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The Ethical Problems of Hunting

The rabbis never hunted except with nets or with traps because it still allowed for kosher slaughter, but with regard to the bow and the arrow, or a gun, these methods of hunting rendered an animal a “nevalah” and therefore is not a Kosher manner of slaughter.

Wild animals considered acceptable for food and thus apparently hunted included the hart, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, and the mountain sheep (all listed in Deut. 14:5). Along with hunting, fishing (Isa. 19:8) and trapping birds with nets[1] are mentioned.

The Sages of antiquity have long taken a negative view of hunting. The 19th century German Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine once observed that Jews have historically identified more with the hunted, than the hunter. Hein’s thought is quite accurate.

Philo of Alexandria (ca. 1st century) observed that hunting was as “a sort of prelude to and representation of the wars and dangers that have to be encountered against the enemy.” Western history with its obsession with violence certainly bears this out.  Another 1st century Jewish intellectual, Flavius Josephus, tells us that Herod the Great enjoyed hunting on horseback and he adds that Herod was one of the most violent men ever to have ruled Judea.[2]

One famous Responsa dating back in the 18th century, Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, the Chief Rabbi of Prague, was asked whether hunting with a rifle was permitted or not.  In his reply, Landau notes that the only hunters mentioned in the Tanakh are Nimrod and Esau—neither of whom happened to be Israelites. Hunting was never a common occupation among our people. Hunting for sport engenders cruelty within the human breast. In short, hunting for sport or for adventure,  is certainly forbidden; however,  if it is for other constructive reasons (e.g., clothing etc.,) it is then permitted. It goes without saying that if an animal poses a serious public health danger, e.g., a rabid dog, hunting such an animal is indeed necessary. Beyond that, Landau notes that anyone who recklessly exposes himself to danger violates the biblical precept of not endangering one’s health.[3]

Some years ago, when I was touring Mexico, some of the natives asked me if I would like to attend a bullfight. I politely turned the request down, but the invitation did remind me about  a wonderful story I read about Albert Schweitzer, who once wrote in his diary about an invitation he received while he was visiting Barcelona. Schweitzer recalls, “In bright dresses, and fluttering head scarves, all the young women were going in one direction: the arena. They were going to witness how enraged bulls would split open the bellies of poor mules with their horns, and then how they themselves to the jubilation of the crowds were tortured to death. The director of the large music society whose guest I was, addressed me, saying, You must come! You must see it at least once; otherwise you won’t know what Spain is! . . . The man was a deeply pious artist with whom I was seriously conversing just this morning concerning Christianity.”

Perhaps Gandhi was partially correct when he said one can measure the humanity of a civilization by the way they treat its animals. After reading Schweitzer’s passage, something suddenly dawned upon me:  Wasn’t Spain the same country that tortured and persecuted millions of people all over the European and American world when they zealously enforced their infamous Inquisition?  Our Sages stated it eloquently centuries ago:   Human beings are shaped by behavior( adam ni’fal ki’fee pi’u'la’tov).  This observation still holds true even today. How we treat animals in our society does indicate something important about our behavior as a civilized species and our attitude about sentient lifeforms–along with our ethical responsibilities and duties.


[1] See also Amos 3:5; Prov. 6:5; Pss. 91:3; 124:7.

[2] Wars of the Jews, 1.21.13.

[3] Noda B’Yehuda Vol. 2.,  Responsa 10.



Discussion

  1. Ellen Rabinowich  December 30, 2009

    I am so happy to read this! What has been happening to the wolves (barbaric bloodbaths) from Idaho to Yellowstone has been appalling. Ex governor Sarah Palin using a loophole in the law which forbids aerial hunting has been similarly disgusting. And as I write, Maine is currently staging a coyote hunting tornament. Thank you so much for your extremely wise and thoughtful words!

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    • admin  December 30, 2009

      Thanks, glad to see the article hits its mark!

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  2. notahunter  January 14, 2010

    Hunting exists in less humane ways in an industrial sort of way with slaughterhouses. Traditional hunting is much more humane. Leave the hunters alone. Remember, they have the guns :)

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