Jews, Hunters and Sunday Hunting Bans

Orthodox Jew Josh First makes no apologies for his love of hunting. (Provided)

Orthodox Jew Josh First makes no apologies for his love of hunting.

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.

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 Sunday hunting ban 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, would beat Corbett, 45 percent to 35 percent.

Although Schwartz 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 said, explaining why there are so few Jewish hunters. “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 judgmentalism and 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 such as 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,” said 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 which 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 comes 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 in being able to understand 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, who wrote in his 18th-century work, “Noda B’Yehudah,” that it may even be acceptable for Jews to hunt for sport in certain cases. Because animals were created for people’s 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 can be murky, the rules of Shabbat are clear, and 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 such as 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 its agenda.

Last week, the Virginia General Assembly passed House Bill 1237, which 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 be signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has publicly expressed his position in favor of the measure.; contributed to this story.


  1. Rodney says

    Deer most certainly can be overharvested to the point of negatively effecting hunting and hunters level of satisfaction. Some may think that isn’t a consideration, or shouldn’t be in management goals but that’s a very anal viewpoint. Currently here in Pennsylvania, hunter satisfaction has declined greatly due to environmental extremism and enviro hard liners dictating management directions over the last 15 years. It has not been a good thing for hunters in this state. And to maintain a strong tool of herd management, the hunter ranks themselves, again, yes their satisfaction does matter. Its tired directly to them existing in numbers to remain effective tool of management long into the future. Not all states are equal, they need treated differently based upon the actual deer herd size, peoples values differ, numbers of hunters differ. Level of acceptance with various herd sizes differ. Cant just say one size fits all.

  2. says

    The premise about over harvest , particularly of whitetail deer is incorrect. Hunting of wildlife is scientifically monitored. Science and past history have not shown Sunday hunting to cause over harvest. Furthermore, regarding whitetail deer this argument is academic because the management prescriptions for whitetail deer have changed, and call for a much heavier harvest than in the past. So lower deer populations will be the norm.

    All hunters “use” the game they harvest. As a matter of fact the North American Wildlife Conservation Model also stipulates that hunting is only to be allowed when the animal is used. The two uses considered to be legitimate by the model are food and fur or leather. The vast majority of hunting is for the meat, however, not the hides. We are not at all suggesting hunting is not done for recreation, however, it is completely false that obtaining meat is not an important part of the hunting experience.

    I am not Jewish, but in my youth I had two Jewish friends who did hunt. They had indicated they indeed were inconvenienced by the Sunday hunting ban because of religious obligations. I only hunted with them a few times over the years, on holidays during the week.

  3. Deer Hunter says

    Is There an Environmentally Extreme Agenda Behind H.U.S.H?


    Exactly who is HUSH (short for Hunters United for Sunday Hunting). That is the question everyone is asking. That is what we have explored and the results are not quite fitting in with hushes claims that this is all about the future of hunting, constitutionality etc. Many believe they are just politically driven environmentalists as opposed to the “hunter advocates” they would like legislators and others to believe.

    Lets take an in depth look at the 4 people who make up HUSH and their motives for doing so.

    First, we start with Kathy Davis, the groups founder. A known enviroextreme type, Kathy has pushed and lobbied for legislation and regulation that would lower the states deer herd for years. The causes she has championed pretty much mirror those suggested by the audubon deer forum for things “needed” to further reduce the deer herd. She has also many environmental connections, and has voted for further herd reductions on a citizen advisory committee where she took part, even though the Pa Game Commission had a set goal of stabilization. She was voted down by the majority of the other participants on the committee, and her initiative failed. She had also had an interest in obtaining a PGC commissioner seat for unit 2A, but her attempt was quashed by concerned sportsmen voicing concerns over the proposed nominee. Ms. Davis has also alienated several legislators with her percieved extremism and dogged determination when it comes to her misguided lobbying efforts. There are also multiple pgc commissioners that have also said they have “tuned her out” for the same reasons. Some members of one of the larger sportsmen groups in the state, apparently confused by so much percieved extremism, have actually inquired about her being an ANTI-hunter.

    Vern Ross, another of the hush members is, interestingly enough, the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission who was a driving force behind getting deer herd reduction into place. Vern will forever be looked back upon as one of the most controversial figures in Pa game management history for the role he played in forever changing Pa deer management under the Ridge administrations deer program.

    Don Heckman, a very active participant when it came to weighing in on game issues, has consistently voiced strong support for the deer management plan and reductions. Taking a very extreme stance on the issue for years. A very adament supporter of the Pa Game Commission deer plan, as were some of his close nwtf colleagues. Mr. Heckman has certainly done some good things for wild turkey management in the state, and that should not go ignored in this brief summary.

    Josh First. Mr. First has quite the lengthy list of environmentalist ties. He is also very active in the environmental arena, so much so, he was pointed to as being an environmental extremist by one of the states largest sportsmen groups who opposed his nomination when he tried to gain an appointment to the Pa game commissions board of commissioners. He has also worked at the Environmental Protection Agency, Dcnr (under Tom Ridge) is on the policy council of 10,000 friends of Pennsylvania and is coordinator for ‘Pa Habitat Alliance’ which is headed by the Audubon Society. His environmentalism resume is far too lengthy to list here, but much informtion is available online. Mr. First also made a failed attempt to gain the senatorial seat of Pa district 15 in 2012.

    Many believe that these people are nothing more than very willing pawns in the “deer wars” and it certainly looks that this may indeed be the case. Sunday hunting would go a long way towards being able to harvest more deer, and thereby further what some are calling an “environmentally extreme” agenda.

    It is our belief that the unsupportable deer herd reductions and resulting maleffects of extremely low hunter satisfaction and drop out is very damaging to our hunting heritage in Pennsylvania and it has gone on long enough.


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