If You Chance Upon a Nest, Let the Mother Go
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. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. (Deut. 22:6-7)


Dt. 22:6-7 Hebrew

The extreme importance of this humane law, known as "kan tzippor" (bird's nest), is evident from the promise of long life as its reward. The traditional explanation, as voiced by medieval commentator and philosopher Maimonides, is regard for the animal itself: "If the mother is let go or escapes of her own accord, she will not be pained by seeing that the young are taken away…"[1]

Prof. Jeffrey Tigay rejects this traditional explanation, commenting that "it is not likely that chasing the mother away would spare her pain, since forcible separation from her young and finding them gone later would also be painful."[2] His understanding, that the text simply finds the act itself callous, is more in line with the thinking of medieval commentator Nahmanides[3] who saw the purpose of the law to train and educate us to be kind and sensitive human beings (and perhaps also to inculcate reverence for the parent-child relationship).

Others raised the magical explanation that sparing the mother bird's life would somehow work a charm to protect the hunter and give him added years. Ornithologist and Bible scholar Virginia C. Holmgren rejected this approach, suggesting that the law did indeed prolong the hunter's years but for a different reason — it gave him a steady food supply by preserving the species. The biblical law in in Deuteronomy 22 is, she maintains, the oldest law of conservation on record: "Twentieth-century conservation laws are based on the words set down around 1290 BCE when the Children of Israel were escaping from Egypt, yet today's laws also call for sparing the mother bird and taking only young birds or males. We realize now, of course, why the rule works: because a hen that has lost one brood of checks or a setting of eggs will usually start raising another family at once — and because cocks of several species collect a whole harem of hens in their charge, so that fewer males than females are needed to keep the flocks at survival level."[4]

Interestingly, Holmgren echoes a notion understood centuries earlier by the Italian commentator Abravanel who wrote that the promise of a long life hints at the conservation of natural resources: releasing the mother enables her to produce more offspring in the future and thus helps maintain the supply of food needed by humans.[5]


[1] 12th-century philosopher, commentator, codifier, and physician. Guide to the Perplexed, II 48; III 26 and 31. [back]

[2] Jeffrey H. Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America,1996) pp. 161-62. [back]

[3] 12th-century biblical exegete, kabbalist, halakhist, poet, and physician.[back]

[4] Virginia C. Holmgren. Bird Walk through the Bible (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1972.) [back]

[5] 15th-century Bible commentator, philosopher, statesman and communal leader. Abravanel, 207.[back]

BIRDS Table of Contents



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend