Owls in Jewish Tradition

Cosmic Reference Library Source Sheet

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. 

Birds in Judaism and Jewish Culture (A-Wing and A-Way)

Tanach and Talmud

Tanach (selected references)

  • Deut 14.15
    • Dark desert owl: בַּ֣ת הַֽיַּעֲנָ֔ה
      • translation note: owl, ostrich, literally translated as “daughters of the owl”
  • Deuteronomy.14.16 
    • Little/Screech Owl: כּ֥וֹס
      • also called “dark little owl”
      • also means cup
    • Great Owl: יַּנְשׁ֖וּף
      • also called “long-eared owl”
  • Psalms 102:7
    • I am like a pelican of the wilderness; I am become as an owl (כ֣וֹס) of the waste places.
  • Isaiah 34:14
    • The wild creatures of the desert also meet with the jackals, the scops owl (קִפּוֹד) shall cry to his fellow; the tawny owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest.

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Talmud

  • Berakhot 57b: All kinds of birds are auspicious signs in a dream except for an eagle-owl, and an owl, and a kurferai, all of which are nocturnal and have strange and frightening appearances.
  • Mishneh Torah Blessings 10.12On seeing an elephant, an ape or an owl (קִּיפוֹף) one says, “Blessed be He Who varieth the forms of creatures.” (בָּרוּךְ מְשַׁנֶּה אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת)
    • note — modern hebrew the word for owl is for Tarsier Monkey (a small monkey)
  • Niddah – discussions about the shape of a woman’s “discharge” and what it means if it looksl ike an owl.  there are a lot of mentions, here are just a few.
    • Niddah 23a:14
      • Abaye said: Rabbi Meir is referring to the little owl [bekarya] and the great owl [vekifofa], whose eyes are fixed in the front of their heads, but in the case of a woman who discharges any of the other
    • Niddah 23a:21
      • other species of birds, as perhaps the statement that the discharged item must be examined applies according to the Rabbis, as they say that if a woman discharges an item that has the form of a little owl…or a great owl, yes, she is impure, but if a woman discharges an item that has the form of other birds, she is not impure.
    • Niddah 23a:22
      • What is the difference between a little owl and a great owl on the one hand, and a domesticated animal and an undomesticated animal on the other?…The Gemara answers: Since owls have cheeks like those of a human, therefore a woman who discharges an item similar to an owl is impure, whereas if she discharges an item that has the form of a land animal

Owls and Birds

Resources from Web

  • Owl (Jewish Encyclopedia)
  • Owls (Jewish Virtual Library)
  • Birds (Jewish Encyclopedia)
  • The Bird of Divine Providence (Chabad/Kabbalah Online)
  • Birds in Judaism and Jewish Culture (A-Wing and A-Way)
  • Of Were-Owls and Wandering Jews (Jewish Review of Books)
    • The notion of a were-owl may seem peculiar, but it has a history. Owls, after all, are unsettling creatures. Parsing the names of the unkosher birds in Leviticus, Rashi explains which Hebrew terms correspond to the French hibou and chouette (owls both): “They cry out at night and have the facial structure of a man”—that is, their eyes are in front, like humans, not on the sides like most birds. In some medieval Christian bestiaries, owls represent Jews, since both love darkness and inhabit ruins. During the same period, the Sefer hasidim warned Jews about strias—the term derives from the Latin for “owl”—women who drink human blood and can fly when they unloose their hair.
  • Connections to Lilith
    • Demons & Demonology (Jewish Virtual Library)
      LILITH (Isa. 34:14; ultimately from Sumerian lil, “air,” not Heb. layl(ah), “night”) was originally a succubus, believed to cohabit with mortals, but in the Arslan Tash incantation quoted above she is identified with the child-stealing demon, a character she retains in later folklore. The tradition that the name means “screech-owl” (in so many translations) reflects a very ancient association of birds, especially owls, with the demonic.
    • Lilith (Jewish Encyclopedia): She becomes a nocturnal demon, flying about in the form of a night-owl and stealing children.
  • Connections to Anti-semitism
    • Owls (Rijks Museum)
      For medieval Christians the owl could do no right. It became the symbol of Synagogue, the female personification of Judaism. 
    • Owls: Always a Hoot? (University of Notre Dame)
      A more disturbing element of owl’s negative symbolism is their association with anti-Semitism. Owls, who are day-blind and live in darkness, were used to represent Jews in medieval England, who were said to have rejected the light of Christ and live in the uncleanliness of religious blasphemy. This accounts for the anthropomorphic appearance of some manuscript drawings of owls: they were sometimes given hooked noses to resemble Jews, and their horns represent the horned hats Jews were forced to wear.
    • To see the antisemitism of medieval bestiaries, look for the owl (Psyche Magazine)
      The antisemitism found in the bestiaries is only one of the many ways that the anti-Jewish agenda of the Church expressed itself in the Middle Ages. This agenda was powerfully codified by the influential Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, when the conditions for Jewish life in Latin Christendom became officially regulated.

Excerpts from Books

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