Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Physical Dangers of Anti-Rationalism

A number of people sent me details of a tefillah request that has been circulating. A kollel man from Kiryat Sefer wanted to perform the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, sending away the mother bird. As his wife and small children watched, he climbed over the edge of the balcony in order to perform the mitzvah. To their horror, he fell off the balcony, and was rushed to hospital in critical condition. (He is since doing much better, but still has a long way to go before full recovery.)

This case is particularly tragic because, as I explained in my monograph on shiluach hakein, this anti-rationalist view of the mitzvah, in which one should send away the mother bird even if one does not want the eggs, is not the approach of most (if not all) Rishonim, and probably not of Chazal, either. For them, the mitzvah of shiluach hakein is one of compassion, to be performed only if one actually wants to take the eggs (which would generally have been the case in antiquity, when such food was not as easily available as it is today). But if one does not want the eggs - as would always be the case today - there is no reason to send away the mother bird (and it is needlessly cruel to do so).

In the view of Rambam, all mitzvos serve either to teach ideological lessons, to improve our characters, or to improve society. Torah should be teaching us to lead our lives wisely and sensibly. The mitzvos do that - if we would only interpret them correctly. One person who wrote to me pointed out that this tragic case lends new significance in the juxtaposition of the mitzvah of shiluach hakein with the mitzvah of ma'akeh, building a protective fence around one's balcony. I am reminded of the tragedy of the Versailles wedding hall, which collapsed during a wedding. Some people were wondering what area of avodas Hashem was deficient. Tzniyus? Kashrus? Talking during davenning? The obvious contender - ma'akeh, and the idea behind it - was not even considered!

We should pray for the full recovery of Naftali ben Minka Mindel. And we should pray that people let the Torah be a tree of life and a source of wisdom.


  1. Isn't this scenario described in the talmud? A boy obey's his father who climbs up a ladder to chase away the bird, and then he falls and dies?

  2. The Mishnah and the Bartenura and Rambam seem to explicitly contradict the point you're making about the purpose of the mitzvah being compassion. They write that the mitzvah is a decree from the King, and one should not say it's because of compassion:

    משנה ברכות ה ג

    האומר על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך, ועל טוב יזכר שמך, מודים מודים, משתקין אותו

    פירוש רבי עובדיה מברטנורא
    משתקין אותו - שעושה מדותיו של הקב"ה רחמים והן אינן אלא גזרות מלך על עבדיו:

    פירוש הרמב"ם)

    האומר על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך ועל טוב יזכר שמך כו' – עניין מה שאמרו על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך, שיאמר: כמו שחמלת על קן הצפור ואמרת "לא תקח האם על הבנים", כן רחם עלינו. וכל מי שיאמר כן בתפילתו, משתקים אותו, מפני שהוא תולה טעם זאת המצווה בחמלת הקדוש ברוך הוא על העוף. ואין הדבר כן, שאילו היה מדרך רחמנות, לא ציווה לשחוט חיה או עוף כלל, אבל היא מצווה מקובלת, אין לה טעם.

  3. Great post!
    It reminds me of the story they say about the early years of Monsey NY when the great Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky obm. was still alive.
    There was a spate of terrible tragedies when school children were been hurt and sometimes killed by school buses and passing traffic. They called a town's meeting with the communal leaders to discuss the cause of these tragedies and seek a solution. The most common suggestions were bittul Torah, lack of tznius and chillul Shabbos. When they turned to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky for his insight, he turned and said, "There are no pavements in Monsey, has anybody thought of building sidewalks?"

    Refua shelleima to Naftali ben Minka Mindel.

  4. P.S. Now I've discovered the link to your monologue, where you've dealt with all these sources.

  5. "Isn't this scenario described in the talmud? A boy obey's his father who climbs up a ladder to chase away the bird, and then he falls and dies?"

    Elisha ben Avuyah. But the point is that in those days, he presumably wanted the eggs in order to eat them.

  6. m.forward.com/articles/12919.
    The above links to a movie review about a charedi father who in appropriately executes the mitzvah of shiluach hakein as the central motif about charedi society. It is a devastating film to watch, but the above review should offer something to this forum.

