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Hunting for Deer—and Meaning

When I helped kill a deer for the first time, I turned to Jewish sages to help me understand my discomfort, and the ethics of the hunt

Andrew Berns
November 02, 2016
Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images
Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images
Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images
Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images
“Those who hunt for fun and games are like ‘madmen shooting flaming arrows of death.’”
—Shabbetai Elhanan ben Elisha del Vecchio, b. 1707

“By hunting man succeeds … in renewing the primitive.”
—José Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Hunting

A few years ago this month, I hunted and helped kill a deer.

I was looking for an adventure. During my fall break at UCLA, where I was teaching history and Jewish studies, my wife, Mara, and I traveled from Los Angeles to the Methow Valley in north-central Washington state. My sister Sarah and her family live there. Her husband, Daren, is a smokejumper—the elite among wildland firefighters employed by the Forest Service; he parachutes 1,500 feet from airplanes flying 250 miles per hour to battle fires below. He also hunts. I asked him if he would take Mara and me hunting.

Just after dawn on the morning of the hunt, we met Daren at his modest home perched on the upper bank of the Methow River. He was dressed as he often is when not in a flight suit: worn Kevlar trousers, scuffed work boots, a faded sweatshirt featuring Washington State University’s mascot—a roaring cougar—and a baseball cap that had been through innumerable forest fires. For our hunt, his firearm of choice was a .22 caliber rifle, with a long, black, steel barrel and marbled wooden stock work. As we approached the woods on the outskirts of the property, Mara and I marched obediently behind Daren, trembling with anticipation, danger, and purpose.

A few hours later, we found our target.

That fall morning in the forests of Washington’s Methow Valley taught me more than the best way to stalk prey or handle a gun. It taught me how poorly most of us understand what procuring meat actually entails—especially we who live in cities or suburbs and buy our meat in grocery stores or at farmers’ markets. Hunting made me think hard about the effects of our isolation from the nonhuman natural world, and the importance of visceral confrontations with death. A bookish journey into centuries-old Jewish traditions helped shape these thoughts and achieve some clarity about them.


Hunting takes time and persistence; you don’t just lift your gun and start shooting. The pursuit is more thrilling than the capture. A hunter who stalks deer from a tree stand will regale the willing listener with tales of interminable mornings perched eagle-high in a pine grove while fighting a losing battle against an insufficiently elastic bladder, cruelly stretched by Thermoses of hot coffee meant to provide succor on crisp fall mornings. For those who perch in trees as for those who prowl the forests, patience and forbearance matter more than marksmanship. You will know this only if you talk to a hunter or go hunting yourself.

We covered a lot of ground that morning. Daren’s 6-foot-3 frame sped him along. Mara and I struggled to keep up and became more apprehensive with each mile covered. Where were the animals? We had been walking for only an hour, but wet shoes and overtaxed nerves hastened our fatigue and shortened our patience. Our lives as urban dwellers in Los Angeles were built on convenience and control. When we wanted meat, the only patience we had to summon was that demanded by Los Angeles traffic.

Stalking prey is both enervating and enlivening. The enervation comes from the mental effort of being hyperalert, like driving on a rainy night when your eyes strain to spot danger. “Don’t strain your eyes,” Daren warned us. Frantically scouring the woods for moving targets, he assured us, “will tire you, and you won’t see a deer that way.” He urged us to let our eyes move more slowly, to calmly scan our surroundings and let movement announce itself to us. This is where the enlivening charge of hunting comes from: the assonance of breath, heartbeat, and gait with sylvan sounds and motions. Mara and I did our best to become one with the woods.

Though we didn’t know it, we were honoring the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s promise that a hunter will be successful only if he imitates the animal he seeks and “integrates his vision with that of the pursued.” For Ortega, when man hunts he must be humble, renounce the supremacy of his humanity, and “lower himself toward the animal.” We did exactly that, emptying our brains of chatter and buzz, expanding our focus. Open to the life around us, we heard a sudden tone of urgency in Daren’s whisper: “There, on the near hillside, 50 yards away.” A doe, peacefully browsing a patch of grass, nibbled and swallowed, oblivious to our presence. We huddled around Daren, our hearts thumping. He raised the rifle and said calmly, “I have a shot.” We held our breath. The rifle exploded, our eardrums shook. The doe fell with a thump. No words were uttered, no glances exchanged; we simply jogged to the animal. When we arrived we encountered a heaving torso laboring to contain a restive soul.

I stood over the doe as she lay dying. Her chest heaved like the bellows of an accordion in the hands of a young child too weak to expand and contract the instrument. Blood seeped from the neck wound, mixed with the dusty earth beneath, and coagulated into a garnet paste. I crouched over the animal and knelt, placing my hand on the coarse fur of her neck. As I felt her heartbeat slow and fade I asked myself: How had this happened? Had I really just taken a life?

