate and implies a lack of devotion. 

It is interesting that Maimonides actually accepts this interpretation of this teaching from the Talmud.  He explains that this teaching reflects the opinion of those Sages who regarded the commandments as expressions of the divine will.  According to these Sages, it is not appropriate to seek explanations for the commandments or to attribute reasons to them.  The commandments are decrees to be followed without any thought regarding theirs purposes or objectives.  However, Maimonides explains that this is not the position that is prevalent among the Sages.  Therefore, Maimonides concludes that it is appropriate to suggest explanations for the commandments.[5]

Nachmanides rejects Maimonides’ understanding of this teaching.  Nachmanides insists that this teaching is not intended to imply that the commandments do not have reasons or that it is inappropriate to seek these reasons.  Instead, the teaching is dealing with a completely different issue.  We are not permitted to attribute Hashem’s mitzvah to send away the mother bird to His compassion for the bird.  Hashem is not compassionate toward birds!  He gave us the authority to use animals for our needs.  We are permitted to slaughter animals.  Any compassion that we are commanded to show towards animals is not required out of consideration for these animals.  Instead, this commandment – like all others – is designed to benefit humanity.  It is either designed to teach us compassion – as suggested by Maimonides or to preserve the species that Hashem created.  Both of these possible lessons are important for human beings. 

However, Nachmanides notes that the Sages do state that the commandments are designed to “purify” us.  Nachmanides acknowledges that one might interpret this statements to mean that the commandments do not have specific reasons or rational.  Instead, we are commanded to observe the mitzvot as an expression of obedience to Hashem.  The commandments “purify” us in the sense that they help us overcome our willfulness and self-centeredness.  They train us to serve Hashem and to be faithful to His will.

Nachmanides rejects this interpretation of the Sages’ comments.  He suggests that the Sages were attempting to communicate a far more profound idea. 

We are required to serve Hashem.  It is reasonable that we will compare our relationship to Hashem to the relationship that exists between and servant and master.  In the servant/ master relationship, the servant serves the master.  But the master needs and benefits from the service of the servant.  If we understand our relationship to Hashem to be akin to this relationship, we will serve Hashem but we will also conclude that Hashem needs or benefits from our service.  The Sages were eager to teach us that the commandments were not given by Hashem because He needs our service.  Hashem is perfect and complete in every way.  He does not benefit from our service neither is he harmed by our disobedience.  But he commanded us to observe His mitzvot in order that we should benefit. 

This is completely consistent with Nachmanides understanding of the mitzvot.  Each has a reason and rational.  Each is designed to benefit us in some way.  The specific purpose of a mitzvah may not be specified by the Torah or at all obvious. Nonetheless, we can be sure that the commandment is designed to “purify” us – to benefit us is some way.[6]

Sefer HaChinuch discusses these comments of Maimonides and Nachmanides.  He explains that it is his practice to offer some explanation for each commandment.  He recognizes that this practice can be criticized.  It assumes that the commandments have reasons and rational.  But Sefer HaChinuch explains that he feels that it is appropriate for him to make this assumption.  Maimonides and Nachmanides – two of our greatest scholars – both agree that each commandment has a purpose and reason.  He asserts that he certainly has the right to rely on the authority of these two giants.[7]












[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 48.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 22:6.

[3] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 545.

[4] Mesechet Berachot 33b.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 48.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 22:6.

[7] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 545.