A look at one of the oldest faiths offers us insights into the many ways birds impact societies. Judaism, of course, is a religion of spiritual and practical guidance, but it is also much more. It’s a living collection of history, songs, wisdom teachings, and customs that support the cultural and ethnic identity of Jews throughout the world. In these sources and practices, avian creatures of all kinds are used as food and offerings, as metaphor and allegory, and as a celebration of life and God.
The ancient scribes of this tradition sprinkled observations on birds throughout their writings. In a few cases the men are seized with wonder, as expressed by the author of Proverbs 30:18–19 who ranks the flight of the eagle among the four enigmas too perplexing for him to understand. Sometimes lines within such texts convey gratitude, as in the way Psalms 104:12 praises God for the birds that nest and sing. Of course, other examples exist, numerous ones often appealing symbolically or applying to practical matters.
Avian metaphors, first and foremost, are common in Jewish scriptures and folklore. Jeremiah 17:11, for example, claims that folks who are greedy and dishonest are like certain birds, such as partridges, hatching eggs not their own. In several instances, too, the Israelites are compared to birds. Among these, Exodus 19:4 likens them to an eagle’s offspring (and God to a parent eagle) while Amos 3:5 uses the metaphor of a sinful people trapped like an ensnared bird. Centuries later, some European Jews even resorted to portraying historical personalities in their art with bird-like features. This was due to Old Testament prohibitions regarding certain types of artistic images (Exodus 20:4–6, Deuteronomy 5:8–10). To circumvent these restrictions, a German fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript called the Birds’ Head Haggadah reveals that artists depicted many humans with avian faces (1). Such hybrid-like creatures, neither existing in the heavenly nor the earthly realms, would have been deemed fine for illustration.
Overall, bird imagery in Semitic literature outside the Old Testament has an imaginative and mystical flare. There’s the giant ziz, the avian equivalent of leviathan, discussed by Talmud scholar Louis Ginzberg (2, 3) and the legends that King Solomon, the wise monarch and son of King David, could understand the language of birds (4). We have descriptions in The Apocalypse of Abraham, a first- or second-century CE text of pre-Rabbinic Judaism, of the great patriarch and an angel making their way to heaven by aid of a pigeon’s and turtledove’s wings (5). And in other writings, we learn that sparrows sing as spirits continue to be born, set forth from the Guf, a mysterious storehouse of souls. However, once the last spirit departs from this realm, the songs of sparrows will cease and the world will soon end (6).
Birds for Food and Sacrifice
The number of Jewish scriptures are extensive, but the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, remains a central part of the faith. Aside from those passages in Genesis devoted to the creation and great flood, the Torah addresses the role of birds principally (but not exclusively) as a food source. Numbers 11 notes how God, via a strong wind, provided quails for the hungry Israelites at one point during the group’s long journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Also, Exodus 16:13–14 tells of these birds being sent by God, along with manna, as sustenance for Moses and his followers. Interestingly, the accounts in Exodus of how God provided for the nomadic Israelites, particularly chapters 15 and 16, are used to support the Ashkenazic Jewish practice of feeding birds on Shabbot Shirah (7, 8), which occurs in either January or February, depending on the Jewish calendar (9).
Quails are among many of the birds permitted as edible forms. However, restrictions on other avian creatures are lain out in the earliest Biblical scriptures. Prior to the Talmud’s clarifications, the Torah’s Leviticus 11:13–19 and Deuteronomy 14:11–18 issued dietary instructions for the Israelites’ consumption of birds, by specifying which fowl are not to be eaten. The reasons are debatable as to why certain birds are declared “unclean” (10); however, most of the forbidden fowl listed do consume meat. Eagles, owls, hawks, and other raptors fall into this category. Carrion feeders, such as vultures and crows, are also prohibited as food. These scriptures indicate as well that many kinds of waterfowl, ranging from a broad realm of seagulls to the larger herons, pelicans, and cormorants, are unclean. Again, note that these latter birds consume lots of fish.
Some restrictions are less obvious. For example, add to the list of the unclean, Israel’s national bird, the hoopoe, which occasionally eats small reptiles and amphibians. While this crested bird (pictured above) is associated with King Solomon (11), the creature’s habit of sifting through animal feces to find insects and of messing its nests are far from appealing characteristics. The ostrich is an intriguing entry. Primarily an herbivore, it does not feed on any creatures besides insects. The bird perhaps is banned from consumption due to its reputation for swallowing rocks and metallic objects. Of course, several passages in the Old Testament, such as Job 39:14–17, Isaiah 13:21, and Lamentations 4:3–4, speak negatively of the ostrich for other reasons: its perceived ignorance and predilection for desolate areas. Job 39:18, however, notes that the bird has the ability to outrun horses.