But then, a rush of thoughts and emotions came to me in unison: You must not waste this creature. I was prepared to be moved, but anticipated that my feelings would amount to guilt for having taken a life, or revulsion at the gory drama of death. For years I had fed on the pabulum of my generation: that industrial agriculture is evil, that sustainable farming is the only path forward, that slaughterhouses hide unspeakable horrors. In this moment, as I felt a heartbeat stop, I had little interest in the big picture of industrial capitalism’s ills. I wanted to honor this creature. The best way to honor her was to preserve as much of her as we could.


Back in Los Angeles a few days later, I went on a different kind of hunt in order to understand my discomfort over killing a creature, and my determination not to waste it. I spent hours rummaging through the stacks of the Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA looking for rabbinic works about hunting. I knew that Judaism condemned hunting, but didn’t know why. On a dusty shelf in a neglected corner of the third floor, something caught my eye: a Hebrew encyclopedia of Jewish law written in Italy 250 years ago.

It turns out that guns have a lot to do with Judaism’s disdain for hunting. In the encyclopedia, I discovered a cluster of Italian rabbis who disapproved of the profusion of guns in their time, and their use in hunting. The reason is simple: Gunshot wounds automatically render the animal forbidden for consumption (terefah), because an animal permitted for eating must be slaughtered with a special knife in the ritually prescribed manner.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, when these rabbis wrote, guns were common in northern Italy. One jurist pointed out that when Jewish tradition did permit hunting, it spoke of hunting with traps and nets. Nowadays, another Jewish sage lamented, hunting is done with guns and is “absolutely forbidden to any Jew.” Yet another learned rabbi morbidly wrote that those who hunt for “fun and games” are like “madmen scattering flaming arrows of death,” an allusion to a verse in the biblical book of Proverbs.

The encyclopedia’s editor, Isaac Lampronti—a physician and director of a religious academy—saw guns the same way his predecessors had: Firearms cheapened hunting, offering shooters unearned power. He worried that an activity that once demanded an intimate knowledge of local topography, geography, flora, and fauna, as well as deep familiarity with riparian law and property lines, now required merely a blunderbuss and an ego to match.

Lampronti helped make sense of my discomfort on that autumn morning in the Methow Valley. I had an empathic reaction to the doe’s suffering and knew the gun was to blame. The rabbi from Enlightenment-era Italy disliked guns, too. Clumsy gunmen who land a direct but nonfatal shot, Lampronti wrote, prolong the suffering of animals. Even worse, they sometimes waste life by failing to find their prey, which may stumble into dark groves and expire in a blood-deprived delirium, far from den or lair, alone. The search for a mortally wounded animal is one of the most exciting, tiring, and perilous phases of any hunt, ancient or modern; it is also the one at which hunters are most prone to fail. As a final flourish, Lampronti griped that participating in hunts was the equivalent of “walking in the ways of gentiles.”

But not all gentiles in the premodern world were passionate hunters; far from it. The notion that a gun gives its operator an undue advantage over other denizens of the animal kingdom has esteemed defenders in Christian as well as Jewish thought. In Thomas More’s Utopia (1517), written when primitive guns had just appeared in England, hunting is considered “beneath the dignity of free men.” More’s imaginary utopians foist the job onto slaves: To them, hunting is “the lowest and vilest part of butchery.” In a Latin epigram on the subject, More lamented: “O stony-hearted race, more savage than any wild beast, to find cruel amusement in bitter murder!” Centuries before More, the Greek philosopher Plutarch mused that because animals are rational, we are unjust if we kill them when they have not injured us. Plutarch permitted killing animals “in pity and sorrow” and acknowledged eating meat as an unfortunate necessity. I felt the sorrow Plutarch described, and understood why More scorned hunting.

Lampronti and his fellow rabbis spoke to me even more: I did not want to be a madman who shot “flaming arrows of death,” though that’s exactly what bullets are. Jewish jurists, dead for hundreds of years, helped me make sense of my emotions as I watched a doe die.


But killing, it turns out, is the easy part. Field-dressing the doe’s carcass after the kill thrust me into the world of Judaism’s most important legal text: the Babylonian Talmud.

After we killed the doe, she had to be skinned. The guts had to be disposed of: we left them on a nearby hill for eagles, turkey vultures, and coyotes to feast upon. The head had to be severed and discarded. And the mass of bone, tendon, and edible flesh had to be isolated, extracted, and kept clean of dirt and contaminants, which were everywhere on this dry patch of land, baking in the midmorning sun.

