The Jewish Aversion to Hunting for Sport

At this stage of our series regarding our relationship to other creatures, we are discussing various examples of how the Torah prohibits "tzaar baalei chayim" – causing needless suffering to living creatures. Maimonides, in his discussion of this Torah prohibition, writes: "We should not kill animals for the purpose of practicing cruelty or for the purpose of sport" (Guide to the Perplexed 3:17).

Dear Friends,

We shall begin our discussion on the practice of hunting for sport with the following excerpt from "The Vision of Eden" by Rabbi David Sears:

"Where the wall paintings and bas-reliefs of ancient Assyria and Egypt extol the drama of the hunt, the Torah associates such pursuits exclusively with villains such as Nimrod and Esau. Not only is hunting for sport forbidden; to the Jewish mind, it is almost unthinkable." (Page 62).

Rabbi Sears later cites Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, the noted authority on Torah law, who writes: "Throughout the Torah, we find the sport of hunting imputed only to Nimrod and Esau. This is not the way of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." (Noda B'Yehudah, Yoreh Deah, no. 10)

When I was growing up in New York City during the 1950's and 60's, hunting was a popular American sport, but not among American Jews. Most American Jews, despite their lack of a proper Torah education, still maintained the traditional Jewish aversion to hunting for sport.

During the early 80's, I attended a staff conference at a kosher Jewish hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, and the owner was an elderly Orthodox Jewish man. Although hunting was a popular sport in his region among the non-Jews, he told us with pride that he did not allow hunting on his large hotel estate; thus, the entire estate had become a refuge for wild animals and birds, as they sensed that they were safe there.

A study of Jewish history reveals that Jewish communities did not engage in recreational activities which involve cruelty to human beings or other creatures. For example, activities such as "bull fights" or "animal fights" were unknown in Jewish communities. As Rabbi David Sears writes:

"When Roman citizens flocked to attend animal fights in the Colosseum, such gruesome entertainments were unheard of among the Jews. According to the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 18b), animal fights epitomize the 'dwelling place of scorners' so vehemently decried by the Book of Psalms (1:1).

In the following passage, the historian Josephus describes how King Herod, who ruled the Jewish state towards the end of the Second Temple period, upset the Jewish people by bringing in Roman sports which involved animal fights:

“Herod also got together a great quantity of wild beasts, and of lions in very great abundance, and of such other beasts as were either of uncommon strength or of such a sort as were rarely seen. These were trained either to fight one with another, or men who were condemned to death were to fight with them. And truly foreigners were greatly surprised and delighted at the vast expenses of the shows, and at the great danger of the spectacles, but to the Jews it was a palpable breaking up of those customs for which they had so great a veneration.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews.) The Jewish people were known for their devotion to the study of Torah – the Divine Teachings; however, due to the process of assimilation, many Jewish men and women in the modern world have not studied their own spiritual tradition. They are therefore unaware of most of the teachings and mitzvos of the Torah for which our people had "so great a veneration." In fact, even those Jewish men and women who are more traditional can be influenced by the surrounding non-Jewish culture. We therefore need to be on guard not to adopt any attitudes and practices from other cultures which are not in harmony with the teachings of Torah – "The Tree of Life" (Proverbs 3:18). In this spirit, we need to be aware of another reason why hunting for sport is not a Jewish form of recreation. For there is a mitzvah in the Torah which prohibits us from needlessly destroying any creature or object within creation, and the following teaching reminds us of this mitzvah: "One should not uproot plants unless they are needed or kill animals unless they are needed" (The Palm Tree of Devorah, chap. 3).

According to our tradition, the source for this mitzvah can be found in Deuteronomy 20:19; however, a full discussion of this verse and the various aspects of this mitzvah would require a separate series of articles. For the purpose of our discussion, I would like to cite the following comments of the "Sefer Ha-Chinuch" regarding the reason for this mitzvah:

"It is in order to train our spirits to love what is good and beneficial and to cling to it; as a result, the good will cling to us, and we will be distant from every evil thing and from every matter of destructiveness. This is the way of the loving people of piety and the conscientiously observant; they love shalom and are happy at the good fortune of people, and they bring them closer to the Torah. They will not (needlessly) destroy even a mustard seed in the world, and they are distressed at any ruination and spoilage that they see; moreover, if they are able to do any rescuing, they will save anything from destruction with all their power." (Mitzvah 529)

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Comments:

In previous series, we discussed how our sages would praise non-Jewish individuals or non-Jewish communities that excelled in a particular character trait which was in harmony with our own spiritual tradition. It is therefore relevant to mention that Native Americans have a tradition to take only what they need and to avoid needless destruction; thus, they will take the life of an animal for food and other needs, but not for sport. I have a friend who is rooted in her own Jewish tradition, and who has also engaged in dialogues with Native American spiritual teachers. Some of them have become familiar with certain Torah teachings and laws, and they told her that they identify with the ecological awareness of the Torah, and how the Torah stresses that we should only take from the earth and its creatures what we need.

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