Table of Contents
- Cultural Appropriation / Decolonization Statement
- Animal and Plant Allies in Jewish Teachings
- Working with Animal and Plant Allies in a Jewish Way
- Bibliography of Sources
This is not a “traditional” source sheet where I offer sources, but generally avoid too much editorializing. This post both contains links to many resources and references AND an approach you can choose to follow or utilize as inspiration. I’ve chosen to keep the source sheet section open to all, but the section on working with plants and animals from a Jewish frame is restricted to premium subscribers only, as is the ability to leave comments.
Cultural Appropriation / Decolonization Statement
I know some of you want to skip this part, but please don’t.
There is a lot of discussion around whether or not “Spirit Animals” are cultural appropriation. The short answer is Yes. And no. Clearly it depends on what your ancestry and faith traditions are.
The word totem, is an Ojibwe word that has become incorporated into English. That’s what is called a “loan word.” In a way, this is inherently cultural appropriation because when this happened — Europeans considered Native Americans (and people of color) to be inherently inferior. The challenge is that it is now the only widely known word we really have in English for this concept, and it’s an official term in sociology. I know many Native Americans who are really angered by the loose use of the term “spirit animal” in popular culture.
I personally find it inappropriate to use of Native American interpretations of animal ancestors and meanings by people not of that ancestry as a “generic” and without learning about the culture that held those believes. Often people don’t even cite which nation, tribe, or even region of indigenous people held that association.
Assuming with this definition, and acknowledgement that the word’s origin is Ojibwe, an argument can be made that use of the word is not inherently cultural appropriation — but for the rest of this article however, I’ll use the terms “animal ally” and “plant ally” instead of “totem,” unless I am directly quoting from another source.
“A totem is a symbol, usually an animal or other natural object, used to signify a tribe or group of people. More than just a mascot, emblem, or iconographic signature, a totem embodies a tribe’s self-identity. It carries the tribe’s spiritual energy, informs decisions about behavior, and often acts as an intermediary between a people and its god or gods. Jews do not erect totem poles like those of Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest; our biblical proscription against graven images is too strong to allow that. Yet our totem is alive and well and deeply rooted in our history and liturgy; our totem is the sheep; more specifically, the ram. ” (Michael Chusid, Hearing Shofar, Book 3)
Archaeology and research have shown that we can safely say that the concept of animal and plant ally-ship is a nearly universal one and beyond just being an embodiment of a individual, clan, tribe, or nation — at times an animal or plant ally is seen as being an ancestor. The challenge is for many cultures – especially Europeans — it is not part of their recent history, and the relationship with any given animal or plant ally is unique to a specific culture. That is why just lifting the meanings of an animal from a culture that is not yours – is both inappropriate and diminishes an individuals experience working with these beings.
Now, on to animal and plant ally-ship in Judaism.
Animal & Plant Allies in Judaism
The easiest place to start is with the Twelve Tribes and the animals, plants, and items associated with them. Each of the sons of Yisrael and the later tribes/clans of their descendants had both an animal, plant, or created object emblem, and later a gemstone associated with it. But beyond that — each of the twelve tribes has its own emblem or animal ally. This article from Chabad, illustrates why you shouldn’t just grab animal symbolism from any culture — it’s because they are packed with history and layers. If you just look at the Twelve Tribes and grab the animal ally of Issachar — the Donkey — without understand the cultural significance, you’ve done yourself and your attempted ally a deep disservice.
In the Tanakh, there are apparently more than 160 places and people named after animals or plants. You could say that this is simply because these are things they saw in their everyday lives. But if you read the Torah with the lens of a sacred relationship between the name and person or place — it changes thing. And since many Jews call G!d/dess “The Name” – HaShem (השם), it seems like we should dig a little deeper. What gets more interesting is that many of these are not just individual names — they refer to tribes/clans.
It can also be said, as Michael Chusid proposes, that entirety of the Israelite people have a single animal ally. Through the Torah we can see that the sheep or goat seems to emerge as an ancestral animal ally of the Israelite people. Jacob comes into his own by herding sheep (or goats). Part of his way of building his wealth, and escape from Laban, is a rather nifty work of magick using the sheep (B’resheit 30:32-43). The mothers of the tribes, Rachel and Leah, both were named after animals. Rachel means ewe and Leah is sometimes said to be related to the word for gazelle or “wild cow.” And if nothing else, she is said to have “cow-like eyes.” Sheep and goats were sacred to Israelites because they provided a livelihood, food, the Shofar, wool for clothing, hides for tents and so much more. But are sheep the animal ally of the Jewish people?
Let’s further consider the so-called seven species: wheat, barley, grape vines, figs, pomegranates, olive trees, and date honey (D’varim 8:8). Here we have an amazing array of Jewish plant allies, each loaded with their own layers of symbolism.
See my Source Sheets for deep dives on a variety of plants and animals from a Jewish frame.
Let’s just take the pomegranate as an example. It is a symbol of abundance and fertility, and in Rabbinic Judaism it is the symbol of the “613 mitzvot” in the Torah. And that only scratches the surface. I know from growing my own pomegranates that they are also the last tree to to return in the Spring and if you cut a branch the leaves stay green, even when dried out. I also layer on resilience as a part of my pomegranate symbolism. But is there a “pomegranate clan” in the Torah? No. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not the plant ally of individuals or groups. It has long been one of my personal plant allies, and I feel a deep connection to the tree and fruit that cannot be explained rationally.
Become a Premium Subscriber to Access Full Source Sheet
Access exclusive content when you subscribe to the Cosmic Reference Library for only $36/year, powered by substack.com.
Access Link for Members: https://devotaj.substack.com/p/animal-and-plant-allies-in-judaism