Shiluach haQen

This entry is a continuation of the previous one.

I – Shilu’ach haQein

האומר על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך ועל טוב יזכר שמך מודים מודים משתקין אותו:

One who prays, “Upon the birds nest your mercy extends[, so too may you have mercy upon us]” … we silence him.

- Mishnah Berakhos 5:3 (33b)

פליגי בה תרי אמוראי במערבא רבי יוסי בר אבין ורבי יוסי בר זבידא חד אמר מפני שמטיל קנאה במעשה בראשית וחד אמר מפני שעושה מדותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא רחמים ואינן אלא גזרות

Two amoraim in the west (i.e. Israel) are divided about it, Rabbi Yosi bar Avin and Rabbi Yosi bar Zeveida. One said: Because he places jealousy upon the creatures of Genesis. And one said: Because he makes the attributes of the Holy One to be Mercy, but they are only laws.

-Berakhos 33b

We are obligated to send away the mother bird before taking eggs or hatchlings from her nest. This is the mitzvah of shiluach haqein. We are told here that the mitzvah can not be about having mercy on birds because (1) if it were, there would be similar laws for mothers of other species; and (2) they exist as laws upon people, not as part of Hashem’s relationship with His birds.

It would seem that shiluach haqein is similar in thrust to why we make a berakhah on bread before other items. We show respect to bread, the staple of our diet, beyond the respect shown other foods. Similarly, Aharon, not Moshe, initiates the plagues of Blood, Frogs and Lice. As Rashi repeats form our sages, this is because the Nile saved Moshe when he was hidden there as an infant, and the sand saved him when Moshe killed the Egyptian taskmaster and buried him in the sand. Even though bread, the Nile and the sand of Egypt are inanimate objects, and do not feel the gratitude shown them, people need to express the gratitude, to reinforce the middah in ourselves.

I think this is the second explanation in the gemara. The mitzvah is not for the sake of the bird experiencing receiving mercy, but for the sake of the person having the excercise showing it mercy.

But does the bird not suffer to see her children taken from her? Why is it wrong to acknowledge Hashem sparing it that suffering? And why aren’t there mitzvos sparing other animal’s mothers such suffering?

II – Can Animals Speak?

The simplest explanation of the Targum I discussed in the previous entry describing the human soul as a “ru’ach memalela — a speaking spirit” is that there is some fundamental skill necessary for true speech that people have and animals lack. In recent years, this has become difficult to identify. There are apes that have been taught American Sign Language. They lack grammar; the ape Koko will say “Koko wants banana” and “Banana wants Koko” interchangably. Perhaps grammar is the critical skill implied. Without grammar distinguishing “I threw the ball” and “a ball threw me”, all we know is that an ape can identify that the world involves a ball, itself, and throwing, and not necessarily describing the event itself.

However, more recently the orangutan Chantek was taught ASL, and not only can phrase her needs, she invented “tomato toothpaste” as a sign idiom for catsup. While there is still no sign of an ape mastering grammar, that’s impressive.

To further complicate things, it’s unclear how non-human Chantek is. It depends what the gemara means when speaking of “adnei hasadeh“. If I take the aggadita part literally, the are human beings that grow off stalks; their navel is on a stem that goes into roots in the ground. Halachically, killing one can qualify as murder. Is this a hypothetical case — people say these things exist, and if they do, it would be murder? Or is the aggadita metaphoric, and it’s talking about apes or some subset of apes. Perhaps the aggadita speaking of how they would die if you took them from their habitats and thus “are attached to the ground”. The Malay “orang + hutan” (man + wilderness) sure sounds a lot like “adnei hasedeh” (men of the field).

Back to the point, I now find it possible but difficult to explain Targum as saying that people qualitatively have some communication skill lacking in animals, rather than quantitatively superior skills. This drove my conclusion that the speech here is internal to the self, the stream of consciousness of the seikhel, and motivated much of the previous entry.

III- Are Animals Self-Aware?

Revisiting the issue of the Turing Test and if it can produce false positives: Do animals have this ability to perceive their own thoughts? Are they self-aware? Does an animal not only recognize self, but have an “I” in their consciousness that can know what it’s like to make that recognition?

Targum Unqelus describes the human soul as being uniquely a ru’ach memalela. We noted that animals are also described as having a nefesh, but no mention of their having a ru’ach. And we also argued that self-awareness is a feature of free will, which people have and animals lack.

If the mother bird lacks self-awareness, she can still feel and respond to the pain of losing her children. It is pain because it is something she responds to by trying to minimize. But there is no “I” to experience that pain, the pain isn’t internalized by the koach hadimyon within the bird’s soul. It is pain, but it is not suffering. Which would explain why the Torah is not concerned with her suffering. Rather, it is concerned with creating people who are capable of inflicting pain. It is not Divine Mercy on birds, it is a personality-shaping law given to man.

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