Question: What is the reason for the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKein?

Short Answer: Multiple reasons are suggested, including no reason at all.



I. The Source

The p’sukim in Parshas Ki Seitzei (D’varim 22:6-7) detail the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKein, the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs.

The Mishnah (on B’rachos 33b and Megillah 25a) states that we silence anyone who says that Hashem has mercy on a nest of birds. The Mishnah is referring to the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKein. The Gemara questions this halachah, as it appears strange that praising Hashem is viewed as a negative. The Gemara answers by providing two separate reasons why it is a negative to praise Hashem in this fashion. First, noting that Hashem has mercy on birds will arouse jealousy in the other animals, as there is no corollary obligation with respect to taking the eggs or mother of other animals. Second, because praising Hashem’s mercy through this mitzvah implies that the reason for Shiluach HaKein (as well as other mitzvos) is based on mercy; in truth, it is merely a “g’zeiras haMelech” – an edict from Hashem.

At first glance, it appears that the two different answers of the Gemara debate whether there is a reason – mercy of Hashem – behind the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKein. According to the first answer, Shiluach HaKein is based on mercy, but we just shouldn’t mention this mercy because it arouses jealousy. According to the second answer, there is no reason for the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKein.


II. The Reasons

Yet, numerous Rishonim actually do provide reasons for the mitzvah.

First, Rabbeinu Bachya (D’varim, cited in Shalei’ach T’shalach, Rav Naftali Weinberger, p. 167) writes that Shiluach HaKein is meant to preserve birds for human consumption. In other words, if we were allowed to take/destroy a mother bird and its eggs, we would end up destroying the species, leaving us without birds to eat. This is different from the allowance to slaughter meat, as slaughter has a purpose – to allow us to eat. Indeed, the sefer Shalei’ach T’shalach notes that the Ramban, Sefer HaChinuch, and Ralbag give a similar reason.

Second, the Rambam (Moreh N’vuchim, 3:48) writes that the mitzvah is based on Hashem’s mercy for birds and all creatures. We don’t want the mother bird to be sad that her children are being taken in front of her very eyes. The Rambam then addresses the obvious question on his explanation. Doesn’t the Gemara (B’rachos/Megillah ibid) write that there is no reason for this mitzvah? The Rambam answers that there are two schools of thought as to whether there are logical reasons for mitzvos. The Rambam writes that the Gemara holds like the school of thought that there is no reason for this mitzvah. We pasken, however, like the other school of thought, that there are reasons for the mitzvos and specifically Shiluach HaKein. This author presumes that the two schools of thought are the two opinions in the Gemara, as indicated above, although the Rambam does not expressly connect these two schools of thought to the two opinions/answers in the Gemara.

However, there seemingly still is a contradiction within the Rambam. The Rambam (Hilchos T’filah 9:7) is clear that we silence someone who says in davening that Hashem has mercy on birds and thus should have mercy on us. The mitzvos have no reasons but are merely edicts from Hashem. This contradicts the Rambam’s words in Moreh N’vuchim. The sefer Shalei’ach T’shalach cites the P’nei Adamah who answers (based on the Tosfos Yom Tov) that the entire prohibition of the Gemara is to mention Hashem’s mercy for birds IN DAVENING. However, certainly there is a reason for the mitzvah. Indeed, Rashi (B’rachos ibid) implies, as well, that it is only prohibited during davening.

Third, the Ramban (Ki Seitzei) suggests another reason. Shiluach HaKein is meant to teach us to be caring individuals. We must have rachamanus on all creatures so that we instill in ourselves proper midos. Accordingly, there is no reason for the mitzvos, and for why Hashem cares about the birds; but rather, all the mitzvos are edicts designed to instill in us proper midos.

Fourth, Rabbeinu Bachya provides another reason, based on the Zohar. By sending away the mother bird, we cause tremendous anguish to the mother and thereby cause her “sar” (representative mal’ach) to cry out to Hashem. Hashem in turn responds with mercy to all people suffering, especially the B’nei Yisrael. The sefer Shalei’ach T’shalach notes that the Chavos Yair proves from this reason that there is an active obligation on a person who sees a nest to send the mother away, as this invokes Hashem’s mercy on the B’nei Yisrael. Rav Eliav Silverman (Meishiv Nefesh 2:228-229) further suggests that this reason holds that Shalei’ach T’shalach is an active positive commandment and not simply a correction for the violation of the lav of “Lo Sikach.”

The sefer Shalei’ach T’shalach further notes that the Vilna Gaon (on Mishlei and in Imrei Noam) explains the Gemara (B’rachos/Megillah) accordingly, that Shiluach HaKein is not based on mercy but on cruelty! We must not only be merciful, but sometimes cruel, as well. He explains the pasuk by Akeidas Yitzchak (B’reishis 22:12) as well: “Atah yadati ki y’rei Elokim atah.” Didn’t Hashem know beforehand that Avraham was a tzadik based on all the chesed that Avraham performed? No, Avraham needed to display cruelty, as well, in order to “prove” that he was a complete tzadik.

The Y’aros Devash (D’rush 6, cited in Shalei’ach T’shalach) notes that this reason explains the Gemara (Chulin 140b) that there is no mitzvah of Shiluach HaKein on a mother bird whose babies are already bigger and grown. Since these babies eventually rebel and dislike their mother, the mother does not cry out when she is shooed away and the babies are taken. Because the mother will not cry out, and her mal’ach will not beseech Hashem for mercy, there is no reason to send her away. Similarly, the sefer Ohalei Yaakov (D’varim, p. 375) notes that according to this reason there is no mitzvah if you take both the mother bird and the babies, which itself is a discussion in the poskim.

Fifth, the sefer Shalei’ach T’shalach cites the Oznayim LaTorah, Chasam Sofer, and others who offer a novel reason based on the words of the pasuk “ha’eim rovetzes” – that the mother bird crouches on her babies. The mother bird, of course, has the ability to escape capture but chooses to perform a heroic act of staying with her babies even if that means she could be hurt/killed by the person trying to take them. Accordingly, we must not take the eggs in front of the mother and take advantage of her heroic act. While humans have permission to trap animals normally, we must not exploit their merciful tendencies.

There is a great story about Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld zt”l (cited in sefer Shalei’ach T’shalach) connected to this reason. There was once a great tzadik in Yerushalayim around the turn of the 19th century who had a son who went off the derech. The tzadik, however, continued to love and support his son. The people in the tzadik’s town began berating the tzadik because of his son’s behavior and because the tzadik remained close to his son. When Rav Sonnenfeld heard about the people’s behavior, he chastised them. He remarked that the reason for Shiluach HaKein is that we may not exploit a parent’s mercy for his or her child. Of course the mother could fly away, but she chooses to stay with her babies no matter what. She thus needs to be shooed away and not captured. So, too, with this tzadik: He may not be exploited because of his love for his son.

Rabbi Ephraim Glatt, Esq.  is the Associate Rabbi at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, and he is a Partner at McGrail & Bensinger LLP, specializing in commercial litigation. Questions? Comments? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.