The Mitzvah of Shiluach Haken

One of the more esoteric mitzvot in Parshat Ki Teitzeh is the mitzvah of Shiluach Haken, sending away the mother bird before taking the eggs. What makes this mitzvah so puzzling is the great reward the verse bestows on those who fulfill this commandment.

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 it will be good for you and you will have a long life. (Devarim 22:6-7)

At first glance, it is striking to have such immense reward for this mitzvah. It does not seem to be such a labor intensive mitzvah, nor one which challenges one’s faith in God. In fact, the promise of “it will be good for you and you will have a long life” is a rarity in the Torah. The promise of “it will be good for you” appears six times in the Torah, and “you will have a long life” appears only twice. “It will be good for you” is written in connection with honoring one's parents (Devarim 5:16), not consuming blood (Devarim 12:25), and four times with regards to living an ethical, Jewish life in the Land of Israel. “You will have a long life” is only written in reference to honoring one’s parents and sending away the mother bird.

The commentators note this anomaly and provide a number of approaches to explain what is unique about the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird such that it is worthy of so much reward.

Rashi, quoting the Mishnah in Chulin 142a, writes that the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird is an easy mitzvah and does not require financial expenditures. The lesson is clear: If such great reward is provided for an easy mitzvah, how much more so must the reward be for a difficult, and financially burdensome mitzvah! For Rashi, the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird is the paradigm for easy, inexpensive mitzvot.

The Bechor Shor disagrees and in fact writes the exact opposite.  He writes that as a general rule the Torah invokes the words “it will be good for you” only in connection with a mitzvah that requires financial loss. The message is that notwithstanding that financial loss, God is reassuring us that performance of the mitzvah will nevertheless be beneficial in the long run. This approach works well with the mitzvot that mention this reward. Honoring one’s parents often includes financial responsibilities. Discarding the blood and salting kosher meat entails a financial loss. Living a life according to all the commandments in Israel certainly entails financial expenditures.

But what is the financial loss associated with sending away the mother bird to take the eggs? The Bechor Shor writes that the loss is the mother bird itself. You can’t take the bird, only the eggs. So instead of a poultry dinner, it’s just scrambled eggs!

According to Rashi and the Mishnah in Chulin, the loss of that mother bird is negligible and therefore sets the standard for a mitzvah that has no financial loss. For the Bechor Shor the value of the mother bird is in fact significant and therefore sets the standard for a financial loss. It is a bold statement of the Bechor Shor as it goes against the simple understanding of the Mishnah. But it does provide a valuable lesson. Performing mitzvot costs money, and even seemingly negligible amounts of money can be deterrents for people.

We tend to focus on the big expenses in life, but every good accountant will tell you that the little expenses add up. So too we should not underestimate the little road bumps along the way of mitzvah performance, which for some people may seem insurmountable. Every time we need to spend money to do a mitzvah we are too remember that it is a small price to pay for the great benefit that this mitzvah will ultimately provide.