  7. I fail to understand the connection between the tragedy and the fact that he happened to be performing the mitzvah - in your view - needlessly. Are implying that had he needed the eggs this would have been averted?

  8. This wrongly titled post is not about dangers of anti-rationalism but the dangers of pursuing a mitzva in risky circumstances. As you yourself point out, climbing to high places because one wants the eggs is also dangerous.

  9. The point is that there WAS no mitzvah. There was no benefit to doing something risky.

  10. I've seen tishes in Eretz Yisroel in which men stand on the top row of the bleachers without anything stopping them from falling 20+ feet down except the arms of those next to them.

    One time I was at a tish in which I thought I would be crushed by the bodies all hoping that the rebbe would look at them.

    I've also tried shluach hakein but the big bird wouldn't budge. He or she (I was hoping it was a she) just made a growling noise.

  11. You know you're tampering with people's parnassah now, right? There's a whole slew of Meshalchei Kinim who for a nominal fee (or whatever your heart desires) will do Shiluach Hakan with any fool who thinks this will get his wife pregnant with male progeny.

  12. I never understood why eggs from a nest would be desirable. They would likely be fertelized and have developing embryos, and thereby be forbidden to eat, or be sterile and spoiled. Why would this Halacha be neccesary? If someone is thinking of collecting them and hatching them away from the mother, wouldn't they be likely to die without the intensive care and feedings birds seem to give to their young?

  13. I really don't understand the relevance of this incident to rationalism - whether there was or was not a mitzva of shiluach hakein in this case, one should not endanger oneself. The problem here was lack of safety, nothing more.

  14. I never understood why eggs from a nest would be desirable.

    They are. That's why the Passenger pigeon became extinct.


  15. The problem here was lack of safety, nothing more.

    But it's because he mistakenly thought that he was doing a mitzvah that he took a risk that people ordinarily would not take - not even for a free meal.

  16. I have to agree with dlz on this one.

    One could fall off a ladder building a sukkah, burn themselves lighting a chanukiah, get struck in the eye with a lulav, trip and fall on the way walking to shul, or meet their demise in pursuit of any "rational" mitzva practice. The list is endless.

    That said, I do agree with the title. A "rational" person doesn't put his/her life in danger for any normative mitzva (excluding extraordinary situations like "milchemet mitzva", etc.), let alone risk life and limb for things such as segulas or other such superstitious beliefs (e.g. davening at a dangerous kever).

    I think a post is definitely in order about the mentality that gets people to irrationally risk their lives (and endanger others) in a spirit of religious/superstitious fervor, even though to do so under any normal circumstances is completely counter to halacha.

  17. Sure, you could get injured doing anything. But shaking a lulav or climbing on stepladder in a sukkah are not inherently risky activities. Climbing off a balcony, on the other hand, is an extremely risky venture, that nobody would ordinarily do. And sending away the bird was NOT any reason to do it!

  18. What's next-is somebody going to dig a pit solely in order to cover it? Mind you, that would be less ridiculous than this example-you might not be endangering your life to dig a pit. Even without getting into ta'amei hamitzvot, it's clear that if you want the eggs, you send away the mother bird-you don't take the eggs for the sole purpose of sending away the mother bird. This is ridiculous kana'ut. That being said, refu'ah shlemah to Naftali ben Minka Mindel

  19. David, as Rambam explains in the Guide III, 47 in perush hamishna the explanation is according to the opinion 'sheein taam lemizvo. In that perek he says that the taam for this prohibition is to develop the quality of mercy.

    David Ilan and R. Slifkin, in that perek Rambam also writes that these eggs are usually not fit for human consumption. I guess he was a city person? I only have Ibn Tibbon on my ipad, so I hope I got it right.

  20. What I don't get is why these people don't just take the eggs and eat them to be yoitze kol hadeos?

  21. One could also stand on the edge of balcony or other precarious location while building a sukkah, as was presumably the case for this other unfortunate soul:


    Shiluach haken, like building a sukkah, is not inherently dangerous. Though in both cases people will sometimes irrationally put their lives at risk - i.e. whether it's a "rational mitzva" or not.

