The Torah Source:

If a bird’s nest chances before you on the road, on any tree or on the ground, and [it contains] fledglings or eggs, if the mother is sitting upon the fledglings or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother [from] upon the young. You shall send away the mother, and [then] you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days.1

Seems simple enough. If you find a nest and want to take the eggs or young birds, you first need to send away the mother and only then may you take the eggs or the young birds for yourself. This is the mitzvah known as shiluach haken (“sending of the nest”).

Note that this is one of only two acts for which we are promised the reward “that it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days.”

No Reason

The Talmud refers to this mitzvah as a chok,2 a Divine decree for which no reason is given. Thus, we find in the Mishnah that someone who says “Your mercy extends upon the nest of birds” in the daily prayers is to be silenced.”3

Maimonides (in his commentary on the Mishnah) explains that the problem with such a prayer is that “he is saying that the reason for this commandment is G‑d’s mercy on birds. But this is not so, for were it a matter of mercy, He would not have allowed slaughtering animals at all; rather, this is a received commandment without a reason.”4

Yet, in his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides writes that there are divided opinions as to whether a chok has a rationale, and that though the Talmud5 indicates that it is supra-rational, he however will follow the other opinion in the Talmud that seeks reasons even in chukim, and therefore provides the following rationale:

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 nest intact 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 fellow men . . .6

In this, Maimonides is following a general rule of his that although these mitzvahs are decrees, we are nevertheless meant to endeavor to find explanations for them as well.7

If it is proper to find a rationale for these mitzvahs, why is the person who connects it to mercy in his prayers silenced? Some commentators explain that it is only in respect to doing so in prayer, but in the context of learning, it is permitted.8

It’s for Us

Others explain that the reason for the prohibition is to teach us the trait of compassion since we are saving the mother bird from witnessing us taking her young. Alternatively, it teaches us about preservation of the species: Although we are taking the offspring, the mother is still free to lay new eggs.9

An Uncompassionate Act

In an almost diametrically opposed explanation, the Zohar explains that sending away the mother is, in fact, not compassionate for the birds—and that is precisely the reason behind this mitzvah!

The Zohar explains:

There is an angel appointed over the birds . . . and when Israel performs this commandment, and the mother departs weeping and her children crying, he agonizes for his birds, and asks G‑d: “Does it not say that ‘His compassion is on all of His works’10 ? Why did You decree on that bird to be exiled from her nest?” And what does the Holy One do? He gathers all of His other angels and says to them: “This angel is concerned for the welfare of a bird and is complaining of its suffering; is there none amongst you who will seek merit on My children Israel, and for the Shechinah which is in exile, and whose nest in Jerusalem has been destroyed, and whose children are in exile under the hand of harsh masters? Is there no one who seeks compassion for them and will attribute merit to them?” Then the Holy One issues a command and says, “For My sake I shall act, and I shall act for My sake,” and compassion is thereby aroused upon the Shechinah and the children in exile.11

Thus, according to the Zohar, the idea is to arouse G‑d’s mercy and compassion on His people and finally take us out of exile.

To Seek or Not to Seek?

The different reasons cited above result in different practical applications of this mitzvah. There is a discussion in halachah as to whether it is proper to seek out a nest to send away the mother, even if we have no use for the eggs.

Now, if we say that the reason for the mitzvah is compassion for the birds, then there is no reason to actively seek out a bird’s nest to perform the mitzvah, because it would be even more compassionate to leave the birds together with their mother. And furthermore, perhaps even if one chances upon a nest, he only should perform the mitzvah if he actually wants to take the eggs or the young.

However, if it is an act intended to arouse G‑d’s compassion, then it makes sense that one should actively seek to do this mitzvah.12

Others, however, seem to be of the opinion that the debate of whether or not one should seek out to do this mitzvah is independent of the reasons laid out for it. In fact, there are commentators who seemingly give the reason as one of compassion but still advise that one should actively try to do the mitzvah, as well as some who follow the Zoharic reasoning, but still hold that one shouldn’t actively seek to do the mitzvah.13

The Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—writes that it isn’t the custom to actively seek out a nest with a roosting mother to do the mitzvah.14

Parameters of the Mitzvah

Only kosher birds are eligible for this mitzvah. When it comes to kosher birds, the Torah does not provide identifying signs (as it does for animals and fish). The Torah does give us a list of the non-kosher birds, and we are only permitted to eat birds that were traditionally identified as not belonging to that list. However, the Talmud does provide identifying signs that are shared by all kosher birds and we may rely on those signs when determining which birds are fit for the mitzvah of shiluach haken.15

The bird needs to be ownerless. Practically, this also means that it needs to be in a public domain since a person’s private property can often “acquire” objects on the owner’s behalf even without the owner’s knowledge. Therefore, a nest in one’s yard would generally be ineligible since the birds “belong” to the property owner.16

Some authorities hold that before the eggs are laid, one may stipulate that he does not want his property to acquire them on his behalf, and he may then use them for the mitzvah.17

No hands or sticks necessary. According to many, one need not physically remove the mother. One can simply create a loud noise by banging on a nearby tree, shouting or clapping.18 Others however seem to hold that one needs to actually send it away with his hands.19

It needs to be the mother. In many species of birds, the mother and father take turns tending the nest. The mitzvah, however, can only be performed with the mother, so one must ascertain that it is indeed the female sitting on the nest.20

Take the eggs. According to most opinions, one must take eggs or chick to fulfill the mitzvah.21 However, one is permitted to return them right afterwards. Contrary to popular belief, in most instances, the mother will return to her nest and continue to care for her clutch.22 Some, however, hold that one need not take the eggs or chicks to fulfil the mitzvah.23

No blessing is recited. For a number of reasons, no blessing is recited before performing this mitzvah.24 One simple reason is that if the mother flies off on its own after the blessing had been said before she was actively chased away, the blessing will have been said in vain.25

Only eggs or very young chicks. Once the chicks learn to fly on their own (for most species, about two weeks after hatching), one can no longer perform the mitzvah.26

The Reward

As was noted earlier, the mitzvah of shiluach haken is one of only two mitzvahs for which the Torah lists the reward (the other is honoring one’s parents). On a simple level, the Mishnah explains that the Torah stresses the reward for this mitzvah to teach us that if one receives such a great reward for a relatively easy and inexpensive mitzvah, how much more so, for more difficult ones.27

On a deeper level, the reasons for the unique reward for this mitzvah has to do with reasons behind the mitzvah—both as one of compassion or one that arouses G‑d’s mercy on His people. Thus, in addition to the long life that is promised explicitly in the verse, the Midrash uncharacteristically gives a list of additional rewards that it learns from the context of the verses about this mitzvah. With the fulfillment of this mitzvah, one is rewarded with marriage, children and a new home. Additionally, we are rewarded with the coming of the Moshiach.28

May it be G‑d’s will that He see the Jewish people performing this mitzvah and have mercy on His children, and return His own flock of birds to their nest—the holy city of Jerusalem—with the coming of the Moshiach! Amen!