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Tzvi Novick





Morality and Prepositions: On Taking a Mother on Her Young



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Tzvi Novick





Morality and Prepositions: On Taking a Mother on Her Young






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Morality and Prepositions: On Taking a Mother on Her Young

Using the martial idiom “taking a mother on her young,” Deuteronomy forbids taking eggs and chicks without first shooing the mother bird. Is the concern cruelty to animals?


Morality and Prepositions: On Taking a Mother on Her Young

California High Desert Mourning Dove and Squabs in Cactus Protected Nest. Jessie Eastland / Wikimedia 

Laws that Acknowledge Animals as Parents

Before collecting chicks or eggs, Deuteronomy requires Israelites to first shoo the mother bird away from her nest:

דברים כב:ו כִּי יִקָּרֵא קַן צִפּוֹר לְפָנֶיךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּכָל עֵץ אוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ אֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ בֵיצִים וְהָאֵם רֹבֶצֶת עַל הָאֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ עַל הַבֵּיצִים לֹא תִקַּח הָאֵם עַל הַבָּנִים.כב:ז שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת הָאֵם וְאֶת הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח לָךְ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים.
Deut 22:6 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. 22:7 Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.[1] (NJPS)

Since this commandment acknowledges the parent-child relationship in animals, it is often thought of as a complement to the prohibition against slaughtering an animal and its offspring on the same day.

ויקרא כב:כח וְשׁוֹר אוֹ שֶׂה אֹתוֹ וְאֶת בְּנוֹ לֹא תִשְׁחֲטוּ בְּיוֹם אֶחָד.
Lev 22:28 Regarding an ox or a sheep, you shall not slaughter it together with its young on the same day.

The two commandments occur together, for example, in the Palestinian Talmud’s commentary on Mishnah Berachot 5:3, which legislates that we silence a precentor who prays: על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך “Upon the bird’s nest does your mercy extend.” The Talmud includes the following explanation (j. Berachot 5:3).

ר’ יוסי ביר’ בון לא עבדין טבות שעושין למדותיו שלהקב’ה רחמים ואילין דמתרגמין עמי בני יש’ כמא דאנא רחמן בשמיא כך תהוון רחמנין בארעא תורתא או רחילה יתה וית ברה לא תיכסון תרויהון ביומא חד לא עבדין טבאות שהן עושין מדותיו שלהקב’ה רחמים.
R. Yose son of R. Bun: They do not do well, for they make the middot (traits) of the Holiness, blessed be He, mercy. And those who translate (the verse Lev 22:28), “My people, children of Israel, just as I am merciful in heaven, so you be merciful on earth.[2] A cow or sheep, it and its young, do not slaughter the both of them on the same day,” they do not do well, because they make the middot of the Holiness, blessed be He, mercy.[3]

It is not altogether clear what R. Yose means when he objects to these liturgical formulations for “mak[ing] the middot of the Holiness, blessed be He, mercy.” The parallel in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 33a) includes an explanatory addendum:

מפני שעושה מדותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא רחמים ואינן אלא גזירות.
Because he makes the middot of the Holiness, blessed be He, mercy, and they are nothing other than decrees.

In the Babylonian Talmud’s understanding, R. Yose means to condemn the liturgical formulations for something like reducing the force of the commandments from decrees to sentiments. But the addendum (“and they are nothing other than decrees”) does not necessarily reflect R. Yose’s intent. Moreover, the Babylonian Talmud’s formulation is problematic on its face: One might suggest that God’s commandments are degrees, but what sense does it make to apply this to God’s middot (traits)?

It is entirely possible that for R. Yose in the Palestinian Talmud, the problem with the liturgical formulation is not that it misunderstands the nature of divine law, but that it overemphasizes God’s mercy, at the expense of other attributes, in particular anger.[4]

But the plain sense of the commandments in question lies, in any case, with the liturgical formulations to which R. Yose objects: These laws do indeed revolve around mercy.[5] Our aim here is to specify more precisely the logic of the commandments, and especially that of shooing away the mother bird, by means of a close examination of the wording of Deut 22:6.

Mother Together with Her Young: על as “together with” in the Bible

The preposition על occurs twice in Deut 22:6 to describe the relationship between the mother bird and her young, first in the statement of the facts, then in the formulation of the prohibition.

והאם רבצת על האפרחים או על הביצים
לא תקח האם על הבנים

In the first phrase, the NJPS renders על as “over” or “on”: “And the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs.” In the second, it translates the preposition differently: “Do not take the mother together with her young.” The rendering of the preposition in the first phrase accords with its ordinary sense, but whence the translation of the second phrase?