  22. You have to wonder - how many other Mitzvot would he have risked his life to perform? Was this his nature in general or was it only due to the special "segulah" status that has been bestowed upon this (non) Mitzvah that inspired such Pikuach Nefesh. Since I don't know the guy, I won't make any personal judgments. But, I will make a categorical statement that segulah junkies, the antithesis of rationality, have caused a fervor for certain activities that is beyond the pale.

    While looking online for more information about the circumstances that led this fellow to undertake this, (and found nothing), I uncovered an excellent, tangentially related, article on segulot/superstition that I think many here will appreciate. Religion and Superstition: A Maimonidean Approach.

    RNS also has a number of posts on the segulah topic here and here.

  23. 'They are. That's why the Passenger pigeon became extinct.'

    Look, I'm a city person and I'm not an animal person, but are you saying that these pigeons died out because people ate their eggs? Wikipidia says that it was because of the change in habitat and hunting. This makes sense. How can people eat up all those eggs? I mean they have to climb all over and collect millions of those eggs. I don't see this happening.

  24. Tzahi writes: "What's next-is somebody going to dig a pit solely in order to cover it?"

    Your comment brings to mind something that a colleague once told me -- that it is a priori ossur for a Jew to be a vegetarian, because if you don't eat meat you can't even indirectly keep all the mitzvos that concern shechita, basar ve-chalav, etc.

  25. We did once send away a parent pigeon and take the egg because we did not want the pair nesting inside our laundry room. However, we have no idea whether the bird we sent away was the mother or the father. The egg was probably fresh (she hadn't yet laid the second one), but we couldn't quite bring ourselves to try eating it - I guess we missed out.

  26. going up a latter is an everyday occurrence and yes once in while people fall but it is really not that risky

  27. Are these idiots going to start trying to be mekayem of "yehareg v'al ya'vor", too?

  28. David -- Although Rambam explains the meaning of the ban on "al kan tzippor yag'iu rachamecha" in Perush Hamishnayot (Ber. 5:3), he explicitly rejects the underlying assumption of that Mishnah -- viz., that there is no ta'am for mitzvot -- in Moreh Nevuchim III, 48. This is an excerpt from the old Friedlander edition of the Moreh:

    The same reason applies to the law which enjoins that we should let the mother fly away when we take the young. The eggs over which the bird sits, and the young that are in need of their mother, are generally unfit for food, and when the mother is sent away she does not see the taking of her young ones, and does not feel any pain. In most cases, however, this commandment will cause man to leave the whole nest untouched, because [the young or the eggs], which he is allowed to take, are, as a rule, unfit for food. If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellowmen. When in the Talmud (Ber. p. 33b) those are blamed who use in their prayer the phrase," Thy mercy extendeth to young birds," it is the expression of the one of the two opinions mentioned by us, namely, that the precepts of the Law have no other reason but the Divine will. We follow the other opinion.

  29. A few mystical justifications for NOT trying to do this mitzvah:

    1) The Talmudic principle of a turn for a turn -- if you are merciful to others, Hashem will be merciful to you.

    Commentary: Since eating eggs -- much less wild eggs -- is unnecessary, this mitzvah is unnecessary cruelty.

    2) Everything was created for a reason; therefore, it is forbidden to kill any creature unnecessarily (Zohar II, Yisro, 93b). My master [Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the holy Ari] was careful never to kill any insect, even the smallest and least of them, such as fleas, lice, and flies - even if they were causing him pain (Rabbi Chaim Vital, Sha'ar HaMitzvos, Noach).

    Commentary: if killing a fly unnecessarily is wrong, so should taking eggs (which would become live birds if you didn't steal them).

    3)"Furthermore, his mercy should extend to all creatures, neither destroying nor despising any of them. For the Supernal Wisdom is extended to all created things- minerals, plants, animals and humans. This is the reason why we were warned against despising food. In this way man's pity should be
    extended to all the works of the Blessed One just as the Supernal Wisdom
    despises no created thing for they are all created from that source....He should not uproot anything which grows, unless it is necessary, nor kill any living thing unless it is necessary." Ramak, Tomer Devorah.

