In scanning the Torah for mention of hunting animals, we find the practice attributed specifically to Esav, of whom the verse testifies: “Esav was a hunter, a man of the field” (Bereishis 25:27). This is contrasted in the pasuk with Yaakov, who was a “dweller of tents.”
It is doubtless permitted for a person to hunt and kill animals for consumption or other purposes, as the verse also states: “Every moving thing that lives shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things” (Bereishis 9:3).
The topic we will discuss below is hunting in Torah law. Hunting as a sport has become less fashionable, principally due to heightened awareness of the issue of cruelty to animals. Fishing still remains a popular pastime for those seeking a relaxing and soothing experience.
How does halachah consider these activities? Is there a difference between hunting and fishing? Does it permit hunting for sport, or does this run contrary to basic Jewish ethics? These issues are discussed below.
Killing Animals for Human Needs
As noted above, there is no question that it is permitted to kill animals for human uses such as meat consumption; indeed, the mitzvah of shechitah (ritual slaughter) guides us as to how animals must be killed to eat their meat. However, it is worth noting that even killing animals for human purposes is not free from moral consideration, as a number of sources indicate.
In the Torah itself we find that Adam – the first of men – was not permitted to consume meat. He was instructed to eat of “all the trees of the Garden” (Bereishis 2:16; see also Bereishis 1:29) – but not the meat of animals. Sefer Ha-Ikkarim (3:16) explains that Adam was not permitted to eat meat on account of the cruelty involved in killing animals. This practice was only permitted to Noach and his offspring, after the fall in morality in their generation affected all of life: “For all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the land” (Bereishis 6:11-12).
Yet, the continued prohibition against eating a limb from a live animal (ever min ha-chai), and the obligation of shechitah that minimizes the animal’s suffering, serve as a reminder of our consideration for animals.
Indeed, most authorities maintain that the prohibition against cruelty to animals – tzaar baalei chaim – is a Torah mandated prohibition. The Midrash (Shemos Rabba 2:2) even suggests that the reason why Moshe Rabbeinu was chosen as leader of the Jewish People was because of the deep compassion he showed for his sheep when he was a shepherd.
Congratulations for New Garments
In connection with the human approach to animals, it is worth noting the ruling of the Rema concerning congratulating somebody for his new clothes.
The Rema (Orach Chaim 223:6) writes that “it is customary to congratulate somebody who wears new clothes with the blessing: “You should wear them out and renew them.” He then adds, citing Rabbeinu Yerucham: “Some say that this expression should not be used for shoes or other items made of animal hides, because this implies that another animal will need to be killed so that another garment can be made – and the verse states: ‘His mercy is upon all creatures’ (Tehillim 145:9).”
This ruling is cited by the Noda Biyhuda (see below) in emphasizing the need for compassion towards animals. However, the Rema concludes: “Although this is a very weak reason, which does not seem right, nonetheless many are particular not to say it.”
Hunting as Sport
By tradition, hunting was never a typically Jewish practice. However, where we do find reference to hunting, it is exclusively in a negative light.
On the verse: “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers” (Psalms 1:1), the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 18b) cites the commentary of Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi: “Blessed is the one who does not walk – to the theaters and circuses of idolaters; or stand in the way that sinners take – he did not stand in kangion.” Rashi explains that this refers to “the hunting of animals by means of dogs, all for the sake of merriness and frivolity.”
The Rema (Orach Chiam 316:2), who mentions the practice with regard to Shabbos observance, adds that hunting might be forbidden even on weekdays, because of moshav letzim (following in the wake of the above Gemara). This would seem to indicate that beyond the negative element of frivolity involved, there is no inherent moral wrong in hunting.
However, by way of introduction we should note the warning of the Or Ha-Chaim Ha-Kadosh (Vayikra 17:11), that humanity was given permission to kill animals only for the sake of human consumption and use. Aside from this use of the animal world, it is forbidden to kill an animal.
Although this cannot serve as a sole reason for prohibiting hunting (as the Noda Biyhuda explains – see below), it remains a suitable warning against harming animals under inappropriate circumstances. The general nature of a hunting expedition, which sees an animal as the object of cruel sport rather than a human need, certainly brings the activity close to the prohibition noted by the Or Ha-Chaim.
Hunting in Responsa Literature
The question of hunting for sport in halachah was first raised in the seventeenth century, and its main occurrence in responsa literature is in the eighteenth century, when the social status of Jews in some parts of Europe rose and some became landowners. Halachic authorities generally prohibited hunting, for a variety of reasons.
Perhaps the first to address the issue was Rabbi Shaul Mortira (Givas Shaul, Vayeishev, p. 44a). He writes that the practice is forbidden on account of the cruelty involved: “Hunting… which involves letting dogs loose mercilessly on animals, trapping them and killing them, is forbidden according to our Torah, for it generates a cruel nature. So great is the prohibition, that the Torah instructs us to cover the blood of animals and fowl after their slaughter, as though innocent blood was spilled that must be covered.”
One of the leading Italian authorities of the eighteenth century, Rabbi Shimshon Morfogro (Shemesh Tzedakah, Yoreh De’ah no. 57), writes similarly, stating that hunting involves taking up the cruel manner of the wicked Esav. He adds that hunting also transgresses the prohibition of cruelty to animals, for the hunted animal clearly experiences suffering.
The Noda Biyhuda’s Teshuvah
The most renowned responsum that deals with the issue of hunting is that of the Noda Biyehuda (Noda Biyhuda, Tinyana, Yoreh De’ah 10), who was asked about hunting as a pastime for a Jew who had become a landowner.
The questioner mentions a number of reasons why the practice might be forbidden: Because of bal tashchis (wastefulness), because of tzaar baalei chaim, and because it is the custom to forbid it. All these reasons are actually rejected by the Noda Biyhuda.
Concerning causing suffering to animals, the Noda Biyhuda writes that killing animals is not considered causing suffering. The prohibition involves causing suffering to an animal while it is alive, which does not apply to hunting.
This is something of a chiddush with regard to hunting, because there it may be argued – as noted above – that the hunt itself, before the animal is killed, causes the animal pain and suffering. The Noda Biyhuda apparently considered the hunt as a process of killing, and therefore not subject to the prohibition.
As for needless destruction, the Noda Biyhuda explains that this prohibition applies only to property that belongs to someone. In the case of hunting, which relates to wild animals, the prohibition therefore does not apply. He further adds that the prohibition against needless destruction applies only when there is no benefit to man as a result of the destruction. In this case, the hunter may use the skins, and so the act does not fall into the category of useless destruction.
Concerning the argument of the custom, he defers the idea by explaining that a prohibition cannot be based on custom where the practice is uncommon.
Yet, the Noda Biyhuda writes, the practice is nonetheless certainly prohibited: “However, I am most surprised at the very question. For the only hunters we find in the Torah are Nimrod and Esav; this is not the way of the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov… How can a Jew actively kill an animal, while motivated by no need other than enjoying himself in hunting?!”
The Noda Biyhuda adds that this does not apply to hunting for one’s livelihood:
“But if someone has a need for this and makes his living from it, then there is no issue of cruelty involved. After all, animals and birds are slaughtered, and fish caught, for man’s benefit. What then is the difference between the slaughter of kosher animals for their flesh to be eaten, and killing non-kosher animals to make a living? But if his main intention is not to make a living, then it is cruelty.”
Thus, one may kill animals to make a living, but not to be cruel or to kill animals purely for entertainment. Hunting for pleasure is a form of cruelty, and destroys a person’s inner qualities and traits.
The Noda Biyhuda adds that it is furthermore forbidden to hunt because going into the forest to hunt involves endangering oneself. The Torah permits a person to endanger himself to some extent in order to sustain himself and to make a living. “But someone whose main intention is not to sustain himself, and it is out of his heart’s desires that he goes to a place where wild animals gather, and he places himself in danger – such a person transgresses the commandment of, “You shall carefully guard your lives.”
Is fishing similar to hunting? Our intuition tells us that it isn’t – hunting is a cruel and bloodthirsty sport, whereas fishing is a quiet and soothing pastime. Might it be forbidden?
One related question is the issue of tzaar baalei chaim with regard to fish.
The Siach Yitzchak (no. 387) writes that it is permitted to take off a fish’s scales while the fish is alive (we do not find such a prohibition), and that this is different from plucking a goose, which is forbidden on account of tzaar baalei chaim (Rema, Even Ha-Ezer 5), for this does not apply to fish.
He finds proof for this assumption from a ruling of the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 13:1), that one may not eat live fish because of bal teshaktzu (it is considered disgusting). This implies that the problem of tzaar baalei chaim does not apply to fish (the Peri Megadim writes that the general prohibition of eating a limb from a live animal is on account of the pain caused to the animal).
However, Shut Mishnah Halachos (6:216) defers the proof, citing the halachah whereby the prohibition of eating from a live animal does not apply to an infant animal whose mother was slaughtered when it was a fetus (Yoreh De’ah 13:2). Apparently, this restriction (of causing pain to the animal) does not apply to the act of eating – in which case no proof can be brought from eating live fish. Likewise, it is permitted to remove scales from a live fish because this is part of the act of eating.
Since there is a prohibition of cruelty to animals even concerning fish – there is at least a doubt over this matter (see Nefesh Kol Chai 3:1) – there is room to prohibit fishing where there is no need or desire for the fish themselves. Returning the fish to the sea or lake does not solve the problem, because the fishing rod often injures the fish’s mouth, so that after returning to the water it does not eat and dies.
As for the rationale noted by Poskim concerning hunting – fuelling a person’s cruelty – it appears that this will not apply to fishing (see Kovetz Emunas Itech Vol. 11, p. 34).
Where the fishing trip is required for therapeutic or medical reasons, it is of course permitted – though it remains better to keep the fish for consumption, where this is possible.