Before the siddur became a fixed text, the hazan leading the community prayer would choose from various liturgical traditions or improvise wording of his own. The Rabbis therefore listed several prohibited payers lest a rogue or sectarian prayer leader insert a heretical belief into the liturgy. Mishnah Berakhot 5:3 thus legislates:
If someone recites “May Your mercy extend to a bird’s nest,” or “May your Name be mentioned for good,” or “We thank, we thank,” we silence him.
While these praises may seem innocent enough, the last two indicated dualistic beliefs in late antique circles widely influenced by Gnosticism. A double “we thank,” more than a mere stutter, is suspect of offering gratitude to both the good and evil divine beings. Praising God only for the good He performs suggests that a rival being causes bad events in the world. As strict monotheists, the Rabbis are always careful to praise God for loss as much as for gain, for an ominous sunset as much as for a hopeful sunrise.
The Talmud, however, questions what is wrong with praising God’s mercy over a bird’s nest. After all, Deuteronomy 22 commands: “Do not take the mother together with her young. Shoo the mother away and then take only the young.”
The Bavli offers two explanations for the Mishnah’s prohibition to reference this law in praising God’s mercy:
Two Amoraim in the West, Rabbi Yose bar Abin and Rabbi Yose bar Zebida, argue about this:
one says it is because he creates jealousy among God’s creatures;
the other, because he transforms the attributes (or measures) of the Holy One, blessed be He, into mercy, whereas they are nothing but decrees.
The first response, in the name of one of the sages from the land of Israel, explains that singling out the mercy God shows for the birds may give the impression that He does not feel the same compassion over other animals for whom this law does not apply.
While the Bavli formulates this idea by personifying the animals as feeling jealousy, the Yerushalmi includes a similar explanation that this hazan “is like one who reproaches God’s traits saying, ‘Your mercy reached a bird’s nest, but Your mercy did not reach so-and-so.’” In other words, the human petitioner himself is the creature who feels jealous over God’s care for birds over his own human needs. His praise encodes an irreverent backhanded jab at God’s unjust and indifferent treatment of people in need.
The Yerushalmi records a fascinating variant formulation of this teaching: this hazan “is like one who limits God’s attributes saying, ‘Your mercy reaches only to a bird’s nest’” but not beyond. All of the explanations so far agree that the commandment to shoo away the mother bird stems from God’s compassion, but that using this as a basis of liturgical praise is inappropriate because it falls short of incorporating God’s mercy for all creatures.
The second response in the Bavli, also paralleled in the Yerushalmi, argues more fundamentally that one may not describe God as merciful at all because that presumes too much about God’s nature. All we can say is that He acts as He decrees according to His will. This, however, is astonishing considering the many forms of praise of God as Merciful in the mouths of everyone from Moses to my grandmothers. Why would the Talmuds consider problematic a praise of God’s mercy inspired by the law of shooing away the mother bird?
Rashi’s commentary here has informed generations of committed Jews regarding blind observance of mitzvot:
“Measures” refers to mitzvot, which He did not make for mercy but rather to impose His laws and decrees upon Israel, to make known that they are His servant and followers of His commandments, laws, and decrees.
Rashi generalizes from this one Mishnah that mitzvot have no inherent purpose other than to express and deepen subservience to God. By contrast, Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) lists this commandment as one of a trio with “Do not slaughter an animal and its young on the same day,” and “Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk,” to protect intergenerational destruction at the three stages of trapping, slaughtering, and cooking. Along the same lines, Maimonides argues that these commandments are all rooted in instilling ethical sensibilities for the feelings of birds and animals; he therefore favors the first opinion in the Bavli.
Perhaps, however, the Bavli’s second opinion actually encodes a much deeper message, not about the lack of reasons for commandments as Rashi writes, but about the roles of God and humans in the world. Considering that the Mishnah banned the other two formulas because they promote dualistic beliefs, it stands to reason that praising God’s mercy for birds also challenges a monotheistic viewpoint. If God shows compassionate over birds, then who created the violence embedded in the food chain that governs the rest of nature? Why would a merciful God allow a chicken’s egg to fall prey to a fox?
The Bavli’s second opinion finds theological safety in saying God’s ways are neither merciful nor malicious but simply inscrutable decrees. Strict monotheism requires that the Creator of light and good must also have created darkness and evil. Precisely for this reason, the Torah teaches that the job falls to human beings to bring order and justice to the chaotic violence in the world. When anarchy and entropy threaten destruction and suffering, we humans are called upon to infuse it with goodness, compassion, and respect for all life.
All opinions of the Talmud thus agree that the goal of the law to send away the mother bird is for us to show compassion to this species of living beings. Under dispute is only why it is problematic to mention this law of birds as praise. The first set of opinions argues that such praise falls short in that it limits the extent of God’s infinite mercy. The second opinion worries that such praise goes too far because it implies that all good in the world comes from God, but its imperfections and built-in brutality derive from an opposing primordial force.
For the first opinion, humans emulate God’s merciful attribute as assistants to enact His good will in the world. For the second, the ultimate responsibility to maintain order in the world and mercy over all of life falls squarely on human beings, commanded to do so by an omnipotent, unique, but therefore morally nondescript Creator. This insistence on God’s absolute unity paradoxically engenders a radically humanist moral obligation.