The mitzvah of shiluach haken, sending away the mother-bird before taking her chicks or eggs, is a mitzvah that has a special status in the popular mind. Although it is rarely performed, many seek it out for its segulah, the blessing associated with the mitzvah.
But although an enthusiasm for performing any mitzvah is surely commendable, the fervor can be wasted if a person is unfamiliar with the details of the mitzvah—including not only how to perform it, but also under which circumstances the performance is appropriate.
In the present article we will discuss the details of the Torah mitzvah of shiluach haken. When is there an obligation to fulfill the mitzvah? Can it be fulfilled even when there is no obligation? What are the reasons for this enigmatic mitzvah? And which birds and nests are appropriate for the mitzvah?
These questions, and others, are discussed below.
The Basic Mitzvah and its Purpose
The Torah tells us: “If a bird’s nest chances before you—on the way, on any tree, or on the land—chicks or eggs; and the mother is roosting upon the chicks or on the eggs—you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall send away the mother and take the young for yourself, so that it will be good for you and will prolong your days” (Devarim 22:6-7).
The basic Torah mitzvah is therefore that when we wish to take chicks or eggs, we must not take the mother-bird together with its young. Rather, the mother-bird must first be sent away, before the chicks or young are taken.
The purpose of the mitzvah seems to be to ensure humane behavior. It is permitted to utilize other creatures, but it is forbidden to cause undue pain or suffering in the process.
Thus, the Rashbam (commentary to Devarim 22) points out two other mitzvos that guide us in a similar direction: the prohibition against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk (Shemos 23:19) and the prohibition against slaughtering a cow and its offspring on the same day (Vayikra 22:28). In these three cases, the Torah is concerned with the special bond between animals and their young, and commands us to respect it and refrain from causing animals to suffer.
The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:48) also writes that by sending away the mother bird “she is spared the pain of losing her offspring.”
Not Compassion Alone
The Mishnah (Berachos 33b) writes that we must not pray to Hashem that, “He should be compassionate upon the bird’s nest” (meaning, that Hashem should likewise be compassionate with us). The Gemara explains that doing so gives the impression that the Divine mitzvah is an act of compassion, whereas in fact, the mitzvah is a Divine decree—not merely an act of compassion.
The Rambam explains the Mishnah that we do not know the reason for mitzvos, and must accept them as Divine decrees, without imposing our own understanding on them. This does not seem to square with the interpretation he gives in Moreh Nevuchim, noted above.
The Tosafos Yom Tov (Berachos 5:3) softens the contradiction by explaining that although compassion is a partial reason for the mitzvah, we should not consider it as the sole reason. In reality there are many reasons for every mitzvah, so that limiting a mitzvah to our own understanding- compassion—is therefore wrong.
Based on the Mishnah, the Ramban (commentary to Devarim 22) writes that the motive for the mitzvah is not compassion for the mother bird per se. Human needs override those of animals. As the Rambam and other commentaries note, there is no prohibition against animal slaughter out of compassion. Rather, the Torah wishes to train us in compassion, and the mitzvah serves to instill this virtue in our hearts.
Sefer Hachinuch (545) suggests that the basic reason for the mitzvah is not compassion for the mother bird—as Chazal note—but rather concern for the species. Taking the mother and the offspring together is an act that represents the destruction of a species. By sending away the mother bird, we express our concern for the longevity of Hashem’s world, including each and every species.
It is interesting to note that according to the Zohar (Zohar Chadash Rus p. 94; Tikunei Zohar 6, p. 23a, cited in Rabbeinu Bachya) sending away the mother bird actually causes her distress, rather than alleviating her suffering. The Zohar explains that the bird’s calls of distress elicit Hashem’s compassion, and He therefore shows compassion upon the Jewish People and delivers them from strife.
Reward for The Mitzvah
The Torah promises a special reward for the mitzvah: “ …so that it will be good for you and will prolong your days.” Rashi comments that shiluach haken is a relatively easy mitzvah to perform, involving little effort or cost. If the Torah promises a reward of goodness and long life for its performance, we can infer that the reward for more difficult mitzvos will be still greater.
