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Israel Environment & Nature: Owl

OWL, bird belonging to the family Strigidae. Because of the strange appearance of species of the owl, some of their conspecies were called kippuf, that is, resembling a kof ("ape"). It was also said that "their eyes are directed forward like those of human beings" and that "they have jaws like those of human beings" (Nid. 23a). They were regarded as an evil omen, so that although "all kinds of birds are a good sign in a dream," species of owls are not (Ber. 57b). Most of them utter a hooting cry like a groan, and as they inhabit ruins, they sound as though mourning over the devastation, and hence symbolize in the Bible destruction and desolation. The majority of them are included in the Pentateuch among the birds prohibited as food, and even those not mentioned there are unclean according to the principle that a bird "is unclean if (when perched on a cord stretched for it) it divides its toes evenly, two on each side" (Ḥul. 65a; cf. Ḥul. 3:6). The owl's toes, divided into two in front and two behind, assist it in seizing its prey.

The Bible contains at least 11 names of owls. Of these the tinshemet, ka'at, kos, yanshuf, shalakh, and bat ya'anah are mentioned in the lists of unclean birds in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. For the biblical names of owls the following identifications have been suggested:

(1) The tinshemet (Lev. 11:18; Deut. 14:16; JPS, "horned owl"; AV, "swan") is the barn screech owl (Tyto alba), its Hebrew name (which occurs also in Lev. 11:30 as that of an unclean creeping thing, but there refers to the *chameleon ) being derived from נשם ("to breathe") on account of its heavy breathing. Because of its odd appearance it was regarded as "the strangest (or "the most repulsive") of birds" (Ḥul. 63a).

(2) The ka'at (Lev. 11:18; Deut. 14:17; JPS, AV, "pelican") is mentioned among the birds that inhabit ruined places (Isa. 34:11; Zech. 2:14). Referring to his sighing and emaciated body by reason of his suffering, the psalmist (Ps. 102:6–7) compares himself to "a ka'at of the wilderness." Its Hebrew name denotes vomiting (meki) in a reference apparently to the fact that, as do other owls, it regurgitates the bones of its prey. In desert regions there occurs a species of owl – the Athene noctua saharae owl – that fits in with the biblical descriptions of the ka'at.

(3) The kos (Lev. 11:17; Deut. 14:16; JPS, AV, "little owl"), that occurs together with ka'at, of which it is a conspecies, in Psalms (102:7), is probably the little owl (Athene noctua glaux), its Hebrew name being onomatopoeic. It has no "ears," that is, no crest of feathers. Symbolizing, as it did, wisdom to the ancient Greeks because of its large wide-open eyes, it appeared on the coins of Athens.

(4) The yanshuf (Lev. 11:17; Deut. 14:16; JPS, AV, "great owl"), depicted by Isaiah (34:11) as inhabiting devastated Edom together with the ka'at, has been identified with the long-eared owl (Asio otus), its Hebrew name being connected with neshef ("night") or with neshifah ("hooting"). It is found in winter in the north of Israel.

(5) The shalakh (Lev. 11:17; Deut. 14:17; JPS, AV, "cormorant") which, according to the Talmud, "catches fish out of the sea" (Ḥul. 63a), has been identified with the fish owl (Ketupazeylonensis), the only owl in Israel that feeds on fish. It is found near Lake Kinneret.

(6) The bat ya'anah (Lev. 11:16; Deut. 14:15; JPS, "ostrich," AV, "owl") is, according to the ancient translations, the *ostrich, which however lives in the open desert and which rarely utters a cry, whereas the bat ya'anah is described as inhabiting desolate places (Isa. 34:13) and as emitting a mournful cry (Micah 1:8). For these reasons it has been identified with one of the species of owl that utters a cry when calling to one other (ya'anah is apparently derived from anah (ענה), "to answer"), this being characteristic of three strains of the species Bubo bubo, one of which, the dark desert eagle owl (Bubo b. ascalaphus), has been identified with the biblical bat ya'anah.

(7) The tannim has been identified with the second, light-colored strain of the previous species – with the Bubo b. desertorum. It lives in the desert and in ruins and emits a sighing cry, the name tannim being derived from tanah (תנה; "to weep"). Since it occurs together with the bat ya'anah among birds in the above passages, it is difficult to accept the customary modern identification of tannim as *jackal .

(8) The o'ah (JPS, "ferret"; AV, "doleful creature"), mentioned with the bat ya'anah as inhabiting ruined places (Isa. 13:21), has been identified with the third strain of the above species – the Palestinian eagle owl (Bubo b. aharonii), its name being onomatopoeic. The largest of the owls, it is found in the Jordan Valley, and feeds on hares and rats, reptiles and birds.

(9) The kippod (JPS, AV, "bittern") and the kippoz (JPS, "arrowsnake," AV, "great owl") are mentioned in the account of the destruction of Edom, where various birds lived and nested (Isa. 34:11, 15). Associated as its name is with the meaning of rolling oneself up into a ball, the kippod has been identified with the short-eared owl (Asio flamneus) which adopts a rotund posture and lives near swamps and in ruined places, and hence Isaiah (14:23) prophesies that Babylonia would be made into "a possession for the kippod and pools of water." The hedgehog is also called kippod or koppad in the Mishnah (Shab. 5:4), because it rolls itself up into a ball.

(10) The lilit (JPS, "night monster," AV, "screech owl"), which also occurs in Isaiah's prophecy about Edom (34:14), refers to a species of bird (cf. Nid. 24b), the word, connected with laylah ("night"), denoting a nocturnal bird, perhaps the tawny owl (Strix aluco). In the aggadah it is the name of a night-demon (see *Lilith ).

(11) The sa'ir, mentioned alongside the lilit, is apparently also a species of owl. This word is now applied to the smallest of the owls, the Otus scopus. Another view holds that it refers to a species of demon (cf. Lev. 17; II Chron. 11:15).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.