Hunting: How It Became Un-Jewish
In biblical times, when agriculture and animal husbandry were already dominant, and hunting was no longer necessary to provide humans with nourishment, it still remained as a supplementary source of food. As Oded Borowksi of Emory University writes:
For the average Israelite, meat was not a daily fare. When served, meat was mostly of domesticated animals, although hunted animals were also available, as seen from certain biblical texts (Deut 14:5) and from zooarchaeological evidence…. Game animals were also sold to those who could not hunt or trap them, as evident from zooarchaeological data recovered in a market at Ashkelon.
Thus, we find hunting mentioned both in the Bible’s narratives as well as its laws.
Nimrod: A Successful Hunter by the Grace of YHWH
Genesis highlights an ancient pre-Israelite hunter, Nimrod:
בראשית י:ט הוּא הָיָה גִבֹּר צַיִד לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה עַל כֵּן יֵאָמַר כְּנִמְרֹד גִּבּוֹר צַיִד לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה.
Gen 10:9 He was a mighty hunter by the grace of YHWH; hence the saying, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of YHWH.”
Rabbinic midrash excoriates Nimrod, imagining him as a hunter of people, ensnaring them into sin (see Rashi ad loc.) and responsible for the Tower of Babel. Nevertheless, the simple meaning of the verse is positive, with Nimrod’s success as a hunter attributed to YHWH himself. As the 11th century peshat commentator R. Joseph Kara elucidates:
פירושו: ממרום נגזר על נמרוד שתצלח רוח גבורה עליו ויתפוש נצחון בכל אשר ילך. על כן יאמר כנמרוד – על כן, כל אדם אשר יריק את חניכיו לחנכו לתפוש חרב, מברכו ברכה זו: כנמרוד שגזר עליו הקב"ה להיות גיבור ציד – לצוד ציד, שלא ישמט מידו חיה רעה דוב וחזיר יער וארי, כן תצלח בחרב זו שאני חוגרך, ותתפוש נצחון בכל אשר תלך.
The meaning is that it was decreed about Nimrod from on high that a heroic spirit should descend on him, and that he will triumph in all that he does…. This is why when any person would “muster his retainers” (Gen 14:14) to teach him to hold a sword, he would give him this blessing “be like Nimrod, who the Holy One decreed should be a hunter, to hunt game, so that no wild animal, bear, boar, or lion would escape his hands, so should you succeed with this sword I give you, and triumph in all that you do.”
Esau the Hunter
Another hunter, also in the book of Genesis, is Jacob’s elder twin brother, Esau:
בראשית כה:כז וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים.
Gen 25:27 When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.
Moreover, Esau is loved by his father, Isaac, because he is a hunter:
בראשית כה:כח וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב.
Gen 25:28 Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob.
When Isaac is old and blind, believing that his final days are drawing near, he prepares to bless his favorite son Esau, and sends him to hunt and prepare a meal, so that he (Isaac) will be in the proper mindset to give him a full-hearted blessing:
בראשית כז:ג וְעַתָּה שָׂא נָא כֵלֶיךָ תֶּלְיְךָ וְקַשְׁתֶּךָ וְצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה וְצוּדָה לִּי (צידה) [צָיִד]. כז:ד וַעֲשֵׂה לִי מַטְעַמִּים כַּאֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתִּי וְהָבִיאָה לִּי וְאֹכֵלָה בַּעֲבוּר תְּבָרֶכְךָ נַפְשִׁי בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת.
Gen 27:3 Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me. 27:4 Then prepare for me savory food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.”
Waiting for an animal to appear, shooting it with an arrow, and chasing it down (as opposed to using traps) was an especially tiring method of hunting. This explains Esau’s weariness (עָיֵף) when he enters from the field and sells his birthright to Jacob for a lentil stew (Gen 25:29–34).
This method also carried with it a serious ritual problem: the spilling of blood. It is rare that an animal shot with an arrow will simply fall to the ground. Most often, it tries to escape, and the hunter must follow the trail of blood it leaves behind.
The Problem of Blood
Concern over the treatment of blood in the Torah first appears in the Noah story, when, after the flood, God says to Noah:
בראשית ט:ג כָּל רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא חַי לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת כֹּל. ט:ד אַךְ בָּשָׂר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ.
