Parashat Emor

Our Relationship to Other Creatures

There are real actions we can take to preserve species diversity.

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Nahmanides, in his commentary on this prohibition, indicates that the reason for the prohibition is that God is telling us not to eliminate a species. He offers the same comment on the biblical commandment to send away the mother bird before taking eggs from a nest found in the wild (Deuteronomy 22:6). 

Nahmanides says that even though God has clearly given us the right to benefit from an individual member of a species, he has prohibited us from the destruction of an entire species. Both of these prohibitions revolve around the killing of two generations of a species, an act that is symbolic of the destruction of the ability of a species to persist.

Other Torah commandments also imply limits to humankind's effect on the natural world. For example, God prohibits us from breeding two species of animals together, and from grafting plant species together (Leviticus 19:19): "You will keep my laws; you will not breed your animals as kilayim [the junction of two inappropriate things], you shall not seed your fields as kilayim.

Here too is proof that though we are expected to cultivate natural species for our benefit and sustenance, we are not to permanently affect those species' essential identities.

Spiders & Webs

To underscore the importance of all things God created, the Midrash (Ben Sira 23b, Otzar Midrashim 47) tells the story of King David, one of the most intelligent men in Jewish history, who as a young boy once asked for what purpose God created spiders on this earth. God answered that there would come a day when King David would need a spider and then he would thank God for creating the spider.

Many years later, when David incurred the wrath of King Saul, and was on the run from Saul's soldiers, David escaped into a cave to hide. He heard the soldiers near the cave and knew they would find him. Suddenly a big spider appeared in front of the cave, and spun a web across the opening. When the soldiers came they did not look in David's cave, because they assumed that he would have torn the web when he entered the cave. David's life was saved by a spider, and on that day, David understood that God was wise, and thanked God for creating all creatures.

David's realization no doubt was that if the actions of one spider in a few seconds can determine the life and death of one person, then hundreds of spider species worldwide must surely have a tremendous impact on everything.

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Ora Sheinson

Ora Sheinson is an attorney at the New Jersey law firm Patton Boggs. Ms. Sheinson is the Associate Director and Chair of the Jewish Law Committee for Canfei Nesharim.