ושור או שה, אותו ואת בנו לא תשחטו ביום אחד
(ויקרא כ"ב, כ"ח)
This week's parasha has many mitzvot; by the count of Sefer HaChinuch 63 of them, more than 10% of all mitzvot. And they cover many walks of halachic life: purity and impurity, incense, sacrifices, holidays and many more. Most of the mitzvot in Emor belong to the category of chukim (or, as R. Saadia Gaon called them mitzvot shimiyot), that is mitzvot that are not required by reason and that we cannot understand rationally, but rather are given through revelation. We can comprehend why the Torah would command us not to kill another human being or why we should respect the elderly. However, we cannot comprehend most of the laws of kashrut or why we needed to sprinkle the ashes of a dead red heifer in order to purify people. Regardless of our ability to understand the reasons behind a specific mitzvah we are nevertheless obliged to follow it. However, being the curious human beings we are, sages throughout history have attempted to provide reasons for the mitzvot, particulary the chukim.
One of the mitzvot in our parasha is on the face of things a most reasonable one, that we can easily comprehend the reason for:
"And whether it be cow or ewe, ye shall not kill it and its young both in one day"
(Vayikra, 22, 28)
The Rambam categorises this mitzvah in the category of rules destined to prevent cruelty to animals. He states that the love of an animal mother to its offspring is no different than that of a human mother to her children. Therefore, in order to avoid causing unnecessary grief to the animal, one is not to kill an animal and its offspring on the same day. For most people this would instinctively seem an obvious reason for this mitzvah. And yet things are not as simple as that.
The Ramban (Nachmanides) disagrees with the Rambam (Maimonides) and gives a different reason for this interdiction. He believes that there is nothing wrong with killing an animal and its offspring on the same day, as animals do not feel pain the same ways humans do. Rather, we are forbidden to do so in order to prevent us becoming too cruel. The purpose of this mitzvah is to instill in us a sense of pity and mercy, to avoid us becoming merciless butchers. The Ramban fears for our soul and for our sense of mercy, not for the animal's suffering.
But, as R. Haim David Halevy z"l (ex-chief rabbi of Tel Aviv) points out, if we examine the halachah, we find out that this mitzvah applies only if the animals are killed in a proper (i.e. kosher) shechitah; if the animal is killed otherwise, then it is permissible to kill its mother (or offspring). This fact actually makes both the Rambam and the Ramban's explanations of this mitzvah very difficult to accept. Why would we pity the animal less (Rambam) if it's killed in a non-kosher way, and how would the allowed method of killing help us achieve a sense of mercy (Ramban)? R. Halevy offers another explanation, which is based on the commentay to the Torah by R. Hirsch.
The prohibition to kill an animal and its offspring on the same day brings to the fore our sense of parenthood, which is present in both humans and animals. We kill the animal in order to either sacrifice it at the altar (in the days of the temple) or to eat it at our table. Both of these ends are to be done in holiness: sacrifices are holy and so is the meal we eat at our table ("a person's table is like an altar"). It is therefore not possible for us to "taint" this holiness by ignoring the love of the animal as a parent and not sympathising with this feeling.
But R. Halevy's explanation suffers from the same lacuna as the previous explanations. Strictly speaking, we are allowed to kill an animal at, say, 4PM before nightfall, and its offspring shortly thereafter at say, 6PM after nightfall. Technically it's not the "same day" so we avoid the prohibition, but surely if the purpose is for us to respect the love of parenthood and preseve a sense of holiness, how can a mere two hours fulfill that purpose?
No wonder there were many commentators and rabbis that said that searching for the reason of the mitzvot is futile. We are unable to comprehend in full the reason for every mitzvah so at the end of the journey (if there is ever such an end) we must revert to the basic faith that these mitzvot were commanded by God and we need to obey them.