Gen 9:3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 9:4 Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.
Preceding this law, Noah builds an altar to YHWH and brings burnt offerings (ʿolot) on it. The juxtaposition of sacrifice and the laws of blood reflects one ritual solution to the shedding of animal blood: the sacrificial offering of blood to YHWH.
This fits with the analysis of Walter Burkert, in his monumental 1972 study, Homo Necans (meaning “man the killer”), who argues that one of the foundations of animal sacrifice generally is the guilt and fear that hunters experienced in killing animals. Hunters have long felt kinship with the prey that they track. A ritualized asking of forgiveness, and an offering to the deity, was an inevitable result, Burkert claims.
Return the Blood to YHWH
The Holiness Collection of Leviticus requires all domesticated animals to be sacrificed before they are consumed; not sacrificing a slaughtered animal is illegitimate spilling of blood.
ויקרא יז:ג אִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחַט שׁוֹר אוֹ כֶשֶׂב אוֹ עֵז בַּמַּחֲנֶה אוֹ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחַט מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה. יז:ד וְאֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֹא הֱבִיאוֹ לְהַקְרִיב קָרְבָּן לַי־הוָה לִפְנֵי מִשְׁכַּן יְ־הוָה דָּם יֵחָשֵׁב לָאִישׁ הַהוּא דָּם שָׁפָךְ וְנִכְרַת הָאִישׁ הַהוּא מִקֶּרֶב עַמּוֹ.
Lev 17:3 If anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or sheep or goat in the camp, or does so outside the camp, 17:4 and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering to YHWH, before YHWH’s Tabernacle, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man: he has shed blood; that man shall be cut off from among his people.
The blood of the sacrificed animal is dashed against the altar of YHWH by the priest, וְזָרַק הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַדָּם עַל מִזְבַּח יְ־הוָה (v. 6). The text then continues by underscoring the importance of blood and the prohibition to consume it:
ויקרא יז:י וְאִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִן הַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם אֲשֶׁר יֹאכַל כָּל דָּם וְנָתַתִּי פָנַי בַּנֶּפֶשׁ הָאֹכֶלֶת אֶת הַדָּם וְהִכְרַתִּי אֹתָהּ מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּהּ. יז:יא כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר בַּדָּם הִוא וַאֲנִי נְתַתִּיו לָכֶם עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לְכַפֵּר עַל נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם כִּי הַדָּם הוּא בַּנֶּפֶשׁ יְכַפֵּר.
Lev 17:10 If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that (karet) person off from the people. 17:11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you as ransom for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.
The text explains the reason for this prohibition with two main points. First, blood may not be consumed, because it is life. The Belgian scholar Marc Vervenne argues that this is not merely symbolic. The blood is actually the animating life-force, and after slaughter “blood remained menacing and potent, full of latent life.” As Emory University’s William Gilders notes, “Blood, therefore, is not a symbol of life, if by symbol one means something that merely stands for its referent. Blood really is life.”
Second, because of its vital power, blood spilled on the altar atones for the lives of the Israelites, exculpating them. The actual mechanics of this remain vague, however. Some scholars suggest it is a straight exchange; a life for a life, while Jacob Milgrom argues that the act of returning the blood—the life of the animal—to God through the transmitting instrument of the altar has the exculpatory effect. Perhaps there isn’t only one meaning, since, as Gilders points out, symbols are multivalent and never monoglossic.
There is a complex interplay between cause and effect. Blood is life and therefore it is exculpatory when poured on the altar, as life is returned to its creator. But because of its exculpatory nature and the power contained in its lifeforce, the presence of blood, until it is properly sequestered, was deeply anxiety-provoking in biblical Israel. This put them in a complicated position when it came to hunting, which is taken up in the very next law in Leviticus 17.
Blood and Hunting
In Torah law, not all pure (or “kosher”) animals can be sacrificed; only domesticated animals (other than birds) may be sacrificed. What, then, is to be done with the blood of wild animals, which are neither slaughtered nor offered?
Deuteronomy, which unlike Leviticus, allows for non-ritual slaughter of domesticated animals, seems unconcerned with this question:
דברים יב:כב אַךְ כַּאֲשֶׁר יֵאָכֵל אֶת הַצְּבִי וְאֶת הָאַיָּל כֵּן תֹּאכְלֶנּוּ הַטָּמֵא וְהַטָּהוֹר יַחְדָּו יֹאכְלֶנּוּ. יב:כג רַק חֲזַק לְבִלְתִּי אֲכֹל הַדָּם כִּי הַדָּם הוּא הַנָּפֶשׁ וְלֹא תֹאכַל הַנֶּפֶשׁ עִם הַבָּשָׂר. יב:כד לֹא תֹּאכְלֶנּוּ עַל הָאָרֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶנּוּ כַּמָּיִם.
Deut 12:22 However, just as the gazelle and the deer are eaten, so too may you eat it (=domesticated animals); the unclean may eat it together with the clean. 12:23 But make sure that you do not partake of the blood; for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh. 12:24 You must not partake of it; you must pour it out on the ground like water.
According to this, the blood of domesticated animals must not be consumed but must be removed from the animal. In contrast, nothing, apparently, must be done about the blood of hunted animals. Leviticus, however, is concerned about the proper treatment of the blood of even hunted animals:
ויקרא יז:יג וְאִישׁ אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִן הַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם אֲשֶׁר יָצוּד צֵיד חַיָּה אוֹ עוֹף אֲשֶׁר יֵאָכֵל וְשָׁפַךְ אֶת דָּמוֹ וְכִסָּהוּ בֶּעָפָר.
Lev 17:13 And anyone of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who reside among them, who hunts down an animal or bird that may be eaten and spills its blood, he must cover it with earth.
Blood must be covered with soil. This could be understood as a kind of miniature burial, and perhaps also as returning the blood to God. If we think of the Israelite God, creator of heaven and earth, as both celestial and chthonic, then God receives the blood of the farmstead on the altar and the blood of the hunt under the earth.
The translation above has the phrase וְשָׁפַךְ אֶת דָּמוֹ as part of the protasis (the “if” clause). Thus, the text requires the hunter to cover any blood that is spilled as part of the hunting.
Tradition, however, as reflected both in the MT cantillation marks and the Greek LXX translation, understands the phrase to be part of the apodosis (the “then” clause), rendering the following translation:
ויקרא יז:יג וְאִ֨ישׁ אִ֜ישׁ מִבְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וּמִן־הַגֵּר֙ הַגָּ֣ר בְּתוֹכָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָצ֜וּד צֵ֥יד חַיָּ֛ה אוֹ־ע֖וֹף אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֵאָכֵ֑ל וְשָׁפַךְ֙ אֶת־דָּמ֔וֹ וְכִסָּ֖הוּ בֶּעָפָֽר:
Lev 17:13 And anyone of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who reside among them, who hunts down an animal or bird that may be eaten, shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth.
According to this, the hunter must attempt to remove as much blood as possible, perhaps by catching up to the animal before it dies and dispatching it with a final cut to the throat. Tradition’s preference for this reading fits with a development that we see in rabbinic Judaism, that essentially makes hunting disappear from Jewish practice.
Rabbinic Judaism: Ritual Slaughter Effectively Eradicates Hunting
Rabbinic law requires all animals to be ritually slaughtered in a process known as shechita (slaughter by cutting the trachea, esophagus, carotid artery and jugular vein); any animal killed in another way is not considered kosher. This may be what the Torah expects for the slaughter of domesticated animals, but the Torah does not expect this method to be used for the dispatching of wild animals who are not docile and must be hunted.
Rabbinic Jewish kosher law, however, permits only shechitah as the legitimate form of killing animals for food. In rabbinic law, a fatal arrow shot would render the animal a treifah (a torn or fatally wounded animal, forbidden to eat), and even shechitah would not make it permitted.
Esau’s Shechitah Knife
How engrained this assumption is in rabbinic thinking can be seen in how they reinterpret the story about Isaac asking Esau to hunt down some game. According to many midrashic sources, the patriarchs kept all of the Torah, including kosher laws. But if so, how could Isaac have told Esau to hunt down game with his quiver and bow? To answer this question, Genesis Rabbah (65:3, Theodor-Albeck ed.) picked up on the extra word כליך “weapons” or “tools” in Isaac’s command to Esau, which precedes his mention of the bow and quiver, and suggests that it is a reference to Esau’s knife for ritual slaughter:
[ועתה שא נא כליך] שוון מאני זינך שלא תאכיליני נבלות וטריפות,
“And now take your weapons”—smooth your weapons, so that you don’t feed me animals that died without proper slaughter.
