"If a bird's nest happens to be before you on the road, on any tree or on the ground - with young birds or eggs - and the mother is sitting upon the young birds or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall surely send away the mother, and only then may you take the young for yourself, so that it may go well with you, and you may prolong your days." (Deuteronomy 22:6,7)
"You shall surely send away the mother" - This is because these living creatures instinctively care for their young, just like human beings care for their young; thus, they suffer when they see them taken away or slaughtered. (Rambam, also known as Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:48)
According to the explanation of the Rambam, the above mitzvah is designed to avoid causing the mother bird the special suffering she would experience when seeing her young being taken away. The Ramban (Nachmanides) has a different perspective on this mitzvah. In his commentary on the above verse, the Ramban states that this mitzvah is related to another mitzvah which prohibits us from killing a mother animal and its young on the same day (Leviticus 22:28). According to the Ramban, both of these mitzvos have the following educational goal: to teach us not to be cruel-hearted. The focus of these mitzvos is therefore on "us" - to help us develop the trait of compassion. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, a leading sage of the early 20th century, elaborates on this theme. According to Rabbi Kook, the mitzvah to send away the mother bird, the mitzvah which prohibits us from killing a mother animal and her young on the same day, and the mitzvah to take the life of the animal in a humane way, are to lead to the following awareness:
"Thus, the person will take to heart that he is not involved with a random object that moves about like an automation, but with a living, feeling creature. He must become attuned to its senses, even to its emotions, to the feeling it has for the life of its family members, and to its compassion for its own offspring." (Chazon HaTzimchonut V'HaShalom, cited in "The Vision of Eden")
The Ramban mentions another possible reason for the mitzvah to send away the mother bird and for the mitzvah to avoid killing a mother animal and her young on the same day. Through these two mitzvos, the Torah is teaching us that our need should not become greed; thus, we are to avoid any action which could lead to the destruction of an entire species. A similar explanation is given by the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 435).
According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the mitzvah which prohibits us from taking the mother bird when she is sitting on eggs or nurturing her young and which requires that we send her to freedom "assures immunity to the mother bird while she is engaged in her activities of motherhood" (Commentary to Deut. 22:6). In his classical work on the mitzvos, Horeb, Rabbi Hirsch adds:
"If you are faced with the possibility of acquiring a bird which may be used for food, but you find it in free creation, serving the cosmic purpose – in that moment you should have respect for it as a servant of creation; do not appropriate it at the moment of its service to its species."
In his commentary on the mitzvah which prohibits us from killing a mother animal and its young on the same day, Rabbi Hirsch discusses a reason for all the mitzvos which limit our power over mother animals and birds. The following is a summary of his comments:
All these requirements amount to one idea: the relationship of the animal mother to her young. We venture to say that this idea reflects that aspect of animal life that shows the beginning of a resemblance to human character. Although egotism, love and concern for self is the powerful drive that stimulates animal life, the selfless love and care of the animal mother for its young comprise the first elevation to that selflessness that characterizes true human love - the godliest trait in the human character. We are to therefore emphasize and respect this elevated trait when we find it among other creatures.
On another level, the love of the mother animal for its young can be viewed as a manifestation of the motherly love of the Compassionate One. In this spirit, the Prophet records the following Divine message to our suffering people:
"Like a person whose mother comforts him so will I comfort you, and in Jerusalem you will be comforted" (Isaiah 66:13)
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. Another "mother" related mitzvah is the prohibition against cooking the flesh of an animal in its mother's milk, and the extended prohibition against eating meat and milk together. The source of this prohibition is found in the verse which states, "You shall not cook a tender young animal in its mother's milk" (Exodus 23:19 – translation of Rashi). When I first learned about this mitzvah as a boy, I heard the following reason for this mitzvah: The milk of the mother is used to nurture and continue life, while the meat of the dead animal represents the end of life. It is therefore insensitive and even cruel-hearted to use milk - a source of life - when cooking or eating the meat of a dead animal.
2. The Ibn Ezra, a classical biblical commentator, indicates that the ultimate reason for the prohibition of cooking meat with milk is hidden from us; nevertheless, he suggests that one reason might be because such a practice is "cruel-hearted"; thus, this prohibition is in a similar category with the prohibition against killing the mother animal and her young on the same day, and the prohibition against taking the mother bird together with her young (commentary on Exodus 23:19).
3. According to Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, it is indeed cruel-hearted to use the milk of a mother animal to cook its young. He writes: "The mother animal does not live so that a person, simply by his right of ownership, may exploit her for his own purposes; rather, her milk is intended for her own young, whom she loves." (Cited in "The Vision of Eden")