Blue laws harm Jewish hunters

Josh First of Harrisburg, Pa., hunts in Truman Run in Lycoming County in Pennsylvania. He wants to change his state’s law prohibiting hunting on Sundays. Photo courtesy of Josh First
Josh First of Harrisburg, Pa., hunts in Truman Run in Lycoming County in Pennsylvania. He wants to change his state’s law prohibiting hunting on Sundays. Photo courtesy of Josh First

For most Jews in the United States, hunting laws are not a concern. Following World War II, most settled in urban or suburban areas, far from roaming turkeys, elk, bears and deer outside of the occasional casualty in the highway emergency lane.

So few even realize that the same seemingly archaic statutes that in some places prevent liquor purchases on Sundays, otherwise known as “Blue Laws,” also restrict hunting.

That troubles Josh First, a businessman, former congressional candidate and political activist in Harrisburg, Pa., who happens to be a proud hunter. He also is an Orthodox Jew, meaning that his observance of Shabbat – and an 1873 Pennsylvania law that outlaws most large-animal hunting – necessitates going the whole weekend without firing a shot.

First has signed on as an adviser with Hunters United for Sunday Hunting, which brought a lawsuit against the state’s Game Commission after years of unsuccessful attempts to repeal the anti-hunting law in the state legislature. It’s even become a campaign issue in the Keystone state’s gubernatorial race, with Democratic Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who after five terms in Congress representing areas in and around northeast Philadelphia, is making the law’s repeal part of the platform in her challenge to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

Pennsylvania has the largest hunter population in the United States, according to The most recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University showed Schwartz, a member of the greater Philadelphia Jewish community, leading Corbett by 8 percent of respondents.

Although Schwartz herself is Jewish, First still finds himself in a minority of a minority. He’s the only Jew in HUSH.

“Culturally, Jews are traditionally urban and politically liberal, and not exposed to hunting or trapping,” First surmised, explaining why there are so few Jews who hunt. “And these are practices that are considered, let’s be honest, goyish.”

First regularly goes hunting for deer, bears and wild turkeys with other Orthodox Jews from Harrisburg, New York City and Los Angeles, and keeps his hunting cabin strictly kosher, he said.

“I think overcoming … cultural bias is probably the biggest challenge,” he said. “If you tell a religious Jew in New York that you’re hunting, most of them think, ‘You couldn’t possibly be Jewish. Jews don’t hunt.’”

The religious view
As the political battle plays out in Pennsylvania, those like First face an internal religious debate. Though First is confident hunting is acceptable to traditional interpretations of Jewish law, others, such as Rabbi Dovid Bendory, rabbinic director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, disagree.

“In Jewish law, hunting for sport is pretty universally prohibited,” explained Bendory. “Hunting because you need the animal in some way is permissible – hunting where the animal is going to be used, if not by you but by someone else. Then it becomes a discussion as to whether or not it’s an appropriate activity to engage in, and the reality is, in the modern world, there are few situations in where the Jew is hunting to use the animal.”

“Using” a hunted animal can present some problems, since an animal that is killed before ritual slaughter is not considered kosher. Another legal issue surrounds the general prohibition of unnecessarily inflicting pain on another living creature.

First, though, believes that most of the Orthodox opinion on the subject come from a lack of hands-on experience.
“You have to see something with your own eyes, you have to do something with your own hands, you have to witness something in order to understand what it is,” he argued.

“For somebody to sit at their desk and pontificate on something they don’t know a thing about is shameful. It is not being a real halachic authority.”

First points out that no part of an animal he and his group hunts is wasted; they will even distribute its meat to their non-Jewish friends.

Bendory isn’t moved by such a stance.

“Whether or not you can bend the halachic prohibition on hunting by saying, ‘Well, I’m shooting the animal for my non-Jewish friends here,’ is a highly debatable question,” he said.

“There has to be a purpose,” added Rabbi Chaim Schertz, senior rabbi at the Orthodox Kesher Israel Congregation in Harrisburg. “Halachic authorities do not feel that this is a Jewish value; however, from my perspective the skill involved of being able to understand of how animals live and what the woods are like and to be outdoors – to have the ability to survive – that to me is an important skill to attain.

“But it does not require me to actually kill any animals,” continued the rabbi.

Schertz, however, noted an opinion by Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau in his 18th-century work titled Noda B’Yehudah, who wrote that it may even be acceptable for Jews to hunt for sport in certain cases. Because animals were created for peoples’ use, the logic goes, it could be argued that deriving pleasure from the sport of hunting is a tangible use.

Even if the question of whether it is permitted for Orthodox Jews to hunt is murky, the Sunday hunting ban remains an issue in states other than Pennsylvania.

The Sunday Hunting Coalition, which includes the National Rifle Association, the National Shooting Sports Association and the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance among its members, is lobbying for legislation to repeal Sunday hunting bans in the 11 states that still have full or partial bans on the books. Unlike Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Delaware, which all have full Sunday hunting bans, states like Maryland and West Virginia have partial bans in which Sunday hunting laws are decided by individual counties.

According to Jake McGuigan, the National Shooting Sports Association’s director of state affairs and government relations, this year’s efforts are focused on repealing Virginia’s Sunday hunting law; Pennsylvania is next on their agenda.

Last week, the Virginia General Assembly passed House Bill 1237, a bill that would allow Sunday hunting on private property. Written permission from the property owner would be required. The bill is expected to pass the Virginia State Senate this week and signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has publicly expressed his position in favor of the measure.

[email protected] contributed to this story.

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  1. Josh First is right. Our ancestors did hunt. Some who believe they can read some interpretations of a few laws and regurgitate them when they really don’t know what hunting involves, is a sad state of jewish “judgement.”

  2. I’m not going to pretend to be Jewish or to understand all of the laws my Jewish friends have; but I have some thoughts and some questions on the topic.

    First, most hunters don’t hunt “for sport”. We are mainly utilitarian, in that we eat the meat from our kills. We utilize the hide (deer skin gloves are an example), and as many parts as we are able. We have the UTMOST respect for the animals we kill, and make every effort to kill them with one shot, so it is as humane as possible. Would that not qualify as a “kosher” kill?

    Many of my Jewish friends fish. Why is fishing acceptable to nearly every Jew I know, but hunting a grouse or fowl is not? Killing for food is killing for food, correct?

    Then you have the deep rooted belief in Jewish Tradition that you must care for your environment. Hunting is a large part of that. Without regulated hunting, deer and other species would experience disease, over-population and many other dynamics that are contrary to the ecosystem views of many of my Jewish friends.

    Each deer requires 6 pounds of vegetation a day to meet their nutritional requirements. While a deer can survive on its fat reserves for 30 days over winter, harsh winters do result in severe winter kills where populations exceed the carrying capacity of the land. Starvation is far more cruel to the animal than one bullet or arrow could ever be.

    And last but certainly not least, in Genesis 27:3 it clearly states “Now therefore take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison.”

    Would hunting not be acceptable for crop protection?

    In my mind at least, I think Jewish people should be keeping a more open mind regarding hunting.

  3. I’d lik to take the liberty of addressing the Rabbi in the article where he discussed “sport hunting”. I call it “Trophy” hunting as its in general something the very (filthy) wealthy do and they do it for the prestige of having that animal hang on their trophy wall.

    What is in general unviewed in the trophy hunting world are the good it does.

    In Africa, unregulated hunting and poaching led to many species being on the brink of extinction. What changed that and turned the tide was regulated hunting.

    Once the people from those cultures realized the economic value as well as the social value of hunting, they began to patrol and protect those species from poachers. Those animals were no longer wasted for their tusks and the meat left to rot- the were being utilized by the entire community as food. Species began to gain in number and were no longer in peril. “Trophy” or “Sport” hunting saved them.

    The financial role international hunters play has a direct correlation to local communities tolerating wildlife nearby. According to a 2004 study in Tanzania, hunting tourism employed approximately 3,700 people annually. In turn, those workers supported 88,240 families. Hunters are part of the solution.

    The greatest threat to any wildlife population is the lack of hunting for sport, or for food.

    No species has ever gone extinct through regulated hunting.

    Lastly, hunters and shooters across the United States fund more than 80% of wildlife management through hunting license sales and a tax we willingly pay on our Sporting Arms and ammunition. Those taxes are called Pittman Robertson funding.

    In Pennsylvania, where Josh lives, hunters and our tax pay 100% of wildlife management, for 467 species and our dollars have purchased 1.5 million acres of state game lands that are multi-use lands. Those lands protect headwater streams and provide critical habitat to rare, and threatened and endngered species. THAT is something to be proud of.

    Hunters have left a wonderful legacy. One filled with diverse wildlife populations for everyone to enjoy, as well as providing specific niche habitats for current and future generations.

    I can’t believe God could look upon that unfavorably.

  4. A few quick points. With all respect to the Rabbi’s quoted in this article and with further respect to them for being willing to engage in meaningful dialogue on this topic, to relegate the Jewish legal analysis to just hunting as a sport is flawed. Hunting does so much more. Suburban sprawl has made hunting an absolute necessity to manage wildlife with less land that is now overpopulated resulting in, among other things, serious fatal car accidents, significant damage to farm crops and more. As a result, Hunters are some of our best environmentalists and conservationists, a value one would think would figure prominently in Jewish education but often overlooked. In addition, as noted above, it teaches a vital survival skill that hopefully no one will need, but there have been times in our modern history where Jews have needed it. Further, many Rabbi’s focus on the inflicting of unnecessary pain which I frankly find hypocritical because those same Rabbi’s and more support certain Midwestern Kosher slaughter houses regardless of the conditions to actual humans (frankly no so pleasant for the animals either). Ignoring for the moment the treatment of the humans, there could be plenty of arguments that the conditions of the animals in the field are like a luxury vacation by comparison (and far fewer chemicals and hormones pumped into them). Josh First is right in so many ways on this topic. Thank you for publishing this article.

  5. The only reason people hunt if they have access to a grocery store is because they love the sadistic feeling of killing something. If a man is allowed to express his testosterone in this way, he will. Jews are supposed to channel their testosterone for higher goals. This Josh First is a very poor example of a religious Jew.

  6. Shooting an animal is not ritual slaughter, therefore the animal has not been killed in a kosher manner. Does Josh First, a self-proclaimed “Orthodox Jew,” intend to eat his kill, or did he just kill the animal for the pleasure of it, which is also strictly prohibited by Jewish Law? Just because institutionalized, “farmed” slaughter is questionably halachic doesn’t mean that hunting is acceptable, even if the animals ARE living in a natureal environment rather than kept in cruel enclosures.
    The time will come when genuine kashrut means what G-d originally intended, as it is written in Genesis 1:29 – “And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food.”

  7. I’ve hunted with Josh. The hunted meat is donated to (a non-kosher) charity for food.

    Please note Genesis Chapter 9
    [9:2] The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered.
    [9:3] Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.

    Also, out of curiosity, where is the specific law that forbids hunting for pleasure. Does keeping the fur as a rug apply?

  8. Tova Saul,

    They don’t “make” meat in a grocery store. A farmed animal died so you could eat it.

    I’m a woman who hunts. Do I experience pleasure from hunting. Yes- but not for your notion of why hunters hunt.

    Hunters are the original conservationists. We keep wildlife in balance with their habitats. Without hunting, many would starve, so hunting is surely more humane by death from one arrow than starvation.

    We see nature as God intended. I know Josh. He sits on my board, and he is one of the most utilitarian conservationists I have ever met, be it with a wood lot, or for wildlife.

    Judge him not in an unkind fashion. Ask him instead to take you on a hunt, so you can be enlightened.

  9. Tovah and Cheryl, I’m fascinated by your posts here. They lack logical reasoning and practical knowledge of the subject, but they are loaded with judgmentalism. Regardless of what is represented in a brief article on a significant topic, there is much more to the story. Obviously I disagree with Rabbi Bendory, and any other observant rabbi, that there is an issur against hunting. No such issur exists. Lots of unfavorable views among the rabbinic sources, but nothing actually saying we cannot hunt. That’s because hunting doesn’t fit the artificially neat categorization presented by R. Bendory or by either of you. We hunt primarily to reduce the deer populations on our Tree Farm and other farms and forests we own and / or manage for agricultural production. Much more to it than even this. This do many rabbinic sources allow hunting for a variety of reasons, even if they say it’s preferable not to. There’s a philosophical debate here, between halachic Judaism that follows Halacha, and another that piles gezera upon chumra upon chumra upon gezera upon minhag to then create something beyond Halacha. This is a good debate to have, among Jews committed to halachic Judaism. It’s well beyond this article. If you’d like to discuss it more, come to us for Shabbat, where you’ll be treated and fed very well. Also, I’m not a self proclaimed orthodox Jew. There’s no such thing (nor is there such a thing as a Reformed Jew, etc.). There are halachically observant Jews and non-observant Jews. I’m a halachically observant Jew. I’m glad you care about Halacha. That’s awesome. Live it!
    Also, someone eating store-bought meat, but against hunting, is the definition of a hypocrite. Having a hit man assassinate your food for you doesn’t give you clean hands, even if you think it also gives you an artificially clean mind. Again, I’m easy to reach. I don’t bite. Happy to engage in honest discussion. – Josh


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