Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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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. (Deut. 22:6-7)
It is interesting and perhaps somewhat strange that this commandment, seemingly clear and easy to understand and referred to in the Mishnah as "so light a command that it is merely an issar's value" (Hullin 12, 5), occupied the Sages at length, from the time of the tannaim on. The discussion of this commandment extended beyond purely halakhic issues of how exactly to perform it to issues of philosophy and faith. For example:
1. According to one opinion in the Talmud (Hullin 141a), this commandment led Elisha ben Abuya to apostasy.
2. R. Jacob used this commandment to prove that there is no reward for good deeds in this world, only in the world to come (loc. sit.).
The Sages were concerned most of all with the Mishnah's statement (Berakhot 5, 3; cf. Megillah 4, 9) that one must not say the reason for this commandment is the Lord's mercifulness: "One who says, 'as far as the nest of a bird does Your mercy reach,' or 'for favors let Your Name be remembered,' or 'we give thanks, we give thanks,' must be silenced."
What is wrong with saying that the Holy One, blessed be He, is merciful over His creatures? Do we not repeat the words of the psalmist, "His mercy is upon all His works " (Ps. 145:9) three times a day, constantly reiterating that the Lord is a gracious and merciful G-d?
Discussion of this point goes back to the Talmud (Berakhot 33b):
Why is a person who says "we give thanks, we give thanks," silenced? Because it appears that he is worshipping a dual deity. Why [is he silenced for saying] "for favors let Your Name be remembered"? This means for the good but not for the bad, but we are taught that a person most bless the Lord in misfortune equally as in good times. But what is the reason regarding "as far as the nest of a bird does Your mercy reach"? Two amoraim from the land of Israel – Rabbi Jose bar Avin and Rabbi Jose bar Zbeida – disagreed on this point. One said because it lead to jealousy of the act of Creation; the other said because it states that the characteristic of the Holy One, blessed be He, is mercy when it is none other than issuing verdicts. Once someone came to pray before Rabbah and said, "You had compassion for a bird's nest; show compassion and have mercy on us." Rabbah said, "Look how this Sage knows to please his Master!" Abaye said to him, "But we are taught to silence such a person." Rabbah only wanted to quiz Abaye.
Note that while amoraim from the land of Israel explained why one should not credit the Lord's mercy for the commandment to let the mother bird go, the Babylonian amora Rabbah praised a Sage for pleading that the Lord have mercy on us as He has mercy on a bird's nest. The gemara's explanation that Rabbah was only testing Abaye seems far-fetched. It is hard to know whether Rabbah was really testing his disciple Abaye or whether he actually thought that this commandment lent expression to the Lord's mercy, and the gemara's reaction was added later, after Rabbah's time, in order to reconcile the contradiction between his words and the Mishnah.
Midrashic literature also contains passages that view the commandment to send off the mother bird as an expression of the Lord's mercy. For example, see Deuteronomy Rabbah (Vilna ed.), ch. 6, s.v. ki tetze:
Why is an infant circumcised at eight days? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, had compassion on him, waiting until the child was strong. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, has compassion on human beings, so too He has compassion on animals. Whence do we know this? As it is said, "and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable..." (Lev. 22:27). Moreover, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, "no animal ... shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young" (Lev. 22:28). Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, extended his compassion over the beasts, so too He was moved by compassion for the birds. Whence do we know this? As it is said, "If, along the road, you chance upon a bird's nest."
A similar notion is reflected in Leviticus Rabbah (Margaliyot ed.), ch. 27.11, s.v. ve-shor:
Rabbi Berakhyah said in the name of Rabbi Levi: It is written, "A righteous man knows the needs of his beast" (Prov. 12:10). "A righteous man" – this is the Holy One, blessed be He, for it is written in His Torah, "do not take the mother together with her young" (Deut. 22:6). "But the compassion of the wicked is cruelty" (Prov. 12:10) – this is the wicked Sennacherib, for it is written of him, "mothers and babes were dashed to death together" (Hos. 10:14). Another interpretation: "A righteous man knows the needs of his beast" – this is the Holy One, blessed be He, for it is written in His Torah, "However, no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young" (Lev. 22:28). "But the compassion of the wicked is cruelty" – this is the wicked Haman, for it is written of him, "to destroy, massacre, and exterminate..." (Esther 3:13).
Many commentators have grappled with this contradiction. Rashi, in his commentary on Berakhot 33b, offers a simple explanation:
One who says in his prayers, "over the nest of a bird does Your mercy extend" – this refers to people who make themselves appear ultra-sincere in their pleading, saying: You are merciful and gracious, Your mercy extending to the nest of a bird, for You instructed us to send off the mother; or one who says, "for favors let Your Name be remembered; or one who says: "we give thanks, we give thanks" – all these are silenced.
According to Rashi, the prohibition only applies to petitioning G-d in our prayers to have mercy over us as He has over the nest of a bird, but as a general explanation it is apparently permitted. Thus there is no contradiction between the Mishnah and the midrash, since the Mishnah refers to prayer whereas the midrashim concern general explanations.
Maimonides writes in Guide for the Perplexed (Part III, ch. 48):
He also forbade slaughtering an animal and its young on the same day, to take care to avoid slaughtering the young before its mother's eyes, for the distress caused animals thereby is great; there is no difference between the distress felt by human beings and the distress of other creatures, for a mother's love and compassion for the fruit of her womb is not guided by the intellect but by the power of imagination, which exists equally in most animals as in humans. This law applied specifically to animals from the herd and the flock because they are permitted to us as food ... and among them the mother recognizes her own young. This is also the reason for sending away the mother bird from the next, for the eggs on which the mother nests and the fledglings that need their mother are not generally fit for food; and when a person sends off the mother and she goes away, she will not be distressed at seeing her young taken. For the most part there will be reason to leave everything, since that which would be taken in most instances is not fit to be eaten. If the Torah takes pity on the suffering of animals and birds, all the more so on human beings; and you cannot challenge me by arguing, "as far as the nest of a bird does Your mercy reach," because that argument is founded on one of the two views which we mentioned, i.e., the approach of those who believe there is no explanation for the commandments of the Torah save for the will of G-d alone; but we are inclined to follow the other view.
Maimonides mentions two approaches: one, that reasons for the commandments should not be given; the other, that reasons for the commandments can and even should be given. The Mishnah forbids saying, "as far as the nest of a bird does Your mercy reach," and the explanations for this that are given by the two amoraim the land of Israel follow the first approach, that one is not to give reasons for the commandments. Maimonides, on the other hand, advocates the second approach, that one should explain the reasons for the commandments.
Indeed, Maimonides remarks in his commentary on the Mishnah as follows:
The issue of saying, "as far as the nest of a bird does Your mercy reach," concerns the notion that just as G-d has compassion on the nest of a bird, instructing us not to take the mother with her young, so too, He should have compassion on us. One who says this is to be silenced, since he is saying that the reason for this commandment is the Lord's mercy on birds. But this is not so, for were it a matter of mercy, He would not have allowed slaughtering animals at all; rather, this is a commandment of obedience without a reason.
In his commentary on the Mishnah then, Maimonides understands the mishnah at face value, following the tanna who maintained that one is not to give reasons for the commandments; in his Guide for the Perplexed he gives reasons for the commandments, following the second approach. Accordingly, one should not even inquire into the contradiction between the Mishnah and the Midrash, for the Mishnah reflects one approach, and the Midrash, the other.
Nahmanides generally accepts Maimonides' approach. In his opinion, the Mishnah meant that one should not ascribe to the Holy One, blessed be He, human characteristics such as compassion, anger, etc. as reasons for the commandments. But of course the Lord implanted in His commandments proper and lofty traits, including that of mercy, so that we learn from them, become educated in their light, and make them part of ourselves.
We should like to attempt a different sort of explanation for the attention which this mitzvah has received in the rabbinic sources. The Mishnah, "One who says, 'Your mercy extends to the nest of a bird,'... is silenced," has been seen as reflecting the Sages' polemics against Christian notions.
Because of internal and external censorship, expunging and changing anything in the literature that related to Jesus, Christians and gentiles, the original intent of the Mishnah cannot be clearly fathomed. Nevertheless, some signs remain indicating that this mishnah was taught in the context of the polemic against Christian ideas that were gaining hold among the Jews after the destruction of the Temple. To wit:
1. Megillah 4, 9 begins: "If one say, 'The good (tovim) shall bless Thee' – this is heretical practice." This first sentence does not appear in the parallel mishnah in the printed edition of Tractate Berakhot, but does appear in the versions of R. Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi and of R. Asher ben Jehiel. Likewise, in the Talmud (Berakhot 34a) this line appears in parentheses. The term "heretical" (heb. minnut) is generally known to refer to the Christians.
2. Berakhot 5, 3 [9c] in the Jerusalem Talmud reads: "Over the nest of a bird Your mercy extended, but over that man Your mercy did not extend." "That man" generally means Jesus.
Thus we can assume that the ruling, "If one say, 'The good [in Heb. a plural noun] shall bless Thee' – this is heretical practice," was aimed at the Christian way which, as we know, was based on worshipping the trinity. Also, when a person said "we give thanks, we give thanks," this was viewed as worshipping two authorities and therefore such persons were silenced. As for the nest of a bird, the Christians perceived a Christological reference to the mother and the son: "Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life." Therefore, a person who said, "over the nest of a bird Your mercy extends," or "for favors let Your Name be remembered," or "we give thanks, we give thanks," would be silenced.
In the mishnaic period (Jabneh) in the land of Israel, when the fight against Christian ideas was at its peak, it was ruled that one must not say, "Your mercy extends," etc. Therefore the amoraim of the land of Israel, who lived at a time when Christianity was becoming the state religion, accepted and explained the position taken by the Mishnah. In Babylonia, on the other hand, where there were no Christians, Rabbah could praise the Sage who said in his prayers, "You had mercy on the nest of a bird; please have mercy and compassion on us."
The Christians maintained as well that the destruction of the Temple and the difficult condition of the Jews were punishment for not believing in Jesus, since reward and punishment are meted out in this world, as proven by the commandment to send off the mother bird: "in order that you may fare well and have a long life." Therefore, Rabbi Jacob (an amora from the land of Israel) pointedly used this verse to prove that reward for obeying G-d's commandments is only given in the world to come. The view presented in the Talmud, that this commandment led Elisha ben Abuya to apostasy, also shows that this commandment and the reward it promises stood at the focal point of the debate between various sects during these years. This may also account for the great concern of the Sages with this commandment.
 Hullin 139a-b.
 Also see: Leviticus Rabbah (Vilna 27, 11); Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (Mandelbaum) 9, 11; Tanhuma Emor 13.13; Tanhuma Buber Emor 18.18, and others.
 Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, ch. 26 and ch. 31.
 There are many examples of the Sages fighting against Christian ideas. For example, the benediction about minim in the Amidah prayer (see Berakhot 28b and the discussion of this question in Yehezkel Luger, Tefilat ha-Amidah le-Hol le-Fi ha-Genizah ha-Cahirit, doctoral dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 1992). Another example of this polemic is the deletion of the Ten Commandments from the recitation of Shema (see Berakhot 12a and Rashi's commentary there; also see the Vitri Mahzor, par. 16).
 Generally anything associated with Jesus and the Christians was totally expunged. Every place where goy or goyim had been written was changed to akum (star-worshippers) or kuti or even Sadducees.
 Albeit after "one who says 'over the nest of a bird...'," but this is clearly a printer's error. Also see the remark, loc. sit., of mesoret ha-Shas.
 Often the texts contain errors due to censorship. Also see the version of R. Asher ben Jehiel in our editions, where the word minim (heretics) is replaced by Sadducees.
 See H. Albeck, Mavo La-Talmudim, under R. Jacob.