Hunting in Jewish law and tradition

By Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

American Jews and Guns: An ambivalent relationship

In Western civilization, hunting is seen as a noble and manly pursuit. In Greek and Nordic mythology hunters are heroes; in popular culture hunting is the epitome of manliness.

Twelve and a half million people in the United States hunt, killing millions more animals each year. In a typical year, just under 100 people are killed and approximately 1,000 are injured by hunters in this country. Hunting is a significant and celebrated part of American culture.

Whether he’s a Davy Crockett or a Buffalo Bill, a real man has a dead animal’s head on his wall.

Jewish culture and law, however, take a different view of hunting. The “great hunters” of the Bible are viewed by the Sages of Israel as wicked men: Nimrod, whose very name means “one who rebels (against God),” and Esau, who is the utter antithesis of the spirit of Jewish civilization.

Rashi, who lived some 900 years ago in France, comments on the first verse of Psalms, “Happy is the one who has not walked in the path of sinners” by saying that this means “one who does not hunt with dogs for sport or entertainment.”

Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, the most influential German rabbi of the 13th century, declared that “whoever hunts animals with dogs, as do the gentiles, will not partake of the pleasures of the World to Come.”

The Shemesh Tsedaqa, writing in the early 18th century, forbade hunting as a profession and for sport. He said that those who hunt “have taken hold of the occupation of Esau the wicked, and are guilty of cruelty in putting to death God’s creatures for no reason. It is a doubled and redoubled duty upon people to engage in matters which make for civilization, not in the destruction of creatures for sport or entertainment.” He concludes that killing for purposes of trade would constitute trading in forbidden merchandise.

Our sages teach that the Torah forbids hunting on several grounds. First, it represents cruelty to animals (tsa`ar ba`alei hayyim). Second, it violates the prohibition against wanton destruction. Third, it constitutes “spilling of blood.” Fourth, it is a forbidden act of “copying the ways of the gentiles.”

These four grounds represent biblical prohibitions from the Torah. One who hunts would thus violate four distinct biblical commandments and numerous secondary rules.

How we view and treat animals is not unrelated to how we treat people. As part of God’s creation, life is of immense value. When we take life for pleasure, we sink to the lowest levels of human existence.

Our Torah was given to us as a gift from God to enhance and add holiness to our lives. To live according to our Torah and as one with our world, we must actively incorporate Torah values and laws into our lives.

Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel in New Haven, Conn. and a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, the global organization of Masorti-Conservative rabbis.

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