The hunting incident involving Vice President Dick Cheney called attention to the issue of recreational hunting. A celebrated responsum on this subject written by Rav Yechezkeil Landau (Teshuvot Noda BeYehuda Tinyana Y.D. 10) in the eighteenth century. Rav Landau is one of the Amudei Horaah, a pillar of Halachic decision making, whose responsa are characterized by brevity and penetrating insights into many Halachic topics. His responsum regarding hunting provides such authoritative insight into six Halachic topics. These include three concerns that he asserts are the basis for prohibiting hunting for recreational purposes.
Tzaar Baalei Chaim
Rav Landau begins by arguing that recreational hunting would not be prohibited because of concern for Tzaar Baalei Chaim (causing pain to animals) because "There is no prohibition of Tzaar Baalei Chaim in case of human need." He cites Tosafot (Bava Metzia 32b s.v. MiDivrei) as a source for this principle. Tosafot explain that even though it is forbidden to inflict pain upon animals, the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 11a) permits severing the tendons of the horse upon which the king rode, because this is done for the honor of the king. The Rama (E.H. 5:14) accordingly rules that "The prohibition of Tzaar Baalei Chaim does not apply in case of human health needs or other human needs." Rav Landau believes that since hunting serves a purpose, namely, recreation, it does not violate the interdict of Tzaar Baalei Chaim. Moreover, he adds that only torturing a creature is prohibited, but putting an animal to death is permitted. We should note that a significant group of Acharonim disagrees with this final assertion; see Rav J. David Bleich’s Contemporary Halakhic Problems III pp. 215-217.
Rav Landau then asserts that recreational hunting does not violate the prohibition of Bal Tashchit, wasting, because "Doing something that causes no loss to anyone does not violate Bal Tashchit." Moreover, one can benefit from the hides of the animals. Tosafot (Bava Metzia 32b s.v. MiDivrei) also assert that the prohibition of Bal Tashchit does not apply in cases of human need. They explain that severing the tendons of the king's horse is not considered Bal Tashchit because it is done to honor the king. Similarly, the Tiferet Yisrael explains that the individual in charge of those who guard the Har HaBayit could set fire to the clothes of a guard who falls asleep on the job (Midot 1:2) even though doing so destroys the clothes, because this is destruction for a purpose (disciplining the guard), not wanton ruination (see Encyclopedia Talmudit III:335-337.)
Devarim HaMuttarim VeAcheirim Nahagu Bahen Issur
Rav Landau also writes that hunting as a sport cannot be considered "Devarim HaMuttarim VeAcheirim Nahagu Bahen Issur,” something that essentially is permitted but is regarded as forbidden by custom (see Pesachim 50b). This is because hunting (by Jews) is so uncommon that it cannot even be considered a custom. A custom cannot be established regarding an activity not commonly performed (see Shach Y.D. 1:1 for a discussion of a similar question, namely, whether a custom can be established on the basis of what we see is not done – “Lo Ra’inu Re’ayah”).
Behavior Unbecoming a Jew
On the other hand, Rav Landau provides three reasons why it is forbidden to hunt as a recreational activity. First, he writes that it is entirely inappropriate for a Jew, who models himself after Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, to be engaged in a behavior practiced in the Torah only by Eisav and Nimrod, two characters we would prefer not to imitate. Rav Landau writes: "How can a Jew kill animals by his hands for no purpose other than for pleasure?". Rav Aharon Lichtenstein explains that hunting is characteristic of the wicked because it is a means of quickly procuring food in a manner fraught with great danger. Hunting stands in stark contrast to agriculture, in which hard work and patience are rewarded. Hence, we understand that hunting is an inappropriate act for a Jew to be engaged in (perhaps even professionally, according to this approach).
Rav Landau adds that one is prohibited to hunt because of the great danger involved in doing so (see Ramban to Bereishit 25:32), highlighted by Dick Cheney’s infamous mishap. The Torah prohibits engaging in dangerous activities, stating, "VeNishmartem Meod LeNafshoteichem" (Devarim 4:15; see Dr. Shalom Buchbinder and Dr. James Dipoce’s essay on this topic that appears in the Fall 2001 issue of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society). Rav Landau, however, notes that if one needs to hunt professionally, he would be permitted to do so. This is based on the Gemara (Bava Metzia 112a) that mentions (and implicitly sanctions) workers who engage in work that involves danger. The need to earn a living permits one to enter a dangerous situation, but for mere recreational purposes, one is not permitted to engage in a dangerous activity such as hunting.
Interestingly, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe C.M. 1:104) permits one to be employed as a professional athlete despite the dangers involved (presumably, he is speaking about football or hockey) based on this Gemara. These responsa should give a person pause before engaging in dangerous recreational activities such as hot air ballooning, white water rafting in very difficult conditions, and even skiing on a slope that is beyond one's ability to handle.
A third, related reason to prohibit hunting is that when one enters into a dangerous situation, one causes his sins to be remembered by God (Mazkirin Avonotav;). This is because God must judge the person to see if he is worthy of being redeemed from the danger. Hunting for recreation is hardly a good reason for someone to bring his sins to Hashem's immediate attention.
The Pitchei Teshuvah (Y.D. 28:10) presents Rav Landau’s responsum as authoritative, as he does not cite any Poseik who disagrees. Indeed, the Darkei Teshuvah (28:134) cites many other authorities who rule in accordance with Rav Landau. Moreover, the Darkei Teshuvah (117:44) cites Poskim who rule that it is prohibited to hunt non-kosher animals even to earn money because of the prohibition to sell food that is Biblically prohibited (see Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 117 for the parameters of this prohibition).
We learn a vital lesson from these sources. We see that we must spend our recreation time engaged in constructive activities that are appropriate for the descendants of our illustrious Avot and Imahot. If we spend our recreational time involved in constructive activity, we follow the paths of our great ancestors, and we grow spiritually. Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well. All of us, especially those on vacation this coming week, should strive to utilize our free time in the best way.