    Commentary: If we shouldn't destroy a plant for no reason, certainly we shouldn't steal eggs from a bird (thus causing the bird much suffering, even if it doesn't witness the stealing) for no reason!

  30. "We should pray for the full recovery of Naftali ben Minka Mindel"

    Is this prayer effective, in your rationalist view?

  31. "Sure, you could get injured doing anything. But shaking a lulav or climbing on stepladder in a sukkah are not inherently risky activities. Climbing off a balcony, on the other hand, is an extremely risky venture, that nobody would ordinarily do. And sending away the bird was NOT any reason to do it!"

    It would seem from what you've said so far that were the man to want the eggs for food you would find his faith in the promised long life quite reasonable. No?

  32. Josh: David -- Although Rambam explains the meaning of the ban on "al kan tzippor yag'iu rachamecha" in Perush Hamishnayot (Ber. 5:3), he explicitly rejects the underlying assumption of that Mishnah -- viz., that there is no ta'am for mitzvot -- in Moreh Nevuchim III, 48. This is an excerpt from the old Friedlander edition of the Moreh:

    While he might write differently in the moreh, when it came to paskening in the yad he paskened like the shitah that we quite one who says the mitzva reflects God's mercy.

  33. It comes to teach US the quality of mercy.

  34. I thought the whole point was not to wipe out the whole family of birds if you were going to take the eggs. Kindness, conservation or commandment it comes to the same thing. Scaring the mother away from a nest which you weren't going to take eggs from is just cruel. The mother might be stressed enough to reject her chicks or stop incubating the eggs.

    Risking life and limb to do this is cruel, wasteful and stupid.

  35. How about the positive mitzvah of marrying a non Jewish woman captured in war. If (i believe according to the Arizal) we need to fulfil every mitzvah either in this gilgul or the next should we strive to fulfil this mitzvah as well?

  36. We don't mention Hashem's compassion for the bird, because 1) the animal world obviously is cruel in many ways, so the statement is not true, and 2) the mitzvah is concerned with teaching Jews to be merciful, which should be fairly obvious from the context.

    Thus we must quiet the one who claims #1 above, because this is clearly wrong.

  37. one should not endanger oneself.

    It all depends on the situation and the risk/reward ratio. If the bird was sitting on a sack of whole carrot diamonds, then I would have risked it. Call me crazy.

  38. Shlomo1, let's not sugarcoat it, alright?

    The mitzvah in question is rape. Forcible, horrible rape. Yes, Rambam adds a whole bunch of nice little provisions about how she should make herself ugly so we don't want to keep raping her for the rest of her life, and it isn't really "rape" rape and you should let her go after your evil urge has been thrown a sop. That's all very nice. I'm sure some terrified girl who's seen you slaughter everyone she knows and burn down her house will appreciate his subtle turn of mind. She'll understand how nice you're being by not actually raping her to death.

    What it comes down to is that we're commanded to kill all the men, kill all the older women and murder the little children torn from their mothers' corpses. We're only supposed to "spare" a few good-looking girls in order to force ourselves into their bodies and enslave them. Afterwards, if we don't like it or suffer a few pangs of remorse we are free to turn them out to return to the homes we've destroyed haunted by the memories of everyone they knew.

    Since these are positive commandments we should tuck into the killing and rape with joy and enthusiasm just like fulfilling the mitzvot of kissing the Torah, shaking the lulav or attending a first grandson's bris.

    There are certain things I could never do. I couldn't feel "blessed" after "dashing their little ones' heads against the rocks". I couldn't ride into a village, wade through the gore of men, women and children and believe with a smile on my face. And I couldn't ram myself into a terrified girl's body content in the knowledge that her pitiable screams were music to Hashem's ears.

    That's exactly what these mitzvot are. Can't perform them. Wouldn't want to. Would rather die and give up my portion in the World to Come than please Hashem this way.