Besides addressing birds as a form of physical nourishment, the Torah states how some of these creatures are encouraged as offerings. The book of Leviticus cites the frequent role of birds in such customs. For example, Leviticus 1:14–17 states that only doves or pigeons should be sacrificed as burnt offerings to God. Details regarding specific situations are addressed throughout the book, such as Leviticus 5:7–10 for sin offerings and Leviticus 14:1–7 for the ritual purification of those afflicted with skin diseases. No reference is made to chickens, for at the time this book was written those birds were not available to the Israelites (12). Nevertheless, centuries later, domesticated chickens came to be accepted as atonement offerings (kapparot) on the day before Yom Kippur (13).
Birds of Ill Repute
Whereas the dove’s reputation is relatively positive and unblemished, scriptures have presented several birds in a negative light. Genesis 8:8–12 states that the first bird released was a raven, but it failed to report back to Noah and his Ark. Later, though, in I Kings 17:2–6, the raven proves much more reliable, for the prophet Elijah, while in hiding, relies daily on them to bring him food. Generally, though, due to their carrion-eating habits, ravens are associated with death and destruction. Proverbs 30:17 states that one who fails to properly respect his or her elderly parents either should or will perish in a manner that affords ravens and vultures the opportunity to feed on that person’s corpse. Isaiah 34:11–15 indicates, as part of God’s curse, that owls, ravens, and vultures will populate the devastated land of Edom, an enemy nation of the ancient Israelites.
A strong case could be made that of all birds presented in Jewish scriptures, literature, and folklore, the owl is the most despised. After all, during the medieval period, the bird came to be strongly associated with Lilith, a demoness and witch, and in some traditions, the first wife of Adam. She is even named in Isaiah 34:14 as part of the aforementioned curse on Edom. The ninth-century text Alpha Beta de-Ben Sira (or Alphabet of Ben Sira) offers a much more detailed picture of Lilith. Over time, she was taken to be more than just a temptress and disobedient free spirit; she was also blamed for strangling infants at night during their sleep (14). According to Jewish and African lore, the nocturnal cry of a nearby owl, not surprisingly, was once thought capable of inflicting death on a baby (15, 16).
Birds, presented in various forms throughout the Judaic religion, remain a notable part of Jewish life and culture. A brief survey from just the past couple hundred years reveals the continued symbolic importance of these creatures to Jewish writers, as demonstrated in secularized works as diverse as Hayim Nahman Bialik’s poem “To the Bird,” Franz Kafka’s short story “The Vulture,” Chava Rosenfarb’s novel Bociany, Bernard Malamud’s short story “The Jewbird,” and Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poem “The Roar of Waters.” Of course, the scriptures and customs of Judaism continue today to attach significance to our winged neighbors. Many of the world’s other major religions do as well, and those traditions will be explored later.
- “The Birds’ Head Haggadah: A Medieval Illuminated Manuscript with a Twist,” Jewish Heritage Online Magazine: http://jhom.com/topics/topics/birds/haggadah.htm.
- Ginzberg, L. “The Monstrous Ziz and Other Fantastic Birds,” Jewish Heritage Online Magazine: http://jhom.com/topics/topics/birds/ziz.html.
- Ginzberg, L. Legends of the Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1956, 1992. p. 15.
- Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. pp. 258–260.
- Box, G.A., Landsman, J.I. (Editors and Translators). Translations of Early Documents: Series I: Palestinian Jewish Texts (Pre-Rabbinic): The Apocalypse of Abraham. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1919. Online via Marquette University: http://www.marquette.edu/maqom/box.pdf.
- Schwartz, H. Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. pp. 22, 164–166.
- Golinkin, D. “Why is Shabbat Shirah ‘for the Birds’?” Schechter on Judaism, Vol. 3, Issue No. 4, Jan. 3003. Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem: http://www.schechter.edu/insightIsrael.aspx?ID=25.
- “Shabbats: Special Shabbats,” Jewish Virtual Library: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/specialshabbat.html.
- “Jewish Holidays: Tu B’Shevat,” Jewish Virtual Library: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/holiday8.html.
- “Clean and Unclean Animals,” The Jewish Encyclopedia: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4408-clean-and-unclean-animals.
- Ingersoll, E. p. 60.
- “Birds,” The Jewish Encyclopedia: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3316-birds.
- “Kapparah,” The Jewish Encyclopedia: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9204-kapparah.
- Schwartz, H. pp. 215–226.
- Ingersoll, E. p. 186.
- Knappert, J. The Book of African Fables. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. p. 89.