Half an hour later, the three of us had succeeded in dragging the deer to a nearby barn on Daren’s property, where it hung from rafters in the cool, shady air. Suspending an animal carcass creates a waxy casing that, within hours, begins to coat and shelter the meat like a spontaneous shroud. Thus protected, the animal is easily transported to a butcher, and then to fridges and freezers.

Shortly after the hunt, I was studying torts in the Babylonian Talmud, the collection of Jewish law and lore that stretches back to debates held between the second and sixth centuries of the Common Era in what is today Iraq, and what was then Sasanian Babylonia. Much of that law concerns ritual: marriage, divorce, celebration of holidays, and performance of mitzvot. But vast sections embrace a much different but no less important side of life: human interactions with the natural world. The Talmud speaks of animals that gore; pits dug in earth that cause injury; crop rotations; fertilizers and harvests; and the slaughter of animals. One Talmudic passage tells of a watchman tasked with supervising a herd. On his watch, one of the animals dies. The rabbis debate when the watchman is derelict in duty, and when he is blameless. If he is pardoned, it is on the grounds that the death was an unavoidable accident.

As is often the case in rabbinic jurisprudence, things are rather more complicated: The ancient rabbis debated who handles the retrieval, recovery, and processing of the corpse. Deuteronomy states that in an instance like this the “dead [animal] will be his.” In biblical Hebrew, as in English, it is not immediately clear to whom the possessive pronoun refers: the guard or the owner of the animal. A marginal gloss by the 11th-century commentator Rashi adds another layer of complexity: At issue is not only to whom the corpse belongs, but who will “take possession of it” and “busy himself with it.” I learned that morning in rural Washington state that a dead animal imposes immediate and onerous obligations. It is a time bomb of decomposition, posing a series of problems and challenges to whoever “busies himself” with the creature. How to skin the beast, and how to convert the hide to a lucrative—or at least not wasteful—end? How to dispose of its innards? How to separate the edible meat from the undesirable gore? How to transport this mass of flesh, blood, and bone, an unimaginable task in a preindustrial world without pickup trucks and winches.

That succinct comment by Rashi led me to these thoughts. I shared them during a Skype conversation with my Talmud teacher, Sol, an 85-year-old Orthodox rabbi and Semitic philologist who has been my tutor and study partner for over half a decade. He is happy to let my family in the Methow Valley illuminate our discussions of the Talmud. In the service of my Talmud study, I have turned to my brother-in-law for information about parturating cows, the feeding habits of bees, the effect of fire on stones and arable land, and many other topics. “Ask your brother-in-law,” Sol will often urge me, and when I do, Daren gives me brilliant and empirically tested insight that I bring back to my study sessions.

Sol disapproved of me hunting; after all, it is proscribed, according to Jewish law. He grew up in Brooklyn in the 1930s and ’40s, so hunting is as foreign to him as Borough Park would be to my brother-in-law. But when I spoke to Sol about what we did after the deer died, he immediately saw how relevant it was to our Talmud study. Now Rashi’s comment about “busying oneself” with an animal carcass made much more sense. Talking to Sol about field dressing and its attendant challenges made the verse in Deuteronomy, the Talmudic passage, and the medieval commentaries spring to life. For most of human history, anyone—even scholars— would have understood the quotidian context of literary and legal texts like these. To reclaim my place in that tradition, I had to get my hands bloody.


I went hunting in the Methow Valley because I was looking for excitement, a good story to tell friends over a beer. The experience was far more significant than that. The hunt generated powerful, primal feelings of exhilaration, discomfort, empathy, regret. The study I undertook afterward taught me about more than my feelings: It taught me about ancient history and religious tradition. I could not understand why Judaism prohibited hunting until I did it and read about it in the original Hebrew and Aramaic sources. In turn, the experience in Washington made Jewish texts come alive to me—and to my teacher.

The Italian rabbis I had studied were right about guns: Even when they are skillfully deployed, they cause suffering. I may go hunting again, though not with a gun. Still, those rabbis seem not to have known much about what hunting actually entails before or after the gunpowder explodes. Hunting may not be a particularly Jewish pastime, but it has positive existential side-effects: It brings you closer to nonhuman nature than any activity I have done before or since. The deepest parts of us do not desire to shoot “flaming arrows of death.” They yearn to walk in lockstep with the natural world, which can be challenging in our increasingly urbanized, postindustrial world.

In shooting an animal and causing her undue pain, we transgressed the Jewish law that prohibits excessive cruelty to animals (tza’ar ba’ale hayyim). But we would not violate another Jewish law by letting the animal go to waste (bal tashkhit). Guns had led us to sin, just as Rabbi Lampronti had warned. But we would make sure the creature did not die in vain. She did not: The doe we shot and field-dressed would feed my sister’s family of four through a long rural winter. And that doe taught me important lessons about my ancestral tradition, and about myself.


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Andrew Berns is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Carolina.