The Torah refers to the reward of the mitzvah as prolonging one’s days, but the Gemara (Kiddushin 39b) cites Rabbi Yaakov, who interpreted this to mean goodness and longevity of days in the World to Come. This was Rabbi Yaakov’s way of resolving a case in which somebody performed the mitzvah of shiluach haken, as requested by his father—thus also fulfilling another mitzvah for which the Torah promises length of days—yet fell from the tree to an untimely death. His “length of days,” Rabbi Yaakov explained, was fulfilled in the World to Come.
The mitzvah of shiluach haken is especially popular because of its segula for having children, which is mentioned by several midrashim (see Midrash Rabba, Ki Teitzei 6:6; Yalkut Shimoni 930). The Chinuch explains that since a person is careful to preserve the species of the world, Hashem bestows upon him the blessing of children.
Another Midrash (Tanchuma, Ki Teitzei 1) notes that the mitzvah is also a segula for getting married and for acquiring a new house.
Seeking Out Nests
The Gemara (Chullin 139b) cites a baraisa which states that there is no obligation to seek out nests in the hills and mountains to perform the mitzvah with. Rather, the mitzvah applies specifically when a person chances upon a nest.
Although the Rambam (Shechita, Chap. 13) does not mention this ruling, it is noted by the Rif and the Rosh, and also by the Semag and the Chinuch. In the words of the Meiri (commentary to Chullin 139), “This is not a mitzvah that one must seek to perform, meaning that if one finds a nest one should take the infants in order to perform the mitzvah, or that one should search for nests in the hills and the mountains, but rather applies when it chances upon him.”
Shut Torah Lishma (no. 277) explains that although this is a very elevated mitzvah, and based on midrashim the coming redemption depends on its fulfillment, the wise do not chase after its performance. Those who do so, he writes, searching after nests in the hills and the mountains, do contrary to the Sages’ instruction.
The Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh De’ah 292:1) disagrees with this approach, writing that, while there is no obligation to do so, “it is certainly a great matter to achieve this mitzvah.” The same idea is cited by the Birchei Yosef, citing the Arizal. The Beis Lechem Yehuda (Yoreh De’ah 292) also implies, based on the Zohar, that there is a mitzvah to seek out a nest in order to perform the mitzvah.
Do You Want an Omelet?
If one does chance upon a bird’s nest, is there an obligation to fulfill the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird, or does this depend on a person’s desire to take the eggs or the chicks? In other words, what is the status of somebody, as is usually the case today, who has no interest in eggs or chicks—does he still have a mitzvah of sending away the mother bird?
This question is addressed by Shut Chavas Yair (no. 67), who writes that there is a concrete obligation to send away the mother bird when a person chances upon a nest, and this obligation is irrespective of his desire for the chicks or eggs. The Chavas Yair also notes the above teaching of the Zohar as a reason why the matter is obligatory. His ruling is cited by Rabbi Akiva Eiger (annotations to Yoreh De’ah 292) and by the Pischei Teshuva (292:1).
A similar ruling is given by Shut Chacham Tzvi (no. 83). However, the Chacham Tzvi adds that taking the offspring or the eggs in not even part of the mitzvah but is rather optional. Unlike the Chacham Tzvi, the Chavas Yair maintains that one does not perform the mitzvah unless the chicks or eggs are actually taken, and that if one does not take them the mitzvah is not fulfilled.
The Aruch Hashulchan (292:4) mentions both opinions, and after bringing several possible proofs from the Gemara and the Rambam, he does not decide between them. Certainly, it is best to take the chicks or the eggs, to make sure that one fulfills the mitzvah. Although the eggs are small, they may be prepared and eaten just as chicken eggs.
