Parshat Emor: The Danger of Cruelty

Rabbanit Dr. Hannah Hashkes is the director of OTS’s International Halakha Scholars Program

Rabbanit Dr. Hannah Hashkes credit Gershon EllinsonParshat Emor is rich in topics demanding attention. It commences with laws pertaining to the conduct of the Kohanim in their personal lives, continues with the portion delineating the festivals, and concludes with the episode of the Israelite who blasphemed against God. Among these substantial sections, various laws pertaining to the sacrifices and as well as other issues related to the Mishkan. Among these is one particular mitzvah that rarely draws attention:

“And whether it be cow or ewe, you shall not kill it and its young both in one day.” (Vayikra 22:28)

Our sages understood that this law specifically prohibits slaughtering the mother-animal and its offspring on the same day. However, if the identity of the father of the young is known, this law also applies to the father-animal and its offspring, though it is considered less severe than the slaughter of a mother-animal and its offspring.

The Rambam asserts that this prohibition “applies everywhere and at all times,” meaning, both in the Land of Israel and abroad, and even when the Temple in Jerusalem is not standing. The law applies both to slaughtering for consumption purposes (chulin) as well as for offering sacrifices (mukdashin), even in such case that the sacrifice is not eaten at all (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shechita, 12:2).

Our sages were concerned about a possible situation in which a herd owner might unknowingly sell a cow and its calf to two different people, who would then slaughter them both on the same day. To prevent such errors from happening, to the extent that this might be possible, regulations were enacted. For instance, during periods when commerce is particularly active, and slaughtering is expected on the very same day, such as on the eve of festivals, a special notification must be given to the buyer:

“There are four occasions each year when one who sells an animal to his fellow needs to disclose, “I sold the mother [of this animal today] for slaughter” or “I sold the offspring [of this animal today] for slaughter,” and they are the following: The eve of the last day of the Festival (i.e., Sukkot), and the eve of the last day of Passover, and the eve of Shavuot, and the eve of Rosh Hashanah…” (Tractate of Chulin, 5:3)

Even in our times, Shechita authorities adhere to this law diligently, as Rabbi Melamed explains in his book Pninei Halacha [“Pearls of Halacha”]:

“Today, the practice in slaughterhouses is to designate specific days for slaughtering calves and separate days for slaughtering nursing cows and other days for slaughtering yearling males, to ensure that the mother and its offspring are not slaughtered on the same day.” (Pearls of Halacha, Laws of Slaughter, Paragraph 8, on the words “it and its young”,

What is the underlying concept behind this mitzvah? The prohibition of “it and its young” joins a series of injunctions demanding the separation between a mother and her offspring when the intent is to slaughter them for sustenance. This prohibition reflects precisely the commandments: “You shall not cook a kid goat in its mother’s milk” (Shemot 23, Shemot 34, Devarim 14) and “You shall not take the mother with her young” (Devarim 22). Our sages, as well as the Rambam and the Ramban, did not hesitate to link these commandments to an essential ethical principle in our interactions with one another. Midrash Vayikra Rabbah (27:11) highlights a contrast between the Almighty, who inscribed in His Torah “You shall not take the mother with her young,” and Sancheriv King of Ashur, of whom the prophet Hoshea declares, “…the mother was dashed in pieces with her children” (Hoshea 10:14). The Midrash further contrasts God’s moral commandments with Haman’s instruction to “utterly destroy and slay [all the Jews]”. Midrash Eichah Rabbah (Ptichta 24) depicts Moshe addressing the shaba’im [“the captors”], those who took the residents of Jerusalem into exile:

“‘Captors do heed!  Do not slay and do not wreak utter destruction, and slaughter not a son in front of his father, and a daughter in front of her mother. For the hour will come when the Master of the heavens will hold you accountable!’ But the wicked Chaldeans did not act thus; instead, they would place the son in his mother’s bosom and instruct the father, ‘Rise and slay him…'”

The Midrash goes on to describe Moshe as turning to the Almighty and accusing Him of permitting the cruel act of killing parents and children together, despite having commanded us not to do so even to animals:

“And he [Moshe] further said before Him: ‘Master of the universe! You have written in Your Torah (Vayikra 22) ‘You shall not slaughter it and its offspring on the same day,’ yet how many sons and their mothers have already been slain, and You remain silent?”

In his commentary on the mitzvah of Shilu’ach HaKen (Devarim 22:6) – sending away the mother-bird before taking the eggs from a nest one has chanced upon – the Ramban explicitly states that “it and its offspring” and the commandment of sending away the mother-bird are intended to educate us to refrain from cruelty. He aligns himself with the Rambam’s assertion in his book The Guide for the Perplexed that these commandments teach us to take “the mother’s concern” into consideration, even when it comes to animals, since the latter foster similar feelings towards their young as do humans. It is clear from here why the law specifically focuses on the mother and her offspring, despite the wording “it and its young” [written in the male form] in our portion. The Ramban believes that the commandment here is “not to destroy and cut off” – which occurs when both parent and offspring are killed together – in addition to educating us against the cruelty involved in such an act:

“…for the purpose in both of them is that we should not have a cruel heart or show no compassion.  Furthermore, the Torah does not permit us to destroy and uproot a species even though it permits slaughtering animals of that species. Now, he who kills the mother and her young on the same day, or takes the young chicks when they are able to fly away – this is likened to eradicating that species. The Rambam in The Guide for the Perplexed (3:48) wrote that the reason for sending away the mother-bird and the commandment of “you shall not kill it and its young both in one day” is to warn against slaughtering the offspring before the eyes of the mother, for animals are greatly distressed by this… and, the more accurate reason is to prevent us from engaging in cruelty.”

To our great dismay, this year we are once again confronted with the fact that cruelty of this kind still exists within the human species and is directed against the people of God. Such cruelty is particularly stifling in light of the recurring messages in the Torah against it, and in light of our desire to believe that the Torah has already contributed its share to the enhancement of human morality in the world, and that the commandments of the Torah are a light unto the nations and a source of inspiration.

May we merit a life of peace, a life in which we are only required to do daily good without confronting evil.


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