The preposition על carries the meaning “together with” in various places, e.g., Exod 35:22 “And the men came together with the women (ויבאו האנשים על הנשים).” It links mother to offspring in Job 38:32, in which God challenges Job:

הֲתֹצִיא מַזָּרוֹת בְּעִתּוֹ
Can you bring out Mazzaroth (a constellation) in its time?
וְעַיִשׁ עַל בָּנֶיהָ תַנְחֵם
And the Bear together with its sons, can you lead them?

A Martial Idiom

The most important instances of this usage, for our purposes, occur in the phrase אם על בנים “mother together with her young” in Genesis and Hosea.[6]

Jacob’s fear of what Esau will do (Gen 32:12)

הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו כִּי יָרֵא אָנֹכִי אֹתוֹ פֶּן יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי אֵם עַל בָּנִים.
Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may strike me down, mother together with her young.

Hosea’s warning to Israel (Hos 10:14)

וְקָאם שָׁאוֹן בְּעַמֶּךָ וְכָל מִבְצָרֶיךָ יוּשַּׁד כְּשֹׁד שַׁלְמַן בֵּית אַרְבֵאל בְּיוֹם מִלְחָמָה אֵם עַל בָּנִים רֻטָּשָׁה.
But the din of war shall arise in your own people, and all your fortresses shall be ravaged, as Beth-arbel was ravaged by Shalman on a day of battle, when mother together with her young was dashed to death.[7]

The words אם על בנים evidently serve as a martial idiom that describes a cruel form of warfare in which no quarter is given, and the attackers slaughter mothers along with their children.[8]

The notion of “togetherness” conveyed by this usage is vague. It is not impossible that the usage means to evoke an image of the mother slaughtered atop the corpses of her children, or, less strongly, of the mother dying after she has witnessed her children’s deaths.[9] Far more likely, it simply gestures to the link between mother and young, without further concretization.

In any case, the rhetorical force of Deut 22:6 lies in the fact that it concretizes the martial idiom “mother together with her young” in the image of the mother bird sitting or hovering over her young. Slipping self-consciously between על “on, over” and על “together with,” the verse implicitly characterizes the taking of the mother bird together with her young as akin to the cruelty condemned by the phrase “mother together with her young.”

A Stranger’s Cruelty and a Mother’s Love

But the basis of the prohibition lies in more than a visual pun, as it were, on the martial idiom. In fact, the prohibition may offer insight into the precise nature of the cruelty at work in killing “mother together with her young.” The relationship of the parent, and especially the mother, to its offspring is the very antithesis of cruelty; it is רחמים “mercy.”[10] Lamentations 4:3 can thus claim:

גַּם (תנין) [תַּנִּים] חָלְצוּ שַׁד הֵינִיקוּ גּוּרֵיהֶן בַּת עַמִּי לְאַכְזָר (כי ענים) [כַּיְעֵנִים] בַּמִּדְבָּֽר:
Even jackals offer their breast to nurse their young, but my people have become cruel (אכזר) like ostriches in the desert.[11]

The incidental echo of זר “stranger” in אכזר “cruel”—an echo perceived in Prov 5:9-10—helps to cement the association of mercy with intra-familial beneficence.[12]

Human vs. Animal Cruelty

The special cruelty in killing “mother together with her young” stems from the fact that it targets the relationship that stands in polar contrast to cruelty. In the case of human beings, and the condemnation of cruelty in war, it is enough to point, by means of the martial idiom, to the fact of the parent-child relationship. The bar is set lower when it comes to our interaction with animals.

One need not ordinarily take notice of their family bonds. But seeing the mother bird upon its young makes the parent-child relationship impossible to ignore. The image compels one to the think of the mother bird as a parent, and of the eggs or chicks as her young. To then ignore these facts, and take the mother together with her young, is to act cruelly.

Likewise, in chronological rather than spatial terms, to be confronted by the parent and its young in the slaughterhouse on the very same day is to be confronted inescapably with the parental relationship. And thus confronted, the slaughterer must stay his hand.

Mother and Young Together: The Optics of an Ethical Problem

We may say, then, that in these laws concerning the parental relationship in animals, ethics receives a boost from aesthetics, or from what we call in modern parlance the “optics.” In the case of cruelty toward human beings in war, the togetherness conveyed by the preposition is (likely) abstract. We need nothing more than this abstraction to recognize the cruelty, and recoil from it.

In the case of animals, the preposition must become concrete. Only when the mother is actually upon the chicks or eggs—or when the slaughter occurs on the very same day—does the law perceive cruelty. But the concretization of the preposition, the invocation of optics, arguably exposes the aesthetic or imaginative element inherent in ethical judgments generally, or in any case, in judgments about cruelty.[13] Cruelty is something we know when we see it.


September 12, 2016


Last Updated

March 15, 2024


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Dr. Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He has an M.A. from Yeshiva University and a Ph.D. from Yale. His research focuses on law and ethics in rabbinic Judaism.  He has also written on topics in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism, and on Jewish liturgical poetry (piyyut) from late antiquity.