According to kosher laws, a knife that has a nick in it is unfit for ritual slaughter. In the rabbinic reading, Isaac takes for granted that Esau will slaughter the animal properly and is merely reminding him of a small detail in the kosher laws.
Covering Blood after Slaughter
Thus, in rabbinic thinking, covering of blood, what the rabbis call kisui ha-dam (כיסוי הדם), is not about the hunter covering a trail of blood, but covering the pool of blood left by the animal after it is ritually slaughtered; it thus transitions from a hunting ritual to a slaughtering ritual, which remains in force to this day (mostly for birds).
Modern Rabbinic Attitudes Toward Hunting: Is it Jewish?
Requiring a hunter to only lightly wound a hunted animal, and then dispatch it with a careful slicing of its throat, is highly impractical. It essentially cancels out the eating of wild animals. Once hunting was no longer a way of procuring food, it remained relevant mostly as sport (with hides for clothing an exception). As a consequence, hunting was increasingly seen as being in tension with another Jewish value, that of avoiding cruelty to animals.
The aversion to hunting in traditional sources is strongly felt in the responsum of Rabbi Ezekiel Landau (1713–1793), when he was asked about the permissibility of hunting in the 1770s. he wrote (Nodaʿ Bi-Yehuda, vol 2, Yoreh Deah 10):
ואמנם מאד אני תמה על גוף הדבר ולא מצינו איש ציד רק בנמרוד ובעשו ואין זה דרכי בני אברהם יצחק ויעקב
Indeed, I wonder at the essence of the question itself. We do not find mention of hunters (in scripture) except Nimrod and Esau. This (hunting), then, is not the way of the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… 
ואיך ימית איש ישראלי בידים בעלי חיים בלי שום צורך רק לגמור חמדת זמנו להתעסק בצידה
But how can a Jew kill a living thing without any benefit to anyone, and to engage in hunting merely to satisfy “the enjoyable use of his time”?
Landau notes that if there is a purpose, such as leather for shoes, then he can understand:
אבל מי שאין זה לצורך פרנסתו ואין עיקר כוונתו כלל בשביל פרנסתו הוא אכזריות.
But whoever has no need of this in order to make a living, and whose main purpose isn’t at all to secure his livelihood, [hunting] is just cruelty.
Landau’s views were quoted at length in the responsum of the great Reform halakhist, Solomon Freehof (1892–1990). To further confirm that “Jews don’t hunt,” Freehof quotes Walther Rathenau, the courageous martyred foreign minister of the Weimar Republic:
The late Walter Rathenau, who associated frequently with the German aristocracy, never enjoyed hunting with them. He found it cruel and repulsive to his Jewish sense of mercy. He once said that any Jew who says that he enjoys killing animals in a hunt is not telling the truth.
Certainly, this reflects my own experience. In Omaha Nebraska, where I grew up, hunting was a popular pastime among the families of several of my friends at the public high school I attended. I was raised in a religious Jewish family, in a community which tends not to hunt. I once joined a friend’s family hunt as an observer, and I found the experience miserable and repulsive, so once was enough for me. To use Rabbi Landau’s terms, I sympathize more with Jacob than with Esau.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
November 19, 2020
May 6, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Rabbi Marcus Mordecai Schwartz is director of the Beit Midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where he also serves as assistant professor of Talmud and Rabbinics. He holds a Ph.D. from JTS and is a past recipient of the Professor Saul Lieberman and Dr. Judith Berlin Lieberman Graduate Fellowships in Talmudic Studies. He has taught at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. His publications include articles for the Hebrew Union College Annual, Zeramim, the Encyclopedia Judaica Online, and the Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture. He is the author of the book Rewriting the Talmud (Mohr Siebeck, 2019), on the effect of tradition from the Land of Israel on the composition of the Babylonian Talmud.
Essays on Related Topics: