Did the Rabbis of Old Engage in Hunting?
When my ancestors came to Britain at the turn of the twentieth century, they settled in South Wales. They would travel around the hills and dales, hawking their wares with the sole phrase in English that they knew: “Everything a penny!” Todd Endelman, in The Jews of Georgian England, records that in the literature of the period “. . . there are frequent references to Jews hawking slippers, sweet cakes, barley sugar, cane straps, glassware, sealing wax, belt buckles, buttons and the like . . .” I left England nearly twenty years ago, but on a recent lecture tour there I decided to experience the other kind of Jewish hawking.
In the Book of Genesis, we find the account of how Yaakov heard that his brother Eisav, who hated him for taking his blessing, was on his way to meet him with four hundred men. Yaakov prepared for this encounter by attempting to curry favor with Eisav: “And he lodged there on that night; and he took from that which came into his hand as a gift to his brother Eisav” (32:14).
Now, simply speaking, the phrase “that which came into his hand” is a reference to the list that immediately follows: camels, goats and sheep. This is what is later described as the gift that he gave. It is described as that which “came into his hand” in that he had earned it through honest means.
The thirteenth-century Spanish commentator Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher, however, suggests some additional interpretations. One is that it refers to precious stones, which can literally be “held in the hand.” But he also cites another view, the source of which he does not name, that this enigmatic phrase refers to that which “comes in the hand” in a very literal sense: a falcon. A trained falcon is carried in one’s hand, and it would be an appropriate gift for Eisav, says Rabbeinu Bachya, because he was a “man of the field” and a keen hunter. Rabbeinu Bachya further states that accordingly, the “hand” being described is Eisav’s hand, not Yaakov’s hand—the verse is stating that Yaakov sent a gift to Eisav which Eisav would carry on his hand.
Who is the anonymous source cited by Rabbeinu Bachya? In the Torah commentary of Rabbeinu Ephraim HaGadol, this view is cited by name—it is that of the twelfth-century Rabbeinu Tam, greatest of the Tosafists and grandson of Rashi. Interestingly, there are a few differences in Rabbeinu Ephraim’s presentation of Rabbeinu Tam’s view (which should be rated as more accurate, due to Rabbeinu Ephraim being Rabbeinu Tam’s student). First, he describes the bird as being a hawk rather than a falcon. Second, in this version, there is no mention of the hand being Eisav’s hand; instead, the hawk is simply that which is carried in one’s hand. He describes hunting with a hawk as being a prestigious sport that is favored by royalty and noblemen.
But why did Rabbeinu Tam come up with such an unusual explanation of the verse? And is there any significance to the fact that he wrote about a hawk rather than a falcon, and that he did not see fit to specify that the “hand” of the verse was Eisav’s hand?
On my recent trip to England, on a freezing winter day, I visited the English School of Falconry. Somewhat confusingly, the sport of hunting with birds of prey is called “falconry,” no matter which type of bird is involved, whereas the verb describing the act of hunting with birds of prey is called “hawking,” again regardless of the bird of prey being used. Thus, one can do falconry with hawks and one can go hawking with falcons! At the English School of Falconry, there were falcons, hawks, owls and even some magnificent eagles. I practiced handling them, having them fly to my hand, and I learned how to place them in the “safety position”—whereby the jesses (the leather straps tied to the hawk’s legs) are twisted around the fingers in a special way, much like tefillin straps, to prevent the bird from flying off into trouble. I then went out on a hunting expedition with hawks.
It wasn’t exactly like the hawking expeditions of medieval times and antiquity; we rode out to the hunting grounds in a Land Rover rather than on horseback. But aside from that, there were few differences from the traditional sport. In fact, whereas many hawks today are fitted with radio transmitters in case they fail to return, ours were fitted with the traditional bells. We wore traditional leather falconry gloves, to protect our hands from the hawks’ powerful talons. Such a glove is identified by Rambam as fraklin, which is listed in the mishnah (Kelim 24:15) as an item of clothing used in falconry which can also be used as a vessel and is thus subject to certain laws of ritual contamination. Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller notes that it cannot be a fingered glove, since the Mishnah explicitly states that fingered gloves are not rated as vessels, and thus concludes that it must be a mitten. However, in falconry, it is always fingered gloves that are used. As mentioned earlier, the bird’s jesses are twined around the fingers. For this reason, as well as based on indications in the writings of the Geonim along with etymological studies, it seems that the fraklin of the mishnah are in fact high boots rather than gloves. And indeed, I could have done with wearing boots on that day, for reasons that will become clear.
Training a hawk is a skilled art. Readying it for a hunt is also complicated; if a hawk has had too much to eat, then it is “fed up” (that’s the origin of the phrase) and won’t perform. Falconers must regularly weigh their birds to assess which of them has digested its last meal and is ready to hunt; a fraction of an ounce can make all the difference. Of the dozens of hawks at the school, we selected two that were ready to go.
My guide for the hunt was a wonderful and extremely traditional Englishman whom I shall call Rupert. (His name was actually Luke, but he was so very English that I think Rupert is a much more fitting name.)
The Talmud relates that King David engaged in shaker bazay–a Persian phrase which refers to hunting with birds of prey.
The object of the hunt was to see the birds display their skills, and the quarry that is usually sought is rabbits and pheasants. We took the hawks out of the car and walked toward an area of trees and bushes. Then we released the hawks from the safety position and “cast them off” into the trees where they perched, waiting for us to do our part. Picking up some stout branches, we waded into the undergrowth (this is where fraklin boots would have been useful), whacking the bushes with our sticks, in order to flush out any hiding pheasants or rabbits. But our beating around the bushes did not produce any results. And so we retrieved the hawks by taking a scrap of meat from the bags that were slung over our shoulders, placing it on our gloves and whistling for the birds. They swooped down for the treat; we placed them in the safety position and moved on to the next area.
Well, the pheasants and the rabbits got the better of us that morning. We did see one rabbit bolting into the distance, but the hawks couldn’t catch it in time. The only animal that they caught was a mouse, which we let them keep. But had they caught a pheasant, we would have traded them a scrap of meat in order to get them to part with it. Otherwise, getting them to part with their prey is well-nigh impossible. Indeed, after one failed strike that left the hawk with its talons tightly grasping a ball of leaves and twigs, it took a very long time to persuade the hawk to release its grasp.
According to the sages of the Talmud, when predatory birds grasp their prey with their claws or talons in this way, the prey animal is automatically considered mortally wounded. They believed that venom is injected from the predator’s claws into the prey animal, rendering it a treifah and prohibited for human consumption even if slaughtered according to Jewish law. The belief may have stemmed from the fact that animals mauled by predators will often die, even if the wound itself is not lethal, due to infections caused by bacteria from the claws.
Which brings us back to Rabbeinu Tam. A colleague of mine at Bar-Ilan University, Leor Jacobi, has been extensively researching the history of falconry in Jewish sources and showed me much of the material that I present here.1 Among his discoveries is a fascinating report that Rabbeinu Tam found a way to circumvent this problem. In the medieval work Shitah Mekubetzet, we find the following: “Rabbeinu Asher, of blessed memory, wrote in his Tosafot that he received a tradition that Rabbeinu Tam would put fingernails of silver on his hawk, like shoes, when he wanted to eat what it trapped.”
As my colleague has discovered, covering the claws in this way is indeed a feasible method of preventing a hawk from killing its prey. Zoologists today, when capturing birds for research, will sometimes use hawks that have their claws encased in beads. This would only work with hawks, which kill their prey with their talons, and not with falcons, which break their preys’ spines with their beaks.
Since Rabbeinu Tam was actively involved in falconry, we can already understand why it would occur to him to explain “that which came into his hand” as referring to hawks. And this is why the more reliable testimony of Rabbeinu Ephraim states that he spoke of a hawk rather than a falcon. It was hawks that Rabbeinu Tam was accustomed to using, since only a hawk would catch prey in such a way that it would be possible to slaughter it according to Jewish law.
But perhaps there is more to it than that. We might wonder exactly why Rabbeinu Tam was practicing falconry. We are told that he shod his hawk with silver claws when he wanted to eat what it trapped. This raises two questions: Why was he using a hawk to find food, when there are much easier ways of obtaining it? And if he used silver claws when he wanted to eat what it trapped, this implies that there were times when he was not using it in order to catch food—in which case, why was he using it? The question is especially pertinent in light of the fact that overall, Judaism has always been decidedly against hunting. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 18b) condemns those who participate in hunts, and there are numerous responsa from halachic authorities in the early modern period (such as Rabbi Shaul Mortira, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kaidanover, Rabbi Shimshon Morpurgo and Rabbi Yechezkel Landau) who prohibited hunting for sport, or at least strongly frowned upon it.
In order to answer this, let us look at the continuation of Shitah Mekubetzet, where he records that Rabbeinu Tam was not the only one to engage in this practice: “Similarly, Rabbeinu Peretz, of blessed memory, wrote in his Tosafot that ‘Rabbi Isaac of Norwich from the Land of the Island [i.e., England] would act thus: His hawk, which is called esparviere, would have its feet covered with silver on its fingernails while hunting fowl, lest it inject venom. This is the proper ruling.’”
So Rabbi Isaac of Norwich also engaged in falconry (and it appears that the account regarding Rabbeinu Tam may have been transposed from Rabbi Isaac). But who was Rabbi Isaac of Norwich? Otherwise known as Isaac ben Eliav, he was an extremely prominent financier, with important connections to the Crown. Many people were in debt to him, which caused much resentment. An anti-Semitic cartoon from that period, found in a 1233 tax document from the Exchequer, depicts Rabbi Isaac as a three-faced demonic figure, above his Jewish colleagues and various devils.
Rabbeinu Tam, too, was a prominent businessman. And like Rabbi Isaac, he also had important connections to the nobility—he was frequently in the king’s court and was responsible for royal policy toward the Jews. Such people were the Rothschilds of the medieval period: important banking or business figures who served a vital role for the Jewish community in diplomacy with the gentile rulers. And for wealthy, powerful people, and especially for royalty, falconry was an important pastime.
Falconry is the sport of the nobility. There are other, easier ways of catching food. And training a bird of prey is extremely complicated. But there are few sights more magnificent than watching a falcon or hawk displaying its aerial skills. God draws upon this sight when He addresses Job, who has questioned God’s ways. God puts Job in his place by demonstrating his lack of ability to grasp the workings of the universe, humbling Job with the wonders of the animal kingdom: “Does the hawk fly by your wisdom?” (Job 39:26).
Practicing falconry was a status symbol, and it was something about which to converse with others in those circles. And if one ever wished to curry favor with the king, there was no better gift to give him than a fine bird of prey. Indeed, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 95a) relates that King David engaged in shaker bazay—a Persian phrase which refers to hunting with birds of prey.
With this knowledge, we are now in a better position to understand why Rabbeinu Tam proposed that the gift which came in Yaakov’s hand was a hawk. It was not just that Rabbeinu Tam himself practiced hawking and thus had such matters on his mind, it was that he would have been very much cognizant of the role that falconry plays in relating to—and appeasing—powerful opponents. From Rabbeinu Tam’s perspective, if Yaakov was giving something that is brought in the hand to appease Eisav, it would naturally have been a hawk.
Rabbi Natan Slifkin is the author of several works on the interface between Torah and the natural sciences. He is soon publishing The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, and he is currently developing The Jewish Museum of Natural History in Bet Shemesh.
1. See Leor Jacobi, “Jewish Hawking in Medieval France: Falconry, RabbenuTam, and the Tosafists,” Oqimta 1 (5773/2013), pp. 1-85, available online at http://www.oqimta.org.il/oqimta/5773/jacobi1.pdf.
Listen to Rabbi Natan Slifkin on the interface between Torah and the natural sciences at www.ou.org/hawking