    But there are plenty of fanatics of all sorts out there who would do it with a smile on their lips. I oppose them with every fiber of my being even if some of them are Jews.

  39. Todd,

    Are you a believer?

  40. I had written up a post about shiluach hakan and chicken kapparos, and why it shouldn't be done nowadays (quoting you), and was under attack. I had said to one that one can get the same schar for honoring parents, and he said back that shiluach hakan is so much easier.

    (Ripping hair in frustration).

    When people take such a narrow view of Judaism, that it is nothing more than superstition and outwitting God, it is sad that in the age such as ours, with such education available, plenty put their faith in "hocus-pocus" rather than God Himself.

  41. HaRazieli, I am a believer. But I wrestle with issues like this. If it's an opinion given by men no matter how wise and holy there comes a point where I have to say "Thank you for your input. I am ultimately responsible for the consequences of my actions and will answer for them." This isn't Catholicism where a couple prayers and a sprinkling of magic water cures everything.

    I've seen too many grieving parents, widows and orphans to want to add to their number even though it is sometimes the only option.

    Have you ever seen a baby with massive crushing head injuries? I have. It is horrible. If you can rejoice at the sight I have a simple request. Never get between me and the door, and keep your hands where I can see them at all times.

    I've had to deal with the aftermath of too many sexual assaults. In case you're wondering that includes what was done to me. If you haven't been there, if your knowledge is all from reading the legal arguments of religious scholars you do not have an informed opinion.

    It can never be just or holy or a blessing. It is an abominable crime, and I would do just about anything to stop it from happening. If that means cutting down my best friend to prevent him from raping, he dies. If it means I give up my portion in the World to Come I'd rather be damned and spit in the fire.

    It doesn't mean I don't believe. It means there are some prizes that aren't worth the price. A Paradise gained by forcing my seed into the unwilling body of a woman while my hands were wet with her mother's blood is one of them. A god who demands that will have to find another worshiper. I just don't have that variety of faith and don't care to obtain it.

  42. Please... can we be rational? Torah doesn't command anyone to take an eshes yefas toar and nobody needs to come back in a gilgul to fulfill it. What a totally absurd idea. What's next? Everyone coming back to be a king or a high priest?

    The way I read Rambam in the Guide is that the underlying message of eshes yefas toar is to refrain from taking her. In our time it's banned by the international law in the spirit of Torah. The human civilization is advancing, what's the problem?

    By not taking an eshes yefas toar and by not sending away the mother bird out the feeling of compassion you are fulfilling these mizvos according to the original intent of the Torah.

  43. Todd, thank you for your posts. I'm not familiar with the commentaries over the ages about how we should understand these mitzvot. But isn't it possible to believe that G-d commanded all these mitzvot, BUT that 1) not all mitzvot are ones we actually should try to carry out (getting divorced, for example, or fighting in a war), 2) some were one-time deals (like wiping out certain nations in Canaan), 3) some (like the war captive wives one that you discuss) actually had an oral tradition with them that was lost (as in, you can only lie with them if they consent)?, or 4) that that kind of mitzvah was only meant to stop the behavior of those who would do even worse things, but isn't applicable unless there are people who would actually do worse things? Just some thoughts.

  44. Yishal, it's one of the harder problems with simple emmuah and one that better people than either of any of us have broken their teeth on. This particular one has a strong resonance because of professional and personal experience. I was immersed in the reality before I was educated in the Torah aspects and found I could not reconcile them.

    We all try to rationalize doing something wrong or forbidden because it's something we want to do. Or we find ways to avoid doing what we should. Pleasure-seeking, laziness and perversity are three constants of the human condition.

    But there are times when the issue is deeper. One can dance around it and come up with ways to make it very unlikely that you'd ever have to actually worry about the reality.

    Amalekites are kind of thin on the ground these days. If one shows up we could discuss exactly how we're supposed to respond long enough for him to get away and render the whole thing moot. Or maybe die of old age if the discussion gets really interesting. All good. All theoretical. We might not know exactly how to identify an Amalekite or we might lack the proper authorities to order us to make war on Amalek. Maybe you'll meet on the field of battle where it's kill or be killed.

