It would start this time of year: First light brought reports of gunfire down from the hills behind our house in rural New Jersey. Guys clothed in camo and doused with scent-blocking spray to prevent their odor from betraying their presence were shooting deer during the brief gun-hunting season.
Later in the morning, I would see the hunters at the convenience store on the edge of town, picking up coffee and donuts (they'd been sitting out in freezing weather since 3 a.m. or so), deer carcasses lying in the beds of pickup trucks. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, ribbing one another on their hunting and human failings.
This would always get me thinking about why I didn't hunt. I've always read that it is a pursuit handed down from fathers to sons (and now daughters), so there really wasn't much mystery to the answer. My father never hunted, nor had either of my grandfathers, and as far as I can tell, none of their forebears had either. Based on the 19th- and early 20th-century photographs, it just wasn't possible to imagine those stolid craftsmen or natty merchants as hunters. I was left with an inescapable conclusion: Jews don’t hunt.
I know, this sounds like a gag in a standup routine, and there's surely one in there ("Son, how will you get into medical school if you're spending time trying to kill deer instead of studying? And careful you don't catch cold or put an eye out when you're in the woods.")
But what is it about hunting, as opposed to say, fishing, a pastime I enjoy, as did a grandfather and an uncle? A Google search actually brings up a good amount of material on the subject, much of it written by rabbis and religious scholars. Most of the explanations aren't very satisfying.
First, and most numerous, are the biblical literalists, who cite the tale of Nimrod, a hunter and evil tyrant, and Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac, the second patriarch of the ancient Israelites. In this telling, Jews trace their lineage to Jacob, a farmer, while his older brother, Esau, a hunter, gave rise to the tribes that were often at odds with the Israelites.
So Jews don't hunt because about 5,000 years ago a guy -- who may or may not have existed and who may or may not be the progenitor of the Jews -- named Jacob was a farmer, not a hunter.
Another idea offered by the rabbis: Animals killed in a hunt haven't been slaughtered in accordance with kosher dietary laws. But how does this square with surveys that show a majority of Jews don't keep kosher? Anyway most hunters aren't out there trying to feed a family, since buying meat at the supermarket is cheaper and more convenient.
Or how about this? In some of the literature, the scholars conclude that God bars Jews from making "sport" of animals by inflicting pain and suffering for pleasure. OK, maybe this makes a certain amount of sense. As the comedian George Carlin once said: "You think hunting is a sport? Ask the deer." There are other injunctions against cruelty to animals, although I don't get how this squares with kosher slaughter, which in practice doesn't seem particularly humane.
Perhaps the most persuasive argument I came across is implicit in an article on a related topic, "Why Jews Don't Farm," written in 2003 by Steven Landsburg, an economics professor at the University of Rochester. As he tells it, Jews abandoned farming long before laws in the medieval era barred them from owning land. By about 200 A.D. they began moving to cities and towns where they became artisans, merchants and financiers. Jews, in this telling, were the only group to voluntarily give up farming.
They did this mainly for the purpose of maintaining a Jewish identity. As Judaism evolved, the ability to read and study scripture become integral to affiliation with the religion. An observant Jew, as Landsburg noted, had to read the Torah four times a week.
Becoming literate wasn't the relatively easy task it is today. But if you were Jewish and wanted your children (the male ones for most of history) to be Jewish, bearing the expense and inconvenience of educating them wasn't optional.
In turn, jobs in urban areas paid better in ancient times, as they do today. Jews, who were by definition literate, were well-qualified for the opportunities urban living had to offer. As for Jews who didn’t gain an education and move to cities, most probably stopped being Jews at some point. This explains, in part, why Jews are such a small fraction of the modern world's population and why they were relatively numerous in the ancient world.
How does hunting figure in this? Hunting, like farming, is done in rural areas. That's where game -- or varmints -- live. There isn't really much sense in tossing a spear, launching an arrow or firing a shot in the middle of a town or city.
And someone could lose an eye if you did.
(James Greiff is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)