By contrast with the opinions noted above, the Chasam Sofer (Orach Chaim no. 100) writes at length that when a person does not want the chicks or the eggs, there is no mitzvah at all to send away the mother bird (this also emerges from the above-cited Meiri).
Citing the Ramban (and based on the rationale given by the Rambam), the Chasam Sofer writes further than if a person has no interest in the chicks or the eggs, not only is there no mitzvah to send away the mother bird, but doing so is an act of cruelty and a possible violation of the Torah law of cruelty to animals.
He concludes that the mitzvah to send away the mother-bird only applies when a person has an active interest in chicks or eggs, but does not apply when there is no such interest. This is also ruled by the Chazon Ish (Yoreh De’ah 175:2) and by Shut Mishnah Halachos (Vol. 12, no. 223).
The Chasam Sofer notes that in this matter, our Gemara does not rule in accordance with the teaching of the Zohar. The custom of many, however, perhaps because of the special blessing associated with the mitzvah, is to follow the Zohar, based on the rulings of the Chavas Yair, Aruch Hashulchan, and others (see also Pischei Teshuva, 292:1, who writes that shiluach haken is a mitzvah kiyumis, similar to wearing a garment with tzitzis).
Details of the Mitzvah
The mitzvah of sending away the mother bird includes many halachic details, which one must know to carry out the mitzvah properly. The following is a short summary:
- Only kosher birds are appropriate for the mitzvah. One may use birds concerning which we have a concrete tradition (pigeons, doves, geese, ducks) and even birds that exhibit kosher signs, even though they lack a tradition that would permit their consumption (sparrows, robins, cardinals, orioles). See Shut Minchas Elazar (Vol. 3, no. 43).
- The mitzvah is fulfilled only when the mother bird is roosting. It is difficult for a lay person to distinguish between the mother bird and the father bird, who also It can be generally assumed that the mother bird roosts at night, so that the mitzvah should be fulfilled at night.
- The mitzvah cannot be fulfilled on a kan mezuman, a “prepared nest” (Chullin138b; Shulchan Aruch 292:2). According to some authorities, the mitzvah thus applies only to nests in public places, which are not privately owned (Birchei Yosef 292:3; Minchas Shlomo 2:97:26; Chochmas Adam 105:3). However, most authorities agree that even when the nest is on private property, the owner can be mafkir the nest (render it ownerless by declaring it such in front of three men), and then perform the mitzvah. Some add that since today nobody is interested in owning pigeon eggs, we consider nests to be ownerless (hefker) even without this formal measure (see, at length, Shut Moznei Tzedek). Some authorities recommend declaring all present and future nests on one’s property to be ownerless, in advance.
- Once chicks develop the capability to fly on the own, the mitzvah can no longer be fulfilled (Shulchan Aruch 292:7). This is usually approx. two weeks after hatching.
- Upon taking the eggs and/or chicks one must make a proper halachicacquisition (kinyan). They should therefore be lifted to a height of three tefachim (approx. 12 inches).
- Upon completion of the mitzvah, one may put back the eggs or chicks, and need not keep them. If they are declared hefker, ownerless, others will be able to perform the mitzvah if the mother bird returns to the nest.
- The mitzvah can be performed by men, women, and children. It may not be carried out on Shabbos or Yom Tov (see Chasam Sofer, Orach Chaim 100).
- The mother bird can be sent away by gently tapping a stick on the nest, or by clapping one’s hands. According to the Rambam (Shechita 13:4) it seems that one must take the mother bird in one’s hands and then send it away (see Aruch Hashulchan 292:6). This renders performance of the mitzvah very difficult, and it is not the common custom.
- No beracha is recited upon performing the mitzvah. See Pischei Teshuvah 292:2 for a discussion of the issue. One reason suggested by Shut Binyan Tzion Hachadashos(no. 14) is that we are concerned lest the mother bird fly away on its own before the mitzvah is fulfilled.
May the blessings associated with this unique mitzvah—both the personal blessings mentioned in the Pasuk, and the national blessings noted in Midrashim—be fulfilled upon us.