    Maybe the captive woman's nails aren't halachically long enough or she didn't tear her hair and clothing to the point where she had technically mourned. Besides we don't have a king, judges or a Sanhedrin that can order a proper war.

    So on. So forth. Lather. Rinse Repeat.

    When you cut that away there's still a hard bitter core. If it's a real weeping, helpless child at your mercy can you really do the deed and take pleasure in the fact that you are fulfilling a mitzvah?

    If so you have perfect faith and obedience. And you are a truly frightening individual. I personally cannot. That's beyond the limit of other core values.

    This isn't just a personal meditation on Bronze Age warfare. It is tied directly to essential material of this blog. One's limits may be of the form "E pur si muove - And yet it moves." These are the words Galileo Galilei is said to have muttered after he was forced to recant his belief that the Earth moves around the Sun.

    Shlomo1 just happened to hit a nerve with his particular example and found one of the points where this particular not-terribly-good man says "This far and no further. It still moves."

  45. I've discussed this in a previous post, but I can't remember where. No, a person is never supposed to be happy about killing a person, even an Amalekite.

  46. Ah, here it is:


    Todd, I understand that this is a topic of great concern to you, but I really like to keep comment threads on-topic. And the topic of this thread is the Physical Dangers of Anti-Rationalism.

  47. I think that Carol touched on the issue upthread-there are certain mitzvot that can be described as "if X, then Y", for lack of a better term (I'm sure there is one, I just don't know it). IF one wants eggs from a nest, THEN one shoos away the mother bird. IF one digs a pit, THEN one covers it. Etcetera, etcetera. One does not dig a pit just for the sake of covering it, and one does not shoo away mother birds for the sake of shooing away mother birds. IMHO, doing so for the sake of some "s'gulah" is superstitious naarishkeit. And as Albert Einstein said, it's bad luck to be superstitious. ;-)

  48. Fair enough, Nathan.

    But there's an important principle which is on topic, especially for the Maimonedes fans in the audience. If belief as well as observance and practice are important it is possible for those beliefs to come into conflict with empirical reality. When they do one is left with the unenviable choice of heresy or dishonesty. Faith and integrity are both important. Sometimes it is not possible to satisfy both imperatives.

  49. "-there are certain mitzvot that can be described as "if X, then Y", for lack of a better term (I'm sure there is one, I just don't know it)."


    The term you are looking for is "Conditional"

    Tzizit is another example of that sort of mitzvah. However, many Jews do put on a four corner garment, just so that they can wear Tzizit.

  50. Todd,

    I love your passion in your posts. My gut reaction is with yours as well. However, I must pose the question: What do you make of Avraham at the Akeida?
    Was he not going against all that he had tried to change within the world of morality? Was his entire essence not swept up with a deep and profound love of mankind? I have no easy answer... curious as to your thoughts

  51. @Ameteur:
    Thank you, you are correct-the term is indeed *conditonal*. I also noted after I wrote my comment that R. Slifkin discussed the issue in one of his monographs. And finally, I would draw a distinction between a conditional mitzvah like tzitzit and the mitzvah of shilu'ah haken. Tzitzit serve a purpose beyond that of decoration-they are a reminder of the mitzvot and our obligations under the Covenant, where shilu'ah haken has to do with eating eggs. Too, wearing tzitzit does not normally have an element of piku'ah nefesh (although if it did, for example if one endangered one's life by openly wearing tzitzit around violent anti-Semites, I could make a very good case for *not* wearing them).

  52. Whenever I teach makkas arov I present the different approaches of the meforshim that can be supported with the words of the pesukim. Aryeh Kaplan records a bunch of possibilities in "the living Torah."

    While I understand the point made above (in comments) about the supernatural world, I think it's very important to distinguish between what we all know is meant to be fantasy and what we thInk our kids are understanding to be our heritage. We don't live in a world governed by the overt supernatural.

    While I don't think it necessary to say "midrashim are false" I do think it's ok to say "they could be true" while maintaining that they're not meant to convey or be a reflection of reality.

    THAT is a